cleve1

Last night, Family Guy audiences were treated to a genuine television rarity: Cleveland Brown, the animated sitcom’s primary black character, returned to the series as a member of the regular cast after a four-season detour in the spin-off The Cleveland Show. In TV land, this almost never happens – spin-offs are typically designed to mutually benefit supporting actors whose characters become star-turns and networks looking to expand and keep said stars “in the family.” If and when a spin-off fails (or, in this case, simply concludes its run while the original is still in production) it’s generally a given that the spun-off character(s) will not come slinking back to second-bananahood.

But The Cleveland Show wasn’t born of actor’s hubris. It was born to fill out a schedule and for Seth MacFarlane to gift his longtime friend Mike Henry (a Family Guy writer/producer who also voices Cleveland) with a sandbox of his own. So now, with TCS having run a respectable 88 episodes (enough to qualify it for syndication – the #1 goal of every network series), the character(s) can be folded back into their original place with just a minimum of fourth-wall breaking inside-joke ribbing.

In the episode, titled “He’s Bla-ack!” (it’s supposed to be said like this, because it wouldn’t be Family Guy without increasingly oblique references to 1980s cultural-runoff), Cleveland and his new(er) family move back to Quahog, get into a brief inter-family squabble (Donna and Lois argue about parenting and “ban” their husbands from hanging out) and end off on the promise that everything is more or less back to normal. The main takeaway seems to be that Sanaa Lathan (Donna) is a good fit for the Family Guy ensemble (Cleveland Jr. didn’t appear, Rallo had two scenes and Roberta turned up just long enough to be creepily escorted offscreen by Quagmire, because of course he did) leaving things nicely in place for the show’s season finale next week.

cleve4

In-universe ribbing aside, The Cleveland Show was a decent success in it’s day (Fox ordered a second season after only seeing how popular a “leaked” pilot was, then put seasons 3 & 4 on the docket midway through season 2) but it never quite managed to find Family Guy’s mainstream mega-success or American Dad’s devoted cult-following. Maybe that’s because it never seemed built to attract either. The show had a unique energy, despite living firmly in the Seth MacFarlane “house style;” the easygoing rhythm of an ordinary network sitcom married to a charming suburban familiarity with a notable lack of Guy’s deliberate button-pushing or Dad’s Dadaist genre-jumping. For the spin-off of a series that redefined “edgy” in American animation, it was probably the least edgy thing on Fox’s cartoon schedule – in its best moments, it was much more an up-to-date, regionally-specific Simpsons than the “Black Family Guy” many were expecting.

I was, you’ll gather, a fan and defender/apologist of The Cleveland Show, and I’m going to miss it even as it seems the main cast will be living on in the margins of Quahog – hell, given that it’s MacFarlane/Family Guy, I consider it a miracle that the family came back with Cleveland instead of being written out via some kind of “hilarious” horrible fate. I understand why it didn’t attain the casual-immortality of its peers: it was hard to put recommendations into words beyond “it’s charming,” and I remember the show for sweet or moving moments more than big laughs – not exactly what Fox’s Sunday night demo was looking for.

But still, it made it to syndication and the DVDs/streams/etc are pretty widely available. So if you never bothered when it was new and are looking for something semi-fresh to occupy time as we head into re-run season… maybe this is a “newly-old” series that’s worth another look for you.

cleve2

The premise was simple: Cleveland and Cleveland Junior (reworked as an overweight nerd since he was last seen way back in the early days of Family Guy) hit the road so that Cleveland can pursue his lifelong dream of being a baseball scout. They opt to make a stopover in his old home town of Stoolbend, Virginia, and by chance run into Donna Tubbs – his onetime best friend from high school and great unrequited love. As it happens, Donna has fallen on hard times, having been abandoned by her no-good ex-husband Robert to raise their kids (teenage Roberta and baby Rallo) on her own. To the surprise of nobody, Cleveland opts to confess his (unchanged) true feelings for Donna, and their blended family becomes the foundation of the new series.

Sitcoms tend to live and die by a strong supporting cast, and if there’s an immediate knock against Cleveland it’s that there’s a lot of what looks like one-joke gimmickry going on in that area: Roberta, the “sassy” promiscuous teen daughter (with a white-rapper boyfriend named Federline, no less); Holt, the fitness-obsessed “bro” dwarf; Redneck Lester Crinklesack and his obese rascal-riding wife; and Tim, a bear who wears clothes and otherwise acts like a human except when he isn’t. These guys sound like they’d get old fast, to put it mildly.

But the strength of the Cleveland Show was to take seemingly weak characters (to be blunt: Cleveland Brown wasn’t exactly the deepest cut on Family Guy,) and stick with them until they became likable. Well… mostly likable. Tim was bizarre enough to be endearing, Jason Sudekis’ delivery eventually made Holt a welcome presence, Roberta got to reveal hidden depths whenever the plot turned to the subject of her education (she’s actually a good student and a party-girl) or complicated relationship with her biological father. It was really only Lester who never grew much beyond the meta-joke of being a white redneck voiced by a black actor (Kevin Michael Richardson, who also does Cleveland Junior and American Dad’s Principal Lewis) opposite Cleveland (Mike Henry is white.)

cleve5

But when operating as a unit (or units), this ensemble was capable of solid comedy. Not necessarily ground-breaking stuff (there’s a Camping Episode, more than a few Get Rich Quick schemes, a Let’s Trick The Wives episode, etc) but the Friends Having Fun vibe feels real. Still, it was the family-centric episodes where the show really shined.

Most shows about what The Simpsons family dubbed “The Post-Nuclear Family” tend to skew heavy in the directions of horrifying dysfunction (Dads, Titus) or quirky sentimentality (Bob’s Burgers) favoring a worldview that either plants it’s flag in “Life sucks, but here’s our shelter” or in “We’re nuts, but this works, so yay!” Cleveland was a bit more nuanced, in the vein of the early good seasons of Roseanne, when it came to the facts of what turn out to be two quietly damaged people (Cleveland and Donna both come from abusive homes, his physical, hers emotional) trying to fit two broken families into a whole. Thanksgiving and Christmas episodes strike real nerves in between the broader “raucus southern Black family hijinks” gags, as did “The Me In Me” – which opens with then-topical gags about Cleveland being a Justin Bieber fan and morphs into an introspective journey wherein Cleveland digs into troubled parts of his past after being named “The Whitest Man in America” by local DJs.

cleve3

My favorite character, though, and the one I’m most hoping finds a regular place in the Family Guy rotation, is Cleveland Junior; who might be the most endearing and real-feeling “nerd” character on modern TV.

He seems like a walking joke at first: a literal circle of a human with glasses and a classic “wear fat kid” voice whose personality alternates between hyper-intelligence and sheltered-immaturity. Most modern TV “nerds” strain to convince us of their own lack of coolness in a 21st Century world that’s bent over backwards to accommodate them, but Junior’s outsider-status is genuine. He lives in a world of stuffed animals and geeky TV shows not out of adherence to retro-cool but because he’s a true-blue late bloomer; and his manchild (teen-child, really) naivete drives some of the series’ sweetest and most triumphant moments – starting with his classic rap-battle against “locally famous rapper Kenny West” (Kanye) that in retrospect established the tone for the whole series: On Family Guy, a “nerd proves himself to the cool kids” moment like this would be immediately undermined; but on The Cleveland Show they play out straight-faced.

Even better was “It’s The Great Pancake, Cleveland Brown,” a Halloween episode where Junior is depressed to learn that, as a 14-year-old boy, he’s the only member of his family who (according to Cleveland) can’t “appropriately” wear a Halloween costume (Rallo can because he’s a baby, the adults can because it’s ironic, Roberta can because girls “can use it as an excuse to dress slutty,” etc.) He opts to put on his pancake costume and trick-or-treat anyway, but gets bullied and decides to remake himself as a “man” the next day by junking his childish things (“Goodbye giant crayon. I’m gonna miss making believe you were a regular sized crayon and a wizard shrunk me.”) Cleveland encourages this, but when he wakes up to the fact that Junior is still a target for bullies and now miserable to boot he takes drastic steps to set things right. It’s still a “funny” episode, but Richardson’s sincerely wrenching delivery as Junior finally breaks down and admits “I miss me” elicits emotions that Family Guy had to kill a dog to pull from its viewers.

But Junior’s (and maybe the show’s) crowning achievement was “Hot Cocoa Bang Bang,” aka “The Comic-Con” episode; wherein Cleveland drags the family to the San Diego Comic-Con to try and sell his (terrible) indie-comic to publishers. It’s the expected deluge of geek-culture references, but executed in such a way as to never once feel obvious or cloying – that’s not easy to pull off, considering one of the visual gags involves Harry Knowles and Kevin Smith sumo-wrestling over a corndog (later, a Buffy fan uses a riot as an excuse to stake Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart to death.) It’s all about the fun details, like Junior’s MST3K Jumpsuit cosplay (complete with Tom Servo, previously a background-joke among his toys) and the fun main story of Donna finding out that an embarrassing “Blaxploitation” movie she acted in in her youth being revived at the ‘con as a “lost classic.” The big showpiece, Junior leading a violent fandom-revolt against TV studios crowding out fans and booths with trendy showcases for stuff that has nothing to do with the ‘con.

But, oh well. So ends The Cleveland Show. I liked it while it lasted, maybe everyone else will like it after the fact.

You may also like