Fox // 2009 // 472 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // December 12th, 2010
Everyone's favorite neighbor is back!
You'd be forgiven for not expecting much from The Cleveland Show: The Complete Season One. Spinoffs are hardly a sign of creative originality and a spinoff from Family Guy, a show that too often settles for cheap shots and gross-out humor, sounds especially dire. Surprisingly, however, The Cleveland Show is actually an enjoyable diversion. It's hardly groundbreaking or extraordinary, but the show tones down many of Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane's worst excesses and relies instead on far more characterization than his other shows. The result is a show that even the most ardent MacFarlane bashers might enjoy.
Having left Quahog after a humiliating divorce, Cleveland Brown (Mike Henry) and his nerdy, overweight 14-year-old son Cleveland Jr. (Kevin Michael Richardson, The Penguins of Madagascar) move to Cleveland's hometown of Stoolbend, Virginia. There, Cleveland reconnects with his divorced high school crush Donna Tubbs (Sanaa Lathan, Love and Basketball) and her two children, sassy teenage daughter Roberta (Nia Long, Friday), and swaggering infant Rallo (Henry). Here are the first twenty-one episodes compiled on four discs:
After Cleveland and Donna get married and move in together, he meets his new neighbors: pint-size wannabe lothario Holt (Jason Sudeikis, Saturday Night Live), gun-toting redneck Lester (Richardson), and henpecked suburbanite bear Tim (MacFarlane).
* "Da Doggone Daddy-Daughter Dinner Dance"
Cleveland wants to take Roberta to a father-daughter dance but accidentally ends up running over the family dog.
* "The One About Friends"
When Cleveland complains to CPS about Lester's freeloading son, the government steps in and takes him away to a foster family.
* "Birth of a Salesman"
Tim gets Cleveland a job as a cable company telemarketer, but regrets it when Cleveland outsells him.
* "Cleveland Jr.'s Cherry Bomb"
Cleveland's plan to get Roberta to pledge her virginity to him backfires when Cleveland Jr. does so instead.
* "Ladies' Night"
Donna pretends that she's still single so that she can get together with her single female friends.
* "A Brown Thanksgiving"
Cleveland's Thanksgiving becomes uncomfortable when his divorced parents get involved in a love triangle with Donna's Auntie Momma.
* "From Bed to Worse"
Cleveland and Rallo fight a battle of wills over who gets to spend more quality time with Donna.
* "A Cleveland Brown Christmas"
Cleveland breaks Rallo's heart when he accidentally reveals just what a deadbeat Rallo's biological father really is.
* "Field of Streams"
Cleveland attempts to recreate his past glories by coaching his high school baseball team, but is disappointed that Cleveland Jr. is neither good at nor interested in sports.
* "Love Rollercoaster"
A substitute teacher (Jane Lynch, Glee) pushes Roberta to disguise herself in a fat suit to learn about shallowness, but Roberta regrets it when Cleveland Jr. ends up falling in love with her.
* "Our Gang"
Cleveland's plan to form an afterschool club with the high school's leading troublemakers ends up disastrously when they turn his club into a drug-dealing gang instead.
* "Buried Pleasure"
Cleveland sets up Holt with one of his coworkers (Stacy "Fergie" Ferguson, Nine) but discovers that she's violently abusive.
* "The Curious Case of Jr. Working at the Stool"
Cleveland gets Cleveland Jr. a job working for his favorite bartender Gus (David Lynch) but regrets it when Cleveland Jr. turns the bar into a nightclub that's too hip for Cleveland himself.
* "Once Upon a Tyne in New York"
Cleveland attempts to take Donna on a honeymoon in New York City but ends up getting into all sorts of misadventures with his friends instead.
* "The Brown Knight"
Cleveland thinks Donna may be too bossy and demanding, but reconsiders when she saves his life during a mugging.
* "Gone with the Wind"
Cleveland and Donna sign up for a karaoke contest but are interrupted when Cleveland's ex-wife Loretta dies.
* "Brotherly Love"
Cleveland Jr. falls in love with Chanel (Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), one of his high school's most popular students, but ends up in a rivalry with her boyfriend, Kenny West (Kanye West).
* "Brown History Month"
Cleveland and Lester get into a racially motivated brawl and are forced by a judge to build a float together for Stoolbend's Unity Parade.
* "Cleveland's Angels"
When Cleveland gambles away Roberta's college funds, he enlists Donna, Tim's wife Arianna (Arianna Huffington) and Lester's wife Kendra (Aseem Batra, Scrubs) in an elaborate scheme to get the money back.
* "You're the Best Man, Cleveland Brown"
When Cleveland's parents decide to remarry at his house, Cleveland is forced to confront his father Freight Train (Craig Robinson, Hot Tub Time Machine) about the damage he's done to the family.
Of the three Seth MacFarlane shows Fox airs on Sunday nights, The Cleveland Show stands out as the one with the most heart. That's actually by design. In several places on this DVD, creator/producer/actor Henry and creator/producer Richard Appel (The Simpsons) explain how, from the beginning, they envisioned The Cleveland Show as relying far more on characterization and emotional depth than any of the other MacFarlane shows. That may sound like an ill-conceived idea -- do Family Guy fans really want a show with heart? As it turns out, it's precisely that idea that makes The Cleveland Show a more entertaining experience than any other MacFarlane show, especially if you've never warmed to his previous work.
The decision to spin off Cleveland turns out to be inspired. He's a likable protagonist with a rich background to be mined for humor. He can be willfully obtuse -- witness his stubborn refusal to tell the truth about what he did to the family dog in "Da Doggone Daddy-Daughter Dinner Dance." He can be a hypocrite, as when he embraces sexist double standards in "Cleveland Jr.'s Cherry Bomb." He can even be selfish, such as how he decides to punish Cleveland Jr. for being bad at baseball in "Field of Streams." Nonetheless, despite his flaws, he remains, at heart, a good man who really only wants what's best for Donna and his family. Unlike the increasingly detestable Peter Griffin on Family Guy, or the increasingly unhinged Stan Smith on American Dad!, you actually root for Cleveland to succeed, making him an ideal central character for a series (which is certainly more than can be said for, say, Family Guy's Quagmire).
As good as Cleveland is, however, the real emotional heart of the show is Cleveland Jr. When Cleveland exclaims in one episode that he's not sure if Cleveland Jr. is really stupid or really smart, he's pointing out just how complex and endearing the character is. Cleveland Jr. may be a fat nerd who sings odes to his warm white socks and still plays with stuffed animals at 14, but that certainly doesn't mean he's a pushover. In episodes like "Cleveland Jr.'s Cherry Bomb" and "The Curious Case of Jr. Working at the Stool," Cleveland Jr. demonstrates an admirable courage; when he's pushed, he isn't afraid to stand up for himself. It's the episode "Brotherly Love," however, that stands out as the best of the season, precisely because it shows Cleveland Jr. in all his complexity: he's sweet, shy, and naive at the beginning but is revealed to be brave, clever, and a phenomenal rapper at the end. Much of the credit for Cleveland Jr.'s success comes from Richardson's vocal performance; he hits all the right notes in conveying the character's many sides. The show's writers, however, also deserve credit for working hard to make Cleveland Jr. a multilayered character instead of just settling to make him the butt of "fat loser" jokes, as is the case with Family Guy's Chris Griffin.
The other characters are also well-defined. Donna is more than just a sassy black wife -- Lathan's performance makes her a quirky, intriguing character in her own right. Her best episodes -- "Ladies' Night" and "Gone With the Wind" -- show her to be just as well-intentioned but flawed as Cleveland himself, making her a perfect match for him. As for Roberta, the character caused a bit of a storm when Long was fired by the network after thirteen episodes and replaced with Reagan Gomez-Preston (The Parent Hood). It's hard to tell the difference unless you listen closely -- in either case, the performance and the writing make the character hilarious and likable, especially in her showcase episode "Love Rollercoaster." Rallo is in some ways, the weakest link -- he begins the series as something of a cliché (the exceptionally precocious toddler) but gets better as the season progresses and the writers remember that he's still a five-year-old who, for all his cocksure bluster, still likes piggyback rides and eating paste. By the last episode, when one character refers to Rallo as "Black Stewie," the joke is less a stinging piece of ironic self-criticism and more of a swipe at anyone who would make such a claim, since Rallo has become a distinct character all his own. It's a sign of how well-developed the characters are.
As for the technical presentation, it's a bit mixed. First, Fox deserves enormous credit for releasing the entire first season in one collection, rather than parceling the episodes out in randomly broken-off chunks as they do with Family Guy and American Dad!. Fox also deserves credit for selecting The Cleveland Show as the first of the MacFarlane family of shows shot and broadcast in anamorphic widescreen. The visual transfer looks pristine and does justice to the animation. The 5.1 surround mix, on the other hand, isn't great. The surrounds are used to full effect but the dialogue is way too soft. For an animated sitcom, that's a real drawback. Viewers should note, though, that these episodes are uncensored, so they should expect some profanities and saltier language than they got when the episodes originally aired.
Where the set excels is in extras. More than half the episodes come with commentary tracks with producers, writers, and actors and these are generally worth listening to. Every episode also comes with a healthy smattering of deleted scenes that are sometimes even more amusing than what was left in. Disc four includes "Meet Cleveland" (24:35), an extensive featurette that chronicles how the series was created and how it's written and animated. It doesn't address the Roberta controversy but is otherwise fairly thorough. The other great extra is "The Brotherly Love Table Read" (45:10). It's a filmed table read for the episode that's a must, not only because West and Henson are there to read their parts but also because the original script contains several scenes and jokes that were left off the finished episode. The disc is rounded out with the video for "Get Your Hump On" (2:51), a cheerfully smutty Christmas duet Cleveland recorded with the members of Earth, Wind, & Fire that comes with its own "making of" featurette (5:28). Several episodes also have alternate audio tracks that contain the original censored TV edits.
The show trims out many of the more tiresome excesses associated with MacFarlane's humor. It, unfortunately, doesn't trim them all out. Consider that the exact same joke about Meg Ryan's botched plastic surgery is made in two separate episodes. Also consider how many shots of Cleveland and other characters vomiting endlessly are included (answer: at least several per episode). The series relies less on gross-out gags and random pop-culture cutaways as it goes on, but it would be nice if the producers realize that they don't need to indulge these tendencies. It's much funnier when they rely on sharp characterizations and clever dialogue than tired clichés.
The Cleveland Show doesn't try to push the envelope as aggressively as Family Guy does. It doesn't try to make forceful political statements as American Dad! does, either. All it does is try to be funny and touching, and it actually succeeds in those modest goals, which, ironically makes a much more enjoyable show than the other two. If anything, this is the Seth MacFarlane show for people who don't like Seth MacFarlane, precisely because it (mostly) pares down his weakest aspects and replaces them with heart and characterization, the two qualities his work has sorely lacked before. At the same time, the series retains enough edge to not come off as treacly or sentimental. If you've never warmed up to his work before, give The Cleveland Show a try -- you might be surprised at just how amusing and sweet it really is.
Surprisingly not guilty. Who woulda thunk it?
Review content copyright © 2010 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 472 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Alternate Episodes
* Deleted Scenes
* Music Video