Judge Victor Valdivia got his own spinoff from DVD Verdict, but it was cancelled because he's such an unlikable protagonist.
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.
Facts of the Case
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:
• "Da Doggone Daddy-Daughter Dinner Dance"
• "The One About Friends"
• "Birth of a Salesman"
• "Cleveland Jr.'s Cherry Bomb"
• "Ladies' Night"
• "A Brown Thanksgiving"
• "A Cleveland Brown Christmas"
• "Field of Streams"
• "Love Rollercoaster"
• "Our Gang"
• "The Curious Case of Jr. Working at the Stool"
• "Once Upon a Tyne in New York"
• "The Brown Knight"
• "Gone with the Wind"
• "Brown History Month"
• "Cleveland's Angels"
• "You're the Best Man, Cleveland Brown"
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 Rebuttal Witnesses
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?
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