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Reviewed by Will Harris
eth MacFarlane’s comedic sensibilities on “Family Guy” range from the surreal to the obscene, with its creator rarely missing an opportunity to be controversial or offensive, so it’s somewhat of a surprise – though a pleasant one, to be sure – that the spin-off from the series drifts into heartwarming territory on a semi-regular basis.
“The Cleveland Show” takes Quahog, Rhode Island’s most amiable African-American, Cleveland Brown, arms him with the catchiest theme song this side of “The Greatest American Hero,” and moves him and his rarely-seen teenage son, Cleveland, Jr., back to Cleveland’s hometown of Stoolbend, Virginia. Having already divorced his adulterous wife Loretta back on “Family Guy,” he’s free to get remarried when he rekindles the romance with his high school sweetheart, Donna. And what’s this? She’s already got two kids of her own? Okay, so now that’s a teenage son, a teenage stepdaughter, and a toddler stepson. Can’t you just sense the shenanigans on the horizon?
Seriously, though, “The Cleveland Show,” while rarely missing a chance to slip in a fart joke, double entendre, or a downright filthy punchline (often bleeped out by the censors), really does have a sweet center. It’s long been established that Cleveland has a profound libido, but he also has a big heart, and it’s evident on a regular basis with his attempts to strengthen the bonds between himself and his new family. It’s an uphill battle, of course: Roberta is as rebellious as any other teenage girl, and Rollo’s a full-fledged hellraiser who has a steadfast belief that his deadbeat father is actually the better man. (It’s a relationship that’s actually somewhat reminiscent of the one between Manny and his papa on “Modern Family,” come to think of it.) Eventually, Rollo does come to see a certain amount of worth in Cleveland, but it’s never more than begrudgingly. By the way, although you will have an understandable instinct to treat Rollo as little more than a Negro knockoff of Stewie from “Family Guy,” he does come into his own over the course of the season.
Given how much drinking Cleveland did with Peter and Quagmire, it’s no wonder that he’s been provided with a new crew on his own series. The strangest inclusion by far is Tim the Bear, who, in addition to being an actual bear, steps up the weirdness by being married to a fellow bear – Arianna – who’s voiced by Arianna Huffington. Being in Virginia, it’s only inevitable that Cleveland’s gang would also include a full-fledged redneck: Lester Krinklesac, whose wife, Kendra, is so overweight that she can only get around via her Rascal. Also around is Holt Rickter, a former frat boy who’s short in stature but immense in ego, and once in awhile we see Terry Kimple, one of Cleveland’s friends from high school.
It would be easy for “Family Guy” fans to dismiss “The Cleveland Show” as merely being more of the same, but it’s managed to forge its own identity with remarkable rapidity. Not only are there significantly fewer pop culture gag cutaways, but, ironically, unlike the show that spawned it, this series really is about family. Sometimes, it’s about Cleveland and Donna wanting to get their hump on, as any newlyweds should, but there are a lot of highly entertaining storylines focusing on the kids’ lives at school. And although it’s done with decidedly dark humor, there’s a lot of heart to “Gone with the Wind” and its focus on Cleveland, Jr. dealing with the death of his mother. (Fortunately, there are plenty of fart jokes to keep the mood from getting too dour.) Additionally, there are several interesting guest stars, including Kanye West, Craig Robinson, and, defining the word “unlikely,” David Lynch in a recurring role as the bartender at Cleveland’s favorite watering hole.
I’m not sure how the African-American community feels about “The Cleveland Show,” given the fun it has at the expense of both Black History Month and Tyler Perry (there’s a hysterical episode revolving around a character named Auntie Mama, who turns out to be a man), but one would like to think that most people can appreciate the humor. I certainly do, that’s for sure. “The Cleveland Show” may only have a single season under its belt, but at the moment, it’s my favorite series in the Seth MacFarlane camp.
Special Features: Fox has provided a pretty decent amount of bonus material, including a nice behind-the-scenes featurette detailing the origins of the show (“Meet Cleveland”), a music video for Cleveland’s duet with Earth Wind & Fire (“Get Your Hump On”), a making-of featurette, and a table read of the “Brotherly Love” episode with Kanye West and Taraji P. Henson in attendance. Although it’s mildly disappointing that we don’t get audio commentaries on every single episode of “The Cleveland Show: Season One,” as has been the case with most MacFarlane series, there are still quite a few commentaries to be had. The episodes are also uncensored, so the profanity is flying freely throughout. In addition, you’ve got deleted scenes scattered throughout, but expect to be annoyed by the fact that they’re only accessible if you go into each episode individually. Lastly, the set includes a DVD-ROM of clips from the show that you can upload to your computer, which is a nice little bonus.