Hot in Cleveland is everything you might expect from a throwback sitcom: overamped laugh track, telegraphed jokes, hammy acting. Wendie Malick is Victoria, an over-the-hill soap actress without work; Jane Leeves is Joy, an over-the-hill eyebrow cosmetologist with a sharp tongue; and Valerie Bertinelli is Melanie, an over-the-hill divorcée with a bestselling self-help book. We know they’re over-the-hill because the corny one-liners tell us they are, and because Melanie runs into her ex-husband, and his much younger fiancée, on the plane that is supposed to take the three L.A. friends to Paris. Instead, the plane is diverted to Cleveland, and the ladies find their way to a sports bar. Once there, they discover that in the backward wilderness of Ohio they’re considered hot and actually get hit on by the menfolk. Natch, they decide to stay.
It’s not entirely clear who should be offended more by this idea. Is it the citizens of Cleveland? The citizens of L.A.? Women over 40? All women? All men? It’s probably all of the above, but the premise, forced as it is, is only that: a premise. The show is essentially an update of The Golden Girls, with three past-their-prime women trying to restart the rest of their lives. And to further hammer home the association, TV Land has signed hipster America’s favorite comedian, Betty White, to play Elka, the caretaker of the house the ladies rent in Cleveland. And it pays off. When White shows up mid-episode, the writing gets a little sharper, the jokes get a little funnier, and the characters start to act a little less like histrionic clichés and a little more like actual people.
Long before her latest renaissance, the 88-year-old White had proven herself through the consummate work of a long television career, bringing to life two memorable sitcom characters: scheming nymphomaniac Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and sweet but dumb Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. What’s notable is how different these characters were, and how brilliantly she played both of them. The woman has comedic chops, so it’s no surprise that she gets the biggest laughs here. Joy: “Is that pot I smell?” Elka: “Are you a cop?” Joy: “No.” Elka: “Then what’s it to you?” It’s not the juxtaposition of an old lady smoking pot that makes this funny; it’s White’s dry-as-sandpaper delivery.
There’s something pleasing about the old-fashioned drawn-from-farce quality of Hot in Cleveland. It fits in perfectly on TV Land since it already feels like a relic, a show from an alternate reality where Seinfeld never happened, let alone the likes of single-camera mockumentary-style sitcoms like The Office and Arrested Development. Its fate will depend on whether the writing (penned by Frasier alum Suzanne Martin) will resemble the first half of the pilot or the second.