Seth McFarlane’s programming constellation isn’t really any more formulaic than most of Norman Lear’s 1970s output; it’s just that Lear’s gift of zeitgeistian awareness often made the repetition of sitcom mechanics less grating. (The backdrop of turbulent racial and gender tension endowed the plot reversals and tag gags with unprecedented heft, as though we were observing a more structured but still identifiable alternate universe.) The legacy of both TV auteurs, however, is primarily one of purposeful envelope pushing: The jokes are enhanced by the concurrent thrill of pondering just how much more profane or controversial the content can get, as well as the instructive alienation maintained by the edginess. The caustic cheerfulness of All in the Family made us want to reveal the bleeding hearts beneath our surface bigotry; Family Guy’s rampant pop allusions continue to breed an army of low-culture junkies.
But controversy is still formula, of course, and remaining on its bleeding edge is a Sisyphean task. After both All in the Family and Family Guy illustrated that success effectively cancels out counter-culture cache, spin-offs like The Jeffersons—and now, The Cleveland Show—seem almost startlingly gentle. Obvious comparisons between The Jeffersons and The Cleveland Show are more apt than they realize, save for comments about “blackfacing” their antecedents; just as the former toned down Archie Bunker’s hammy politics to offer a sugarcoated glimpse at African-American drudgery, the latter dials back on Peter Griffin’s surrealist pranks to trick us into connecting ever-so-slightly more with the characters. Both shows are rare and attractive moments of nervy sweetness from their provocateur progenitors.
Where Family Guy’s theme song lays out its go-for-broke, button-pushing ethos with sarcasm (the show’s “wholesomeness” is posited as a welcome break from film violence and television prurience), The Cleveland Show’s catchily encapsulates season one’s first few episodes, where the titular mustached divorcee (Mike Henry) abandons Quahog, Rhode Island for his Virginian roots with rotund son Cleveland Junior (Kevin Michael Richardson) in tow. These cursory distinctions irrigate The Cleveland Show’s aesthetic, which maintains the comic-strip visual style and fourth-wall ignorance of Family Guy while trafficking more character sympathy. This approach sacrifices much of MacFarlane’s WTF-provoking zeal, but it also punches up the lingering moments of buffoonery: Where Peter Griffin’s unpredictability now feels predictable, Cleveland surprises us when his responsible demeanor wavers.
So far, season two has likeably continued to establish Cleveland, a simple man attempting to rebuild his life with an old un-girlfriend and her children, as the anti-Peter Griffin, even if the show’s meta sitcom humor is already beginning to exhaust itself. The episode “Cleveland Live!,” a spoof of the multiple-cam, audience-observed broadcasts of yesteryear should have been the highlight of the fall season, but its premise quickly stales with reflexive humor; the “actress” portraying Cleveland’s teenage stepdaughter, Roberta (Reagan Gomez-Preston), becomes bitchily inebriated over her paucity of lines, and the performance experiences a number of other contrived backstage mishaps that confuse an otherwise funny script. Another episode detailing a family trip to Hawaii feels like a par-baked sweeps-week satire, though the subterfuge required to convince Cleveland’s precocious, afro’d stepson, Rallo (also Henry), that Maui is actually Africa culminates in an inspired moment of show-and-tell uncouthness.
The supporting cast continues to build on and revise the Family Guy/American Dad blueprint; slouchy redneck neighbors Lester (Kevin Michael Richardson) and morbidly obese wife Kendra (Aseem Batra) represent a wishfully desegregated riff on hickdom while laconic co-worker Terry Kimple (Jason Sudeikis) softly reiterates red-state, working-class stereotypes. The show may feature MacFarlane’s least interesting “wild card” character, an anthropomorphic, German expat bear named Tim (played by MacFarlane himself), but plotlines featuring him and his bear wife, Arianna (Arianna Huffington), have become a kind of comment on the forced functionality of earlier talking fish and mad-scientist infants. When, in “Cleveland Live!,” Arianna strikes up a torrid extramarital affair, it’s a reminder of how isolated Stewie’s behavior has been from the rest of his family—and a revision that smooths the mild creepiness felt whenever the Griffins’ dog, Brian, engaged in interspecies relations. (Tim and Arianna aren’t any less animal than Brian, but their human-like height and build allows them to more seamlessly integrate with The Cleveland Show universe.)
Season two’s strongest moments have thus far been clustered in the premiere, a focused 22 minutes detailing Cleveland’s short-lived management of recurring hand-knock rapper, Kenny West (Kanye West). West expectedly toys with his brazenly mercurial public image (he even offers a kind of shrugging mea culpa for his MTV Video Music Awards faux pas), but Cleveland’s peripheral taste of the spotlight allows the writers to reveal the twisted limits of his smiley Good Samaritanism. After several failed attempts at increasing West’s celebrity, Cleveland points out that there’s one star musician whose biography they’ve neglected to emulate. “We haven’t tried Ray!” he growls, and forces a fork toward his protégé’s eyeball. He relents in a manner that would never occur to Peter Griffin (or to the similarly handicapped Homer Simpson, for that matter), but only after having explored the frenzied, inappropriate extremes of his neighborly warmth. The Cleveland Show may deserve its timeslot more than any other current MacFarlane project due to its protagonist’s singularity: Rather than being a simple parody or a tornado of unfettered zaniness, Cleveland Brown is a genuinely mature mench who can’t help but occasionally crack.