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The Hot In Cleveland Review: In Which I Ride The Betty White Phenomenon For All It’s Worth

Betty White! Really, what’s not to like? I mean, go on to the Wiki article on her. Did you know she was the first woman to have “full creative control in front of and behind the camera”? That she’s the “queen of the game shows”? (A subject near and dear to my own heart, I can tell you!) The oldest person to ever host Saturday Night Live, and when she did finally host it, roasted the fans who had put her there with her trademark uber-dry wit?

Or that she played a shamelessly sexual character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show? Or how for all her sweetness and naiveté on The Golden Girls, she was just as sexually active as the rest of the women, and her character probably the strongest activist for women’s, seniors’, and animal rights on the show?

I mean, seriously, I love Betty White, and not just because as I type this there’s a “Betty White To Guest Post on Tiger Beatdown (Please)” group on Facebook inevitably forming. And also because it heightens my chance to be a two-time winner of the BlogHer voice of the week award. Seriously, Betty White! Tiger Beatdown’s ranking in the search engines is zooming just for typing Betty White, which may be why I’m typing Betty White any Betty White number of Betty White times. Betty!

And she wasn’t even my favorite Golden Girl. (That would be Dorothy. I will leave just why I, C.L. Minou of all people, would most admire the tall, deep-voiced character the most to the clever student. Or Betty White. I hear she’s pretty smart.)

I’m hardly the first person to jump on the Betty White bandwagon. I mean, okay, Facebook, Ryan Phillipe, and Snickers got there first. But TV Land got there last! And they’re the only ones who offered her a show! And not just her, but several other famous TV Ladies! Many of whom are not only funny, but like Betty White, old! Well, TV-old, that funny category where a woman disappears for several decades until she’s adorable old like… Betty White!

OK, I promise I’ll quit with the Bettying.

So on this show, there’s Wendie Malick, who for years had the thankless task of not making America (at least the female half) throw their dinner plates at the TV when David Spade appeared on Just Shoot Me. And was hilarious in her own right, showing a razor-sharp sense of timing.

I like Wendie Malick.

There’s also Jane Leeves, who for years worked ceaselessly on the biggest cover-up in sitcom history — that the male characters on Frasier were “brothers,” not, as makes much much more sense, married gay men. (I have to credit a Village Voice article for making me think about that. It’s something I’ve never been able to let go. Now you can carry it too.) She was even funny when the storyline apparently thought it had bought America enough drinks to believe that Niles was in love with her, and that she loved him back! That, ladies and germs, is hard work. That’s acting.

Plus her accent drives me wild.

So I like Jane Leeves too, though that may be just a crush.

And it has Valerie Bertinelli! Who may have suffered the most of all, and for all of us! Not only appearing in One Day at a Time, not only being America’s latest symbol of “you’re too heavy because of your moral turpitude,” but she was also married to Eddie Van Halen. The woman has suffered, people!

I… grew up with Valerie Bertinelli. Let’s just leave it at that.

Well, this is going to be good, right? I mean, a lady-driven sitcom–haven’t had a lot of those lately, methinks. And maybe it would be a bit like Sex in the City if SATC was really about women in their 40s. That… well, it wouldn’t be great, but not so bad. I mean, having actresses in their 40s playing 40, that’s an improvement, right? And the first episode was not only mostly well-reviewed, it was a ratings hit. So I was kind of looking forward to it. More. I really wanted to like it.

Oh, Reader, I would have married him. It! Had it not been such a disappointment.

A precis: Bertinelli, Malick, and Leeves are a trio of LA smart-set friends–respectively, a self-help author, a soap star, and the “brow queen of Beverly Hills.” Each has had a bit of a disaster — Bertinelli’s marriage has ended in divorce, Malick’s soap has been cancelled and she’s not getting work, and Leeves finds a picture of Oprah with somebody else’s arch. Their “fuck it all” friendship trip to Paris is interrupted by an emergency landing in Cleveland.

Okay, not “A” material, but I’m willing to go with the premise. Fish out of water! Coastal phoniness meets down-home charm! Hokey, but these are some talented ladies, so I can go with it.

Except not really. Not when the first thing we learn about Bertinelli’s character is that she’s that most female of stereotypes, the expert who can’t be an expert at her own life. There is something about backlash writing that takes particular gruesome pleasure in saddling women with the “shoemaker’s children have no shoes” trope. Maybe it’s because the ladies need so many shoes, amirite dudez? Whatever.

Malick, who, as I noted, has some devastating timing, is basically given an old script from Just Shoot Me and told to run with it. There’s a lot that could be said about the phoniness of how women over the age of 35 find it hard to work in Hollywood when for most men it’s the beginning of their prime earning years. There’s a lot that this actress could probably say to that. (Or all of them, actually.) But what we get is a disappointing series of vanity jokes, lying about your age jokes, makeup and plastic surgery jokes. Disappointing.

Leeves comes off perhaps the best of them all — you at least believe her character is competent and confident. (Plus that accent…where was I?) But so why just give it all up when she hits a rough patch? As if she couldn’t go after Scarlet Johansson or Star Jones or somebody. I know LA is cutthroat, but to give it all up and move to Cleveland just because the men are nicer to her there?

No, you did not read that last sentence wrong.

The central premise of Hot in Cleveland is that, well, the women in the show are hot…in Cleveland. As opposed to LA or New York or other glamorous places. And the fact that men — men who not only look, but are straight — are attracted to them in Cleveland is the whole reason that Bertinelli’s character decides to stay, and drag her friends with her.

Look, I’m a coastal snob myself. I love living in New York. I like visiting LA and San Francisco. Hell, I’m such a snob about it that when I think “other coast,” I’m about as likely to be thinking of Europe as California. But even I see this as lazy writing, and inaccurate. Middle America isn’t filled with ignoramuses, nor salt-of-the-earth “real” people who are everything those coastal poseurs can’t be — loyal, brave, patriotic, loving, and whatever the hell the rest of the Boy Scout code is. (It’s been a long time, and as you know my heart really wasn’t in it when they made us learn it.) The truth is that there are queers, atheists, polyamorists, feminists, people of color, Muslims, folks of all walks of life in the “fly-over” states, and there are homophobes, Republicans, conservatives, and even college football fans right here in New York. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of humor to be mined from cultural clashes; just that it would be a whole heck of a lot more interesting (and funny) if it acknowledged that fact rather than blithely go on repeating jokes that people found stale five decades ago. I mean, wake up folks! Look at Parks and Recreation! Grow the fuck up!

Sadly, Hot in Cleveland doesn’t. The first two episodes have been lady-centric, sure, but in that superficial, sitcom-y, you-know-mostly-guys-worked-on-the-script-no-matter-whose-name-is-on-it way that is practically the handbill version of the backlash. We’re old; we’re cougars; we’re fat; we’re able to eat food here, because nobody cares what we look like; we need a guy; we can only get guys outside of the big cities; we’re vain. Over and over again, doing a tremendous disservice to the talented members of the cast, especially Malick and Leeves, who can make almost anything believable with that accent of hers, sigh. Well, maybe not the second episode, in which she worries that she’s dating the son she gave up for adoption.

Yeah, you didn’t misread that one either. Sorry.

Which brings me back to Betty White! Have I mentioned how fantastic she is! Have I mentioned how fantastic she is in Hot in Cleveland? No? Well, that’s cause she really isn’t. Don’t get me wrong; she’s a joy to watch and a national treasure. But the best the writers can muster is the continuing saga of “Betty White, old person who says anachronistic and mean things.” And like everyone who does this–the writers of Saturday Night Live were especially egregious–they don’t realize that Betty White has made this work since she first started out in show biz. She didn’t have to be old to be mean and funny; the joke is that somebody as nice-looking as Betty White, who talks in such a home-n-apple-pie way, can be devastatingly cutting and even, Cthulu rain down on me for using the word, bitchy, and that this is hysterical, and possible only because she is a fucking master of comic timing. The age has nothing to do with her talents, and it’s lazy to use her as just the foul-mouthed old person. Even Estelle Getty was never just that character on The Golden Girls. (I could talk about how Sophia was actually the miles gloriosus of the Terentian New Comedy that was “The Golden Girls,” but I’m past 1500 words now and have a phone call to make, so we’ll save that for another week.)

So sorry, my boner-stomping Beatdowners. Sad to say, another decade has gone past with no worthy successor to The Golden Girls as a comedy that is really, truly about women who are women, and funny. Sex and the City was the backlash version (raunchier, but did anyone notice that “old” was now the late 30s?), and Hot in Cleveland isn’t even worthy of that title: A tepid brew indeed. The world will have to wait, at least until Sady and I work up our pilot about writing for a blog called, um, Lyin’ Bastards, and the travails of our generation’s most brilliant popular feminist and the fastest-composin’ transsexual East of the Pecos!

Wherein I will be played by Bradley Cooper. Backlash fucking sucks. Even for Betty White.

20 Comments

  1. CelloShots wrote:

    Oh please do write about Sophia on Golden Girls! When Golden Girls are on Tiger Beatdown it’s the best day EVER!

    Tuesday, June 29, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Permalink
  2. Imogen wrote:

    I would LOVE to read your exegesis on the Golden Girls and Terence!

    Tuesday, June 29, 2010 at 10:45 pm | Permalink
  3. I don’t have anything substantive to add but I have to say: thanks for recognizing that those of us in the middle states are not all alike (and not all a stereotype).

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 12:11 am | Permalink
  4. Nomie wrote:

    Terence and New Comedy? C.L. MINOU YOU ARE MY MOST FAVORITE.

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 12:16 am | Permalink
  5. I adore Betty White, though I will say the wave of Bettymania feels a bit exploitative, but I am thrilled to see more of her on TV, though I will probably pass on Hot Flashes in Cleveland. Wow, I forget how much Wendy Malick and Kate Walsh resemble each other. For a long time I thought they were the same person! It’s good to see Malick on TV again, but sorry it’s in this stinker.

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 1:49 am | Permalink
  6. Oh my goodness! I totally didn’t realize the show wasn’t called “Hot Flashes in Cleveland”

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 1:50 am | Permalink
  7. GarlandGrey wrote:

    An H.P. Lovecraft reference? I was seriously trying to win the fight to make the weirdest science fiction reference on TBD, but, I mean… take it. I got nothing.

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 2:15 am | Permalink
  8. C.L. Minou wrote:

    @GarlandGrey: dude, it’s worse than that, I made the reference because I’ve been playing “Call of Cthulu” recently.

    Yeah. I’m that geeky.

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink
  9. I’ll have you know that we play Call of Cthulhu in the flyover states, too.

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  10. alanna wrote:

    Dear Tee-Vee People In Hollywood: please greenlight Sady and C.L.’s pilot now! Thanks! (As long as they get casting approval!)

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  11. Skateaway wrote:

    Noooooo! I saw the commercials for this show and was sure that it would be my next true love. Betty White! Valerie Bertinelli! Jane Leeves! Wendy Malick, for Pete’s sake! How can you have that many amazing women on board and still churn out a show that sounds like boring, sexist, classist dreck?

    I’m sure I’ll still check it out–I mean, I have to give my girl Wendy a chance–but I’m a little sadder for having read this. Still, I’m glad I was forewarned. *Sigh*

    P.S. Whooo, Cthulu!

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  12. madaha wrote:

    “she’s that most female of stereotypes, the expert who can’t be an expert at her own life”

    that was the entire premise of Frasier – the psychologist with psychological problems. Do we really see this more with female characters, or is it more universal?

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  13. KMTBerry wrote:

    You know what I DON’T want? I don’t want the Hollywood czars to decide that “women aren’t marketable” or WHATEVER it is that they always decide when a show about 4 women tanks (the way that they NEVER think “MEN aren’t marketable” when a show about 4 MEN tanks, ya know?)

    I so much don’t want this that I have to bring up the point that PARKS AND RECREATION was a lame ripoff of THE OFFICE for its first 8 shows or whole season, and it was sort of tanking, and then the writing got WAY WAY BETTER all of a sudden.

    IT COULD HAPPEN! IT COULD happen to this show too! Its a case of talented cast/bad writing. Maybe you guys could send them a script? HA HA I know that would be too hard to do NOT for money…but…maybe the CAST will insist on better writing. I think ANy Poehler did!

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 4:47 pm | Permalink
  14. Samus wrote:

    But … but the entire premise of this show was already a joke in the 20th episode of 30 Rock, “Cleveland.” Liz is shocked that she is considered to be attractive in Cleveland (people ask if she is a model, etc), but decides not to stay there despite the “benefits” because she loves New York. If she HAD stayed, then, uh, this sitcom. Apparently.

    I know it’s legal to steal ideas, as long as you aren’t stealing literal lines of dialogue or whatever, but ugh. It just bothers me to see a rip-off this direct (even though it probably happens all the time, and I don’t necessarily notice each instance).

    It’s even the exact same TOWN. Come on, at least TRY to make it original. Or, if you’re going to steal a joke, then at least write a good show around it. Ugh!!

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink
  15. Carrie wrote:

    “She was even funny when the storyline apparently thought it had bought America enough drinks to believe that Niles was in love with her, and that she loved him back!” This sentence made me laugh out loud, literally.
    Great article.

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 11:23 pm | Permalink
  16. Melissa wrote:

    I couldn’t have put it better myself (which is why I didn’t try.) I wanted to like this show SO FUCKING BADLY. I couldn’t even bear to go back for the second episode.

    Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  17. snobographer wrote:

    Betty White’s much funnier than the material people have been giving her lately. I saw a clip of this show and the best they could come up with was another ha-ha-I’m-old joke.

    Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  18. snobographer wrote:

    @Madaha – It’s a rom-com staple.

    Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  19. Genny wrote:

    Hey! Here’s an old story about two of your favorite people!
    http://www.popcrunch.com/robert-pattinson-betty-white-is-one-of-the-sexiest-women-in-america/

    Sunday, July 4, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  20. smadin wrote:

    I’m here late, because I’ve kind of been (heh) off my feeds lately, but:

    I made the reference because I’ve been playing “Call of Cthulu” recently.

    Ooh! Classic, d20, or the recent Bethesda computer game? :-)

    Monday, July 5, 2010 at 2:38 pm | Permalink