You can’t escape Seth MacFarlane.
“The Cleveland Show”
Sundays at 8:30 p.m.
Now, that’s not necessarily a negative statement, just a restating of the obvious. Besides creating and currently starring in Fox’s “Family Guy” and “American Dad!,” MacFarlane regularly appears on co-star Seth Green’s show “Robot Chicken,” heads his own online comedy series, acts on the side and has a recurring role on ABC’s fall drama “FlashForward.”
But considering how increasingly difficult it is to turn to any given channel and not see something related to MacFarlane, “The Cleveland Show” — a spin-off of “Family Guy” — raises the obvious question: Does the world really need another show from Seth MacFarlane? It’s a question “The Cleveland Show” isn’t particularly sure how to answer.
“The Cleveland Show” revolves around Cleveland Brown (voice of Mike Henry), a recurring character on “Family Guy.” Tired of playing second fiddle to Peter Griffin and wanting to move on after a divorce, Cleveland and his son Cleveland Jr. move back to his hometown, where he meets up with a former high school crush and ends up becoming a father for her and her kids.
From the hyper-saturated “Sanford And Son”-esque opening theme to the leisurely rate at which the show develops its setting and cast, it’s clear “The Cleveland Show” aims to do something different than “Family Guy.”
The story line moves at a somewhat more deliberate pace than the other shows in MacFarlane’s oeuvre, but that’s not saying much. The show makes occasional use of cutaway gags — the nonsequitur scenes that “Family Guy” is known for — but there’s a conscious effort to give the show less of a gag-per-minute mentality, putting it closer in tone to shows like “King of The Hill.”
As admirable as those aims might be, the execution only occasionally hits its mark. There’s a common thread in MacFarlane’s work of defying convention, whether it’s the anarchistic disregard “Family Guy” has toward the sitcom format, throwing in musical interludes and cutaway gags at random points or the sheer bizarreness of “American Dad!”
Right now, though, “The Cleveland Show” lacks both the teeth of its less conventional cousins and the emotional base to support its loftier ambitions. On “Family Guy,” Cleveland was always a capable foil to the absurdity of any given episode, but anchoring an entire series around a character who is essentially a generic straight man requires a kind of finesse the show doesn’t yet have.
The show’s premise adheres to especially tired genre tropes — Cleveland has to deal with quirkily precocious sons, a combative teenage daughter and his stereotypical neighbors. But there’s never really a sense that MacFarlane, along with co-creators Mike Henry and Rich Appel (who all worked on “Family Guy”) know how to tell a story without a cutaway gag.
Even with the twists “The Cleveland Show” applies to the traditional sitcom formula — for example, Cleveland and his new family live next to a talking German bear couple voiced by MacFarlane and, inexplicably, political commentator Arianna Huffington — the unadventurous writing is bland, straddling the political incorrectness of “Family Guy” and the emotional heart of “King of the Hill,” but never finding a comfortable balance in between.
“The Cleveland Show” isn’t terrible — the pilot has the occasional sharp joke, with Tim, the bear husband, regularly stealing the scenes. But for a show that’s ostensibly “The Cosby Show” by way of Seth MacFarlane, it’s remarkably tame and, consequently, can’t help but feel like squandered potential.