In a lot of ways, comedy comes down to point of view. A successful comedy has to come from a place that's specific in order to make us laugh. It's the difference between Seinfeld and all of the lame Seinfeld knock-offs that followed in that show's footsteps. Larry David's often misanthropic vision of the world gave Seinfeld a specific sensibility that all of the laughs were filtered through, and after the show had been on for a while, half the fun became wondering just how David and his writers would react to a certain oddity of day-to-day life. But even from the earliest episodes of the show, it was clear that there was someone writing the show who had something very specific to say about the human condition. And, really, you can apply this rule to just about any comedy. The most successful of TV's animated comedies all have points of view, be it Matt Groening's sweetly skewed vision of America on The Simpsons or Trey Parker and Matt Stone's commonsensical take on the world today on South Park or even Seth MacFarlane's anything for a laugh sensibility on Family Guy. They all, at least in their best seasons, come from particular places.
Which brings us to tonight's animation domination centerpiece, The Cleveland Show.
Unlike the other two shows with MacFarlane's name on them, it's difficult to say just what the point of view of The Cleveland Show is supposed to be. Obviously, these shows can take a while to develop. I don't know that I would have been able to say what the point of view of American Dad was this early into its run. (Though even that notoriously slow to develop show had better characters in the early going than The Cleveland Show has now.) So there's time for The Cleveland Show to set itself apart as something other than "that Family Guy spinoff." But at present, all it is IS a Family Guy spinoff, right down to the fact that the Browns have a fairly similar family structure compared to the Griffins and Cleveland hangs out with characters who are pretty close to the guys he hung out with in Quahog. At this point in the show's run, who is Donna, other than a stereotypical sitcom wife? There's an attempt to give her something more to be in tonight's second episode, where she's involved in charity, but there's not really anything TO this at the same time.
That lack of specificity extends to all of the characters, except Cleveland, Jr., and sometimes Rallo. Cleveland is functionally a very different character from the one he was in Quahog. In Quahog, he was often a pretty good guy whom life shit upon. In Stoolbend, he's kind of an asshole, but he's not an asshole in a new or funny way. He's just that because that's the only show center a MacFarlane show knows how to write. But unlike the dickish idiocy of Peter Griffin or the self-absorbed certainty of Stan Smith, Cleveland's just kind of a guy who's a dick because the writers don't know another way to make him. The same goes for Roberta, who's just a standard sitcom slut. Holt? Frat boy. Lester? Redneck. Tim? Well, Tim's a bear. So that's kinda cool, I guess, though his best joke is just another Family Guy ripoff: Tim acts like a bear, not a person, just like Brian acting like a dog on that show.
Tonight's two episodes don't do a lot to dispel the notion that the show is just grinding along in one gear without a sense of where to go from here, particularly in the second episode, which brings in the gang from Family Guy for no real reason, other than to have them there. I liked bits of the story with Rallo and the old Jewish guy in the first half hour, primarily because Rallo's not a bad character and the storyline, while a fairly stereotypical "here's something heartwarming for the holidays" story, had some nice turns to it. But the story of Cleveland and his father boxing on Boxing Day didn't really do too much for me. The other major series that the producers seem to be trying to emulate is King of the Hill, where the relationship between Hank and his dad was important to the series overall. Here, the relationship between Cleveland and HIS parents has had little bearing on anything, which gives this storyline less resonance than it wants to have. Still, there are a couple of good Cleveland, Jr., gags, though that's true of just about any episode of this show.
The second half hour, somehow, is even worse. It's not a big deal when one of these shows uses a cliché plotline because there are only so many family sitcom plots in the first place. But when The Cleveland Show uses one, it's doubly disappointing, just because the characters are so bland. "Beer Walk" is a problem on this level because it's pretty much just the "now the husband has to do the housework!" plotline, which is not exactly a new one (pretty sure I Love Lucy did this one). There were some attempts to make this a little different, like having Donna hang out with Cleveland's friends, but Donna and Cleveland are the weakest characters on this show, and that makes "Beer Walk" almost a complete dud. (But, OK, I continue to like the fact that David Lynch is a semi-regular.) Grades: "Murray": C; "Beer": D
Meanwhile, on the other shows …
The Simpsons: The Simpsons has gone to the "Treehouse of Horror but for Christmas" well before, and it doesn't work nearly as well for this holiday as it does for Halloween. Considering the series started with a Christmas episode and has had at least one other really strong Christmas episode since then (the one where Bart shoplifts Bonestorm), it's disappointing to see how little the show has had to do with the holiday in recent years, especially as "Treehouse of Horror" often remains strong. Tonight's episode wasn't awful, and it did have some solid laughs, but the quality of the segments was decidedly hit and miss. I did like the choice to root them all in the opening segment with the characters discussing their Christmas anxieties and plans, but I'd say they got weaker as they went along. Bart's Polar Express riff that turned into a tale of corporate climbing at the North Pole was mostly funny and had a few inspired moments, while Lisa's World War II flashback was genuinely sweet, topped off by a strange but funny Inglourious Basterds sequence. But Marge's visit from Martha Stewart was one joke stretched too far, and the final segment with the Muppet Simpsons was far too stilted. Although Moe Syzlak performed cunnilingus on Katy Perry, so I guess that's something. Grade: B- (though that may be due to my general pro-Christmas bias)
American Dad: American Dad had nothing to do with Christmas whatsoever, but the idea of Stan being obsessed with jury duty was strong enough to make it the best of a rather poorly integrated theme night. The Stan and Roger relationship is at the center of most solid American Dad episodes, and it was at the center of this one, as Stan was forced to sit on a jury for Roger's trial and finally convinced the jury to convict him for employing illegal immigrants and producing counterfeit knockoffs. I liked all of the business in the courtroom, particularly the more ludicrous Roger's flagrant violations of courtroom protocol became, and I liked all of the strange side gags, like the living statue running from the man who received Roger's note. The B-plot about Jeff masturbating all over the house was good for one or two solid laughs but was otherwise inconsequential. That said, any episode that largely concludes with Francine drinking two liters of Sunkist and then belching is probably a good one. Grade: B+
- I trust all you Simpsons fans have seen these stories about the making of "Sweet Seymour Skinner's Badassssssss Song." Really interesting look into the process of making the show in its glory days.
- "After NAFTA, a lot of these jobs went to the South Pole."
- "Pirate Bear."
- "I didn't get anybody pregnant. I didn't Facebook a kid to death. Make with my dirt bike!"
- "I'm sure in the 25 years of Earth time you've been gone, your parents have been worried!"
- "Chesterton: They feel like me singing in your throat."
- "Someday, TV will be invented. And it will be free! Then it will cost money."
- "His birthday's almost here, so I'm just making him a mix CD."
- "I'd like to have 30 minutes with Cheryl Hines."
- "Now I can pretend I'm a relatively ignorant but happy-go-lucky groundskeeper."
- "Buzzkill terminated. Let's get this tax deductible party started!"
- "The laundry! The dinner! Roberta! All unsalvageable disasters!"
- "I'm a bear. I can kill you."
- "What if that had been a real baby?!" "Sometimes, it is."
- "If you're gonna do that in this house, you'll do it where everyone else does it. In Steve's bed." "What?!"
- "I mean 'Get Me Off' in a legal way, not a sexual way."
- "It's an overturned refrigerator filled with kitty litter!"