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Relying on stereotypes, ‘Family Guy’ sticks to its formula, ‘Cleveland’ shows a softer side

TV Review | 3 out of 5 stars and 2 out of 5 stars, respectively

Published: Friday, October 16, 2009

Updated: Friday, October 16, 2009 07:10

    It seems today that all you see are Seth MacFarlane cartoons and jokes on Fox TV. That could be an apt theme song for the Fox network's Sunday night "Animation Domination" lineup. Save for "The Simpsons," the entire night is dedicated to MacFarlane programming: "Family Guy," its new spin-off "The Cleveland Show" and "American Dad!"

    Let's focus first on the one about the fat guy whose wife is much more attractive than he is … and who has a few kids, including a young boy who's much snappier than he should be at his age … and who has wacky neighbors and talking animals. It's easy to see how this could be confusing, since both "Family Guy" and "Cleveland" contain all of these elements. For now, though, "Family Guy" still uses them best.

    The show kicked off its eighth season with another entry in the now-classic "Road to …" series, which allows for many different sight gags and opportunities for a wide range of humor. This episode, "Road to the Multiverse," was no exception, as Stewie and Brian (both voiced by MacFarlane) traveled through multiple parallel universes catching glimpses of different versions of Quahog, where the show takes place. MacFarlane and his crew were able to show off their range, especially with a Disney-universe parody that included a musical number and a vicious dig at Walt Disney's purported anti-Semitism.

    Since this season's premiere, "Family Guy" has been more uneven. The second episode, "Family Goy," took aim at religion. Lois (Alex Bornstein), the family's matriarch, discovered her true Jewish roots and found herself at odds with Catholic husband Peter (MacFarlane, again). It had its funny moments, but it lacked any strong subplot or much involvement from the supporting characters that help the show thrive. Last Sunday's "Spies Reminiscent of Us," which featured guest stars Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd as secret government agents, felt too much like a random story for the sake of a story, even by this show's standards.

    Although not as consistently funny as in past seasons, "Family Guy" has been sticking to its formula of immature humor mixed with smart satire and random cutaway gags. Hot off an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series (making it the first animated show to receive this distinction since "The Flintstones" in 1961), "Family Guy" is unlikely to change its formula any time soon — so the best thing to hope for is that the jokes just get a little funnier.

    "The Cleveland Show" is the newest MacFarlane program, a co-creation with Mike Henry and Richard Appel, and it uses many of the same story devices. The show follows mild-mannered Cleveland Brown (Mike Henry) and his son, Cleveland Jr. (Kevin Michael Richardson), as they leave Quahog in search of a new life. They find it in Cleveland's hometown of Stoolbend, Va., where he rekindles a romance with high school sweetheart Donna (Sanaa Lathan) and moves in with her and her family.

    "Cleveland" is unique in that it focuses on a black family in a primetime schedule that has far too few characters of color. Unfortunately, though, this seems not to be much more than a platform for the writers to indulge in stereotypes and clichés. Donna's kids, Roberta (Reagan Gomez-Preston) and Rallo (Henry again), are portrayed respectively as the sassy black girl and the oversexed black male (even at age five), and the show also throws in redneck neighbors, since they've set it in the South.

    It's not all racial humor, and when there are overtly racist jokes, it is usually more satirical and sharp than flat-out offensive. It will be a tricky line to walk, though, and it certainly doesn't help that Cleveland is voiced by a white actor.

    All this aside, "The Cleveland Show" certainly presents a likeable protagonist. Cleveland makes a much more sympathetic main character than Peter Griffin, and he cares about the people who surround him, even if they are mostly one-note. Tim the Bear (voiced by MacFarlane, in a Russian accent) continues the MacFarlane tradition of making talking animals the most interesting characters, after Brian in "Family Guy" and Roger and Klaus in "American Dad!" While he hasn't been featured much yet, he could be a strong point for the show if the writers can make him more than just one of Cleveland's bar buddies.

    "Cleveland" isn't bad. It just isn't that great, and it seems a little unnecessary. It feels more like a real sitcom and is a little less endearingly random than "Family Guy" — although it still uses its creator's trademark non-sequiturs. Fox has already ordered two full 22-episode seasons, so at least the writers have time to really develop their show.

    "Family Guy" is pretty much the same show it's always been. The humor is rapid-fire, hit-or-miss and often quite offensive. But by now, people know MacFarlane's brand; they know what to expect. The only question is whether they delight in being cleverly offended.

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