Tom Shales On TV: Fox's 'Cleveland Show' Is a Cartoon Blight

The "Family Guy" spinoff follows soft-spoken Cleveland Brown as he and his son move back to his Virginia hometown.Video by Fox
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Seth MacFarlane, the Hollywood trade papers say, has a deal with Twentieth Century Fox worth $100 million over the next few years. If you want to see why he is prized so highly, and what it takes to strike it rich in today's Hollywood, check out the cheap smut, sexual innuendo and scatological humor in "The Cleveland Show," a spinoff from MacFarlane's painfully similar animated half-hour "Family Guy." Both of them air on the Fox network.

The hypocritical myth about these shows is that they're cartoons for adults, sophisticated animation to attract discriminating grown-ups. Ha-ha. Cartoons, if aired at an hour when they are easily accessible (and these shows air before 9 p.m.), always attract children. MacFarlane's leaden efforts are no exception.

Not for nothing did a promo for "The Cleveland Show" air during the TBS screening of "The Wizard of Oz" Sunday night. Likenesses of "Family Guy" characters are licensed for merchandise much as the Peanuts characters or SpongeBob SquarePants are. "SpongeBob" has adult references and can easily keep an adult entertained, but it isn't homogenized filth. It doesn't traffic in kiddie smut.

MacFarlane has found a niche and, in good American fashion, is trying to exploit it to death -- dirty jokes for kids that they can repeat on the playground and at recess. As paths to riches go, the one MacFarlane has chosen is pretty low.

"The Cleveland Show," which premiered Sunday, spins off a character named Cleveland Brown from the "Family Guy" cast. In the debut episode, Cleveland hit the road for California with his son, Cleveland Jr. Asked if there were anything he'd like to see before leaving, Cleveland replied that he'd like to see two neighborhood housewives "kiss each other just once." They not only obliged but were soon going at it on the living room sofa.

No nudity, just heavy petting.

Cleveland is African American, which needs to be mentioned here because the other characters in the show never seem to stop mentioning it. "Bye, chocolate people," says "Family Guy's" precocious psychotic child, Stewie, who has a head shaped like a football and dreams of world domination. Peter, the Family Guy himself, responds to Cleveland's tears upon saying farewell with, "I've never seen a black guy cry before, I always thought you guys just got more pissed off."

That one's so witty, it's repeated later.

In the new neighborhood where Cleveland takes residence, one man says, "Well, we got a black president, it's about time we had a black neighbor." The humor doesn't necessarily promote racial stereotypes, but whenever a crude joke can be made out of it, Cleveland's race is mentioned -- over and over, in scene after scene. The message that young viewers receive is that racial minorities are different, separate, apart from the norm.

Cleveland and his son end up in the Virginia town of Stoolbend, where Cleveland grew up and where he now takes up a neglected romance with Donna, his high school sweetheart. In a flashback to the 1984 prom, the school cool guy asks Donna to show off her "nice fat a--" to his buddies. Donna enters a ladies' restroom to find a man there posing as a toilet. Cleveland admits he spied on her naked when they were young.

It goes on and on, with jokes that mention or refer to "genital mutilation," masturbation, erections, a specific coital position and testicular cancer, described as "nature's vasectomy." A pet dog is run over by a car and killed, and is later eaten for dinner by a family of rednecks. When the head of that family leaves the other members in a truck while he does an errand, he cautions them "no sodomy" before he departs.

One of the strangest things about these MacFarlane shows are the mean-spirited "cultural references," all of them shoehorned in as asides and rarely having anything to do with the plot or characters. In one on the first episode, Dolly Parton is pictured as an infant -- a baby with huge breasts too big for her highchair. Ron Howard movies and Jennifer Aniston get nasty pokes in the second show. In the pilot, Kathleen Turner was ridiculed for being overweight; she was shown getting the role of fat Babe Ruth in a movie.

Cleveland tells his son that "gays are smart" and offers as proof the fact that Gene Hackman has memorized so many lines for all the movies he's been in. Huh? What? Perhaps the most offensive example of name-dropping: the talking bear who lives near Donna says things like "May the peace of Jesus Christ be with you." It's hard to tell if this is mocking religion generally, Jesus particularly or bears pointlessly.

With the rise of cable, television became safe for irreverent humor, and some of it has been refreshingly audacious -- a reaction to years and years of sanitized sitcoms on the networks. But merely toppling taboos doesn't take talent or intelligence, two things that Seth MacFarlane appears to have made a fortune by lacking. He's no better than the dirty old man hanging around playgrounds with naughty pictures or risque jokes as lures.

Trafficking in bad taste or soft-core smut has become a very easy thing to defend, because whenever you're attacked, you simply call the attacker a fuddy-duddy or a prude. You don't really have to be a reactionary to find MacFarlane's comedy revolting, or to see his "art" as the mass-media equivalent of peddling smut to kids, do you? If so, then maybe there are worse things to be called. It's certainly worth the risk.

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