By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; C01
And the Betty White moment ends . . . now.
If nothing else, her appearance on TV Land's new listless sitcom, "Hot in Cleveland," makes clear that White is not perfect, nor is she everybody's surrogate grandma and bawdy, muffin-making comic emerita. She is showfolk. She works when the jobs come and makes the best of what's at hand, sometimes even if the material is dreck. She works because, at 88, she still can.
But surely White must have the willpower to decline some offers -- especially after the long and appreciative bask she's recently enjoyed -- and she could have let this job pass. The same cannot be quite so true for "Hot in Cleveland's" headliners, sitcom veterans who all give off a strong and desperate whiff of trying way too hard to be even mildly funny: There is Valerie Bertinelli ("One Day at a Time"), who is now 50; Wendie Malick ("Just Shoot Me"), who is now 59; and Jane Leeves ("Frasier"), who is now 49.
The only reason I bring up their ages is because they have been co-opted into the perniciously widespread fantasy that women of a certain age (40-plus?) must all turn into babblingly gullible, looks-obsessed vixens who are flailingly reaching for an illusion of youth. It has been my experience that women at this age -- whether they work in my office or are next to me on the Metro -- are smart, secure and nobody's fool. The passing of time and the ups and downs of life have freed them, not burdened them. I would follow them into any battle.
But "Hot in Cleveland" clings to this overly marketed idea that there is no problem in a woman's life that can't be solved with a cocktail, some carbs, a sarcastic remark, meaningless sex and a round of sisterly applause.
Bertinelli plays Melanie, a recent divorcee who has written a "bucket list" book of things every woman should do in her lifetime; alas, she hasn't done many of them herself. One of the items on her list is to go on an extended trip to Paris.
Going along with her are her two best friends: Malick as Victoria, a soap-opera actress who has lost her role after a million seasons on the show; and Leeves as Joy, a successful salon owner known for her miracle work on eyebrows. On the flight from Los Angeles to Paris, Melanie discovers her ex-husband is on board, with his much younger fiancee. Then the plane develops problems and has to land (safely, drat) in . . . Cleveland.
Cleveland? Whaaa? Oh, yes, it's Middle America. Where, in a sports bar, the three women discover something magical indeed: It's filled with blue-collar men who all think Melanie, Victoria and Joy are hot. (One of them, John Schneider, was once a Duke of Hazzard. Look at him now. "Special guest star." Look at him looking at Bertinelli. I sensed the strangest subtext between them, some dark despair. Or maybe that was just my despair.)
And thus the broken-down, Rust Belt sitcom factory spits out another defective product. Clunk.
Bizarrely, Melanie and the gals decide that if the men in Cleveland think they're hot, then they will stay in Cleveland. Such is the depth of their self-regard. Even better, the real estate! For what they would have spent on a month of Paris hotels, they can live in an empty manse in Cleveland for . . . several episodes, at least! And guess what? The house comes with a loony old caretaker. Enter Betty White, in her plush tracksuit, cracking wise.
Bertinelli, Malick and Leeves flock around her. What is this divine sitcom creature, they seem to inquire, who defies career obscurity and has become hotter than all of Cleveland, all of Facebook, even?
They'll have what she's having. Only they won't.
Hot in Cleveland
(30 minutes) premieres at 10 p.m. Wednesday on TV Land.