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Test Pilot: The Cleveland Show

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Test Pilot is a semiregular feature sharing my first impressions of the pilots for next fall’s shows. These aren’t reviews, since these pilots can be rewritten, recast and retooled before airing; I may see more episodes before the shows premiere; and what eventually gets on the air can prove much better or worse. But, premature opinions are why God invented the Internet, so let’s get on with…

The Show: The Cleveland Show, Fox

The Premise: Fox network asks animator Seth MacFarlane if he can make another TV series for them; he checks his calendar and says, yes, he can fit it in.

Oh, sorry, the premise of the show: Peter Griffin’s divorced neighbor Cleveland Brown, from Family Guy, moves with his son back to his hometown in Virginia, where he meets his high school sweetheart and sets out to win her back. Also there’s a talking bear. (And his wife, voiced by Arianna Huffington.)

First Impressions: Look, I know I’ve taken my shots at MacFarlane and the non-sequitur-filled humor of Family Guy before. But I also think that MacFarlane might have a really good show in him, one that doesn’t just try to shoehorn in every joke pitched in the writers’ room but grows out of the characters and their conflicts. Could The Cleveland Show be that series? Well, it literally begins as a Family Guy episode, using a dumbbell move by Peter to set up sad-sack Cleveland’s losing his house and hitting the road.

But when Cleveland gets to Virginia and finds his old flame Roberta, the pace and tone changes. Yeah, there are plenty of pop-culture jokes—especially meta-jokes about white guys making TV shows about black people, and callbacks to ’70s/’80s examples of that genre—but we’re also seeing a story about a chump getting back to his roots and striving to find love, a purpose and a second chance in life. Could this be a Family Guy spinoff with an actual narrative thread? Well, maybe not, because (spoiler alert, I suppose, but Fox is giving this away in its own promo for the show, not to mention the pilot’s credits), by the end of the pilot, Cleveland has married Roberta and now has two stepkids and some goofy neighbors. Whether this is a changeup or Black Family Guy will, I guess, be proven by the followup episodes.

Do I Want to See Another Episode? I’m curious, but I probably won’t rush. But if there’s not enough Family Guy on TV for you already, you should be happy.