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TV Tonight: Hot in Cleveland

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I am pretty sure that, this year, it is illegal to write anything negative about Betty White, at penalty of being severely Disliked by Facebook. So let me say upfront—and honestly—that White is easily the best thing about TV Land’s new sitcom Hot in Cleveland.

It makes sense that White should cap off her yearlong hot streak—from The Proposal to the Super Bowl to SNL—by landing on a show on TV Land, a channel spun off from Nick at Nite and devoted to nostalgia, including abundant reruns of White’s The Golden Girls. Cleveland, which debuts tonight at 10 p.m. E.T., is a strangely calculated effort in multilayered nostalgia: it plays on fond memories of White’s long career (stretching back to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and beyond), of her costars (Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick, who represent past sitcom eras from the ’70s through the ’90s) and of a bygone sitcom form itself: a very high-concept idea, couched in familiar gags, zingers and stock character types—the kind of show where you can close your eyes, plug your ears, yet still know, as if through muscle memory, exactly when the next laugh will come.

Hot in Cleveland, in other words, is like an artificially created rerun, as if someone discovered the masters of a sitcom that had been locked up in a vault since 1987. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

The premise: a trio of L.A. women—an unemployed soap star (Malick), an author (Bertinelli), and a stylist (Leeves) find themselves stuck in the Ohio city and learn that, as opposed to Hollywood, the good people (and especially the men) of the Midwest have more realistic standards of age-appropriateness and female beauty. Replace L.A. with New York, and you might recognize this as the basis of a very funny two-minute bit in an episode of 30 Rock. (For all I know, Hot in Cleveland’s creators came up with the idea long before the 30 Rock scene, but if so, the fact that it worked so much better as a one-off gag should have been disincentive enough.)

The pilot opens with the three women on their flight from LAX, in an airplane-fuselage set so faux-sitcom-looking as to be a kind of metafictional mission statement in itself. It does not—as in, say, the pilot of Modern Family—try to convince you that you are watching documentary footage of someone inside an actual airplane cabin. It says: You are watching a sitcom about people pretending to be flying on an airplane. When the flight hits problems and is forced to set down in Cleveland, the friends get off, go to a bar to kill some time, and make some shocking discoveries: though they are over 40, men hit on them. (“They’re looking at us! In L.A., they look past us!”) They are not considered fat, because they actually are not. And when they go to a bar that serves chili fries, they are expected to eat.

It’s a relief, to be surrounded by these good people, sensible people, levelheaded people—people just like you, good, sensible, levelheaded TV Land viewer! And in case the setup doesn’t do enough to ingratiate itself to the imagined middle-aged viewer, the show throws in zingers like, “Romantic comedies are like cellulite cures—every one is a lie!” The story continues through a series of coincidental meetings, stock sitcom setups (e.g., the airplane near-crash that changes everyone’s priorities), restatements of the premise and references to “manscaping,” until the gang decides to take a home in the city by Lake Erie, and find themselves being shown a house with a wisecracking caretaker, Elka, played by White.

I’d like to say that Cleveland’s writing gets better when White appears on the scene. Really, it’s just enjoyable to see her doing what she does well, which here, is deliver the kind of old-lady-making-shocking-statements gags that SNL relied heavily on for her. When Elka sizes up the trio and asks the real-estate agent, wide-eyed, “Why are you renting to prostitutes?” it’s like seeing a long-loved band come onstage after the opening act: even if they’re playing the same hits they were 30 years ago, it’s still thrilling to see that they haven’t dropped a beat.

Now, does this make me want to tune in to another episode of Cleveland when there are any number of better-crafted Golden Girls reruns out there? Not really. How much you will want to, in the long run, goes beyond affection for the members of the cast and has more to do with whether you actually fondly long for old-school laugh-track sitcoms of the Who’s the Boss? or Caroline in the City era. In which case maybe Hot in Cleveland will tide you over until 2011, and the inevitable TV Land comeback of Abe Vigoda.