Betty White continues her resurgence into popular culture with her role as Elka on "Hot in Cleveland."
You’re a network executive. You’re given an idea for a show involving an old-school comedy centered around four women of a certain age living in a shared house in the Midwest. All the women are comedy legends, but the youngest among them is a few months away from her 50th birthday. Do you pull the trigger? Or do you play it safe with a formulaic scripted program or another reality show?
“Hot in Cleveland” found a home at a cable network with that pitch, which is good news for everyone. Though it may not be as easy to find as “American Idol” and “CSI: (Your Town’s Name Here),” it’s one of the best shows of the summer.
The most buzz-worthy aspect of “Hot in Cleveland” thus far has been Betty White, who has continued her resurgence into popular culture with her scene-stealing role as Elka Ostrovsky. And if that’s what it takes to get people to watch the show, I’m all for it.
However, the irony is that “Hot in Cleveland” is as close as we’re likely to get to a repeat of White’s 1980s ensemble comedy hit, “The Golden Girls.” And it says something that we’re not getting “Cleveland” on NBC (which was home to “The Golden Girls”), or indeed on a major network at all.
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Instead, Wendie Malick, Jane Leeves and Valerie Bertinelli are plying their trade on TV Land. Yes, the network known as the refuge for people looking to fall asleep to reruns of shows from their childhood has made its first scripted program a modern version of the classic sitcom premise.
In “Hot in Cleveland,” Melanie Moretti (Bertinelli), Victoria Chase (Malick) and Joy Scroggs (Leeves) are on a plane heading from Los Angeles to Paris that makes an emergency landing in Cleveland. As only happens in sitcoms, a series of events causes the trio to decide to stick around awhile and rent a house that comes with White's sassy Elka as the caretaker. Hilarity ensues.
It’s a fantastic cast, for sure. Malick, Leeves and Bertinelli have all been top sitcom actresses for years, and White is a living legend. So it’s no surprise that a show about smart, funny women trying to take stock of their lives in their new surroundings and reconcile their youthful self-image with their aging physical bodies is a show worth watching.
And it’s an especially good fit because “Hot in Cleveland” is a throwback show in so many ways. From the classic “filmed before a live studio audience” opener, it takes the viewer back to the old-school good-friends-in-awkward-or-funny-situations comedy setup, but with a modern twist. These women aren’t content to live out their golden years in a condo — they’re looking for love and sex (and not necessarily in that order) as they tackle both their inner demons and a Cleveland that’s a long way from their televised Hollywood home.
It’s a recipe for success. But given the current state of television, it’s also not surprising that it’s not on a bigger network.
A modern show
When watching “Golden Girls” reruns, it’s hard not to wonder how that show was ever green-lighted. A show about four old ladies? What kind of demographics is that going to reach? What will the advertisers say? In an era where technology has made it easier to slice and dice the audience into smaller and more targeted segments, it’s the young who tend to hold sway.
The comparison to “Golden Girls” isn’t perfect, and it’s not just because Cleveland is a long way away from Florida. The women here are a decade or two younger than those played by White, Rue McClanahan, Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty, and that makes for a different tone. When McClanahan’s Blanche Devereaux talked about her previous or intended conquests, it had the air of someone living in the past. When Malick’s Victoria comes home from a night in a hotel room with Huey Lewis (there’s another blast from the past for you), it’s no stretch at all to imagine what went on there.
And yet, a fundamental part of the show is also about the women struggling with and accepting the aging process. Victoria can’t use the same moves she did when she was younger. Leeves’ Joy has a potential romantic relationship undone because of a concern that the young man could be the son she put up for adoption years before. (It’s a lot funnier than it sounds.) And Bertinelli’s Melanie doesn’t quite have the hang of the current dialogue: “Don’t be a hollaback girl,” she says, then pauses. “Am I using that right? ‘Cause it felt right.”
The show has already been picked up for a second season, and the premiere was the highest-rated program in TV Land history. That’s good news, but the fact that it’s on a channel buried in many cable and satellite systems makes it more than The Best Show You’re Not Watching, but rather The Best Show That’s Really Easy To Miss.
Make the effort. It’s worth it.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @craigberman.