By: Aleks Chan
How much can TV Land’s HOT IN CLEVELAND attribute its success to the Cult of Betty White? The same following catapulted the 88-year-old actress from perpetual guest star to the subject of a (successful) Facebook campaign that had her host the highest rated episode of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE since 2008, so it’s not unlikely that some of the five million people who tuned into the pilot were following suit. Part of it might also be the nostalgia trip experienced watching the show: stocked with recognizable faces and familiar set pieces, it hits upon every conceivable element of what makes the very reruns TV Land airs so cozy.
The show is an interesting creature, seemingly manufactured to reconfigure the traditional sitcom for 2010: it’s filmed in front of a live studio audience, casted with sitcom favorites of yesteryear (Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, and Wendie Malick), and is rife with set ‘em up, knock ‘em down jokes, but also (awkwardly) incorporates newfangled concepts like the internet and “manscaping.” It’s the equivalent of “New Look, Same Great Taste.” This would be perfectly fine if the fondness for ‘80s sitcom tropes were easily transferable, but here it just comes across as a comedy bogged down by…‘80s sitcom tropes. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with this (if you like your yuks foreseeable from the opening credits, you’ll love it), but it feels like too much of an easy way out — that masquerading as a kitschy throwback should be enough.
The trio arrives in the titular Ohio city after their plane from Los Angeles to Paris is forced to make an emergency stop. And seemingly right out of the sitcom handbook, they each find one reason or another to stay, the three of them living together in a house leased by Melanie (Bertinelli), a self-help book author who recently separated from her husband. White’s enduring charm is tested here: much like how the show plays on our memories of past comedies to get us to laugh, White commands much of her laughs from her age: as house caretaker Elka, she gets plenty of old-lady-being-raunchy material, which by the third episode I screened grew tiresome. An actress as adept as White could easily handle meatier lines, not that her equally capable co-stars are stealing any good dialogue. Malick, who plays washed-up soap opera star Victoria, does manage to gussy up some of her lines with her snappy delivery.
Much is made of the stars’ age, mainly that they are all Women Of A Certain Age. Upon arriving in Cleveland, they hit a bar packed with everything that they thought existed only in fables: women who eat, men who don’t look past them for their age, and who greet them with old fashioned Midwestern kindness. But this isn’t GOLDEN GIRLS, a show that was much more attuned to how to examine the relationship between age, sex, and identity from a comedic vantage point. It’s disappointing, because with a cast as seasoned as this, there was (or is, if you’re at all confident that things could turn around) ample opportunity to offer a fresh take on the elder modern woman.
On the flip side, it was hardly a surprise to hear that PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, ABC Family’s latest melodramatic teen soap, quickly shot to the top of the ratings chart. The network formally owned by televangelist Pat Robertson has heavily refocused its image in the past few years, going from FULL HOUSE reruns to teen dramedies packed with hyper-emotive (though impressively stoic) young actors with shampoo commercial hair. Yes, any of the principal actors in LIARS (based on the young adult novels by Sara Shepard) could easily reminds us that they’re worth it.
Haircare aside, this is right on brand, complete with drama-inducing setup: four best friends living in the posh Pennsylvania suburb of Rosewood suffer a falling out after their friend Alison (Sasha Pieterse) goes missing. A year later, each begin receiving messages threatening to expose their secrets from someone who signs as “A,” to which the girls presume to be Alison. These are Big Dark Secrets like lipstick lesbianism, boyfriend stealing, kleptomania, and your run-of-the-mill adultery. But this will all seem rather meek if you’ve spent even half a second watching GOSSIP GIRL (or whatever prime time soap you explain to watch for its “creative storytelling”).
The allure of shows like this is how easily you can relish in the soft-focused, retouched soapy goodness of both the story and the acting, but LIARS seems to be an indicator of a potential saturation point for ABC Family, whose insistence on creating “a new kind of family” may have gone to their heads. The show has seemingly chewed through an entire season’s worth of story lines in three episodes, moving so hastily that basic character development feels rushed, leapfrogging the important moments in between. A good soap is a long, slow burn and is not the place to be cutting corners.
Ironically, before becoming a bestselling book series, the project was presented as a television series by the same production company that helms GG and THE VAMPIRE DIARIES — a “DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES for teens.” It’s unclear whether this is still the intent of PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, which has assembled a stable of decent actors (including the always exceptional Laura Leighton as the mother of a teen shoplifter) and a promising premise (better shows have been made from slimmer setups), but has mishandled them. My suggestion: catch some reruns.