The folks behind “Family Guy” have been saying some of the most alarming things. Like “sweet and funny” and “sense of family.” They are using these words to describe “The Cleveland Show,” a “Family Guy” spinoff that premieres Sunday night.
Coming from Seth MacFarlane’s crew, such descriptions are like tiny time bombs disguised as rubber ducks, or festively wrapped birthday gifts filled with fake vomit and itching powder. Because while executive producer Rich Appel may be sincere when he says “The Cleveland Show” is “kinder and gentler” than its predecessor, he is working from the same warped palette that gave us Stewie, the erudite and profane baby who most recently beat his dog to a bloody pulp for laughs on the Emmy broadcast last Sunday.
So while “kinder and gentler” may squeeze through the door -- in an early episode of “The Cleveland Show,” a dog is also killed, but humanely, by a car -- sweet ain’t going to make it. Because “sweet” isn’t, at least in the current vernacular, synonymous for scatological. Or sophomoric. Or surprisingly slow. All of which “The Cleveland Show” most certainly is.
Following his divorce, Cleveland Brown (voiced by “Family Guy” producer Mike Henry) announces to his friends on “Family Guy” that he is taking his son, Cleveland Jr., and heading west to become a minor league baseball scout. But first he makes a stop in his hometown of Stoolbend, Va. There Cleveland gets sidetracked by his high school sweetheart, Donna (Sanaa Lathan), now divorced from the man she chose over Cleveland. Before long, Cleveland and his son have moved in with Donna, her teenage daughter, Roberta (Reagan Gomez-Preston), and 5-year-old son, Rallo (also Henry), who is a foul-mouthed stand-in for Stewie, channeling blaxploitation films rather than a British accent.
There’s a crazy hillbilly neighbor on one side and, on the other, a couple of Germanic bears (the male is voiced by MacFarlane, the female by Arianna Huffington, and I don’t even know what to say about this).
No one is safe from ridicule. Not Cleveland, who sounds just like a white guy voicing a black guy (because that’s what he is) and spends way more time naked than any cartoon human should. Not Cleveland Jr., who is heavy and therefore stupid. Not Donna, who is so desperate for a man she’ll take Cleveland. And certainly not Kathleen Turner, who turns up in a randomly mean aside. Even Kurt Cobain is resurrected in order to make fun of Courtney Love (is anyone else even still talking about Courtney Love?).
“The Cleveland Show” follows a more typical plot formula than “Family Guy” -- a problem arises, messes are made solving the problem, but in the end things seem to be better than before. Jokes about genitalia and pedophilia, about sex and urine and marijuana use abound, none of them funny enough to remember mere moments after they have been made. An extended riff about “playing with Cleveland Jr.” as well as a sight gag involving a possum that attaches itself to Cleveland’s crotch do linger, however, and much longer than they should, but humor is, alas, not the reason.
For those who love and admire “Family Guy,” “The Cleveland Show” offers another version, slightly watered down and, at least it seems to someone who has seen but does not regularly watch “Family Guy,” much less smart.
In trying to infuse their trademark raunchy and outrageous humor with something approximating family values, Appel and his team have wound up with something that is neither fish nor fowl. “The Cleveland Show” is neither sweet nor particularly funny, neither a family comedy nor a true satire.
‘The Cleveland Show’
When: 8:30 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)