It goes without saying that the hottest thing about TV Land's new sitcom, Hot in Cleveland, is Betty White, fresh off a hosting gig for Saturday Night Live that happened by popular demand (aggregated in a successful Facebook campaign).
TV Land's first foray into an original scripted series, after years of providing syndicated nostalgia for fans of M*A*S*H, Everybody Loves Raymond and the like, is a stab at creating a new Golden Girls for the boomer set. In this case, White is the eccentric, shoot-from-the-mouth Estelle Getty character Sophia, and the other three (yep, four main characters, and does that seem familiar?) are Blanche, Rose and Dorothy redux, in the form of fellow sitcom vets Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick.
The result? From the scant evidence provided (the pilot episode only, much of which has been given away by relentless ad spots), let's just say that Hot in Cleveland is lightweight, enjoyable and utterly contrived. It provides some good laughs and has a retro feel that makes it a good fit for TV Land.
The contrivance rests with the premise. Three female friends born in the early rock 'n' roll era are flying from their home base in LA for a much-needed vacation in France. The one who needs it most, self-help book author Melanie (Bertinelli), is divorcing her drunk workaholic husband, who has now taken up with a younger woman. Her friend Victoria (Malick, playing to type) is a vain soap star with a recently canceled daytime drama to her name and a serious grudge against Susan Lucci. Even grim wisecracker Joy (Leeves) has seen her star fade; once the "eyebrow queen of Los Angeles," she's lately seen her popular salon lose customers to "that Russian chick on Rodeo Drive."
Unfortunately, the plane doesn't get to France due to an emergency landing in—guess where? And they decide to stay, in support of Melanie, who's hooked up with a handsome plumber played by Dukes of Hazzard star John Schneider. Suuuuure, suuuuure.
Enter Betty White, who plays judgmental, pot-smoking 88-year-old Elka Ostrofsky, the caretaker for 50 years of the house Melanie is leasing ("Why are you renting to prostitutes?" goes her first line, when she spots the three middle-aged Los Angelinas). Soon after Elka walks in the room, Joy sniffs the air and asks, "Does anyone else smell pot?" Ella shoots back: "What are you—a cop?"
Yes, White is funny, and if you're a fan, you'll give Hot more than just one chance, just for her. But give her co-stars credit. Malick plays the vain, aging sexpot as well as ever. Reeves, White's natural antagonist in the show, is seemingly in charge of all the rim-shot zingers that White doesn't get, and her timing is spot-on. Bertinelli is the star, and she's endearingly goofy, sympathetic and funny in her role. She's the one the writers want you to root for, and maybe you will.
Who knows: Maybe Hot in Cleveland will cool down to a tepid, disappointing mush in three episodes flat, but if you love classic sitcoms and classic sitcom stars, give it a shot. Sure, it's a bit silly and predictable. But if you're still tuning into TV Land for Everybody Loves Raymond repeats after all these years, then predictability obviously doesn't bother you (or me) all that much.