Solid gold

Jun 16, 2010 at 12:00 am

A week or so ago I mentioned the new TVLand summer sitcom Hot in Cleveland, with its all-star lineup of Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves (Frasier), Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me) and a resurgent, ageless Betty White, and asked the critical question, "Can this series possibly be as good as it sounds?"

Well, since then I've seen the pilot episode of the classic TV channel's first original comedy, airing at 10 tonight, and I can report ...

Yes! Oh, happy night, yes it is! What a relief, not to have wasted all that talent. It's better — and funnier — than we had any right to expect. With the zesty, seamless ensemble chemistry of The Golden Girls (no major surprise, since the last surviving Girl is in the cast), pinpoint comic timing and impressive writing laced with rapid-fire punch lines, what we have in Hot in Cleveland is a show with the feel of a female Frasier. It may take some effort to locate it, since TVLand isn't exactly top of mind when it comes to outstanding first-run comedies, but it's well worth the search.

The sitcom's superior bloodlines are apparent: Suzanne Martin, who won an Emmy writing for Frasier, is scripting the series, and the suddenly controversial Sean Hayes, last Sunday's Tony Awards emcee, is an executive producer. "You never know until you actually do the first table read (the first time the actors see the script), but the pieces of the puzzle just came together in a way where I thought, 'You know, this could be really fun,'" the statuesque Malick said over her cell phone (hands free, of course) while motoring around Los Angeles last week. "And a great way to tell some stories about women of a certain age who have been somewhat overlooked in pop culture."

Malick knew Martin from guest shots on the final season of Frasier, and became good friends with Hayes when Just Shoot Me and Will & Grace were taping on the same lot. What's more, the Buffalo native graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University ("My boyfriend, my most serious first love, was from Toledo," she reminisced), so she's not a Hollywood hotshot who's just flown over us all these years.

Flying over us, however, is a key element to the Hot in Cleveland storyline. The show revolves around Bertinelli (who graces the cover of AARP Magazine this month, in case you didn't feel old enough) as divorced author Melanie Moretti, whose book of things every woman should do before she dies includes flying to Paris with best friends. So off she jets with Victoria Chase (Malick), a self-absorbed daytime TV diva whose long-running soap, The Edge of Tomorrow, has just been canceled, and Joy Scroggs (the surprisingly leggy Leeves), "eyebrow waxer to the stars."

An in-flight calamity forces an emergency landing in Cleveland, where men are men, chili cheese fries are an aphrodisiac, and, unlike L.A., mature women of sophistication are viewed as something akin to hotties. "We appear to have landed in a dimension where men hit on women their own age," Joy declares. "We owe it to science to investigate." 

After a fling with a hunky plumber (guest star John Schneider), Melanie decides the waters of Lake Erie are more conducive to happiness than the Pacific Ocean and convinces her buds to stay with her awhile. They rent a condo complete with a feisty caretaker — the nearly 89-year-old White — who immediately sizes up the trio as prostitutes. After the embarrassment of having her Saturday Night Live writers snickering over getting an old lady to cuss, White gets far more meat for her comedic bones from Martin's material. And if the other three can't match her energy, how embarrassing will that be?

Residents of Cleveland, every bit as sensitive over their public image nationally as we are, already have expressed fear and consternation over how their city will be portrayed in the comedy. 

"I imagine we'll be invited to Cleveland," Malick enthuses. "We've actually talked about it. If this is a hit, we need to go and shoot some exteriors, do some Cleveland shots. I think it would be fabulous. I'd like to go to a Cavaliers game." If LeBron bolts the team, they may be the biggest celebs in the arena.

NBC = No Better Choices? 

NBC — which, if you believed its blatherings, truly believed The Jay Leno Show would be its answer at 10 p.m. for years to come — suddenly found itself rushing to sign, seal and deliver new prime-time hour series for this fall to advertisers and especially NBC affiliates, who get a little persnickety about which shows lead into their late local newscasts.

They had little in the cupboard, even less in the development pipeline. But with the announcement of network fall schedules, here are the best 10 o'clock offerings NBC could muster:

Mondays: Chase, Jerry Bruckheimer's take on the U.S. Marshals Service and fugitive manhunts. Expect a restructured version of Without a Trace, with no character as compelling as In Plain Sight's Marshal Mary Shannon.

Tuesdays: Parenthood, a qualified hit from last season, if it can fend off sophomore audience erosion.

Wednesdays: Law & Order: Los Angeles, a series that already has a nickname — LOLA — four months before it premieres. And you just know it'll be better than the original or SVU, right?

Thursdays: Love Bites, a romantic comedy, anthology style, from Sex and the City producer-writer Cindy Chupack. Didn't Leno, or history, teach NBC anything about the success of comedies at 10 o'clock?

Fridays: Outlaw, one show I'm actually looking forward to, with Jimmy Smits as a Supreme Court justice who quits the bench to use his legal knowledge on behalf of the little guy. Yeah, another law drama. And get this: Among its executive producers ... Conan O'Brien. Just can't let him go, can you, NBC?

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]