Hot in Cleveland, a show for our perilous economic times

hot in cleveland betty whiteHot in Cleveland on TVLand may be a throwback to old sitcoms of yore, but as you may have noticed if you caught the new series premiere, it's also rooted very much in the present. In fact, in many ways, the series is a sly tribute to the times we've been living in, often dubbed the Great Recession.

Let the TV reviewers carp or thrill about whether the characters are believable and if the gags work. (Time magazine's James Poniewozik liked Betty White, who plays a supporting role, but otherwise wasn't too crazy about the show. The New York Times Alessandra Stanley concluded, "It's actually kind of fun.") I'll mostly focus on the personal finance aspects of the show.

The Great Recession part of the plot: Sure, a lot of people might tell you that the series is about three middle-aged women (played by Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick) whose flight to Paris is diverted to Cleveland, and that the women decide to relocate after realizing that the Midwest finds their qualities attractive, where the West Coast, not so much. And, yes, it is a series about ageism and the differing cultural values throughout the country. As Joy (played by Jane Leeves) observes, "We appear to have landed in a dimension where men hit on women their own age. We owe it to science to investigate."

But the economy plays a major part in Bertinelli's character (Melanie) deciding to relocate to Cleveland. Melanie points out to her friends that she can spend a month in Cleveland for about the same as it costs to spend a night in Paris. And when she looks at rental properties in the newspaper, Malick's character wonders if a price is "missing a zero." I can relate to that, incidentally. For about five years during the 1990s, I lived in Los Angeles until returning to the state I grew up in -- Ohio (I live near Cincinnati, on the opposite end of the state from Cleveland), in part because I knew the mortgage for a house would be comparable to what I was shelling out for a studio apartment.

At an economic crossroads: Melanie also wants to reinvent her life, something she feels she needs to do, given that her children are in college and she is going through a divorce. Meanwhile, Leeves character, Joy, has just lost her biggest client (Oprah) and isn't quite sure what she should do next. Malick's character (Victoria) is a former soap opera star looking for work and finding she isn't thrilled with what's out there for her. All three women need to reinvent their lives and come to the conclusion that they could give it a try in Cleveland.

That's something, whether you live in Cleveland or Los Angeles or Boise, that everyone can relate to. The economy has hammered the country in the last couple years, and I think arguably a lot of people with their careers--unemployed, underemployed and overworked--are finding that they need or want to reinvent themselves.

Even Ms. White's character (Elka Ostrovsky) has a moment where gets to wonder if her stable life is about to be upended along with the rest of the country's. As everyone surely has heard, she plays a pot-smoking, tracksuit-wearing caretaker that comes with the house (it's a fun plot device if you don't think about it too long), "if you wish to retain her," adds the flummoxed real estate agent before exiting the door.

Indeed, Elka says that she has been with the house for fifty years, "but you can kick me out." Melanie doesn't, of course.

Worth your time? (time, after all, is money): I think so, although, of course, everybody's tastes are different. But, still, if you like sitcoms and enjoy the nostalgia that TV Land often offers, I can't see how you can go wrong. I watched Hot in Cleveland last night, and I was surprisingly entertained, and my wife, who isn't a sitcom watcher, laughed throughout the episode. I say I was surprisingly entertained, incidentally, because TV Land used to be one of my favorite guilty pleasures, a place I could go to and know that at any moment in the day, I'd find some chestnut from television's past to watch. But when they began airing reality TV series that are still airing, and creating their own original reality shows, I have to admit, I began going to the channel less and less. But Hot in Cleveland is a kick to watch, even the parts without Betty White, and I could see returning to the station more often.

Here's a warning, though. TV Land aired the pilot episode of Hot in Cleveland at 10 p.m., EST, last night, and then the same repeat pilot at 10:30 p.m. My wife and I watched the first few minutes of the repeat, partially too lazy to change the channel right away and partially enjoying the opening scenes, and we quickly noticed that in the repeat airing, several of the jokes from the original pilot were cut out, obviously to make room for more commercials. Put off by that, we turned the channel right away, which, of course, advertisers won't want to hear. So if you want to see the show, I wouldn't catch the trimmed pilot on the TV Land network but instead, at the TV Land web site, where they show the pilot episode in its entirety (it'll be available there until July 10).

In any case, Hot in Cleveland is a fun show with a lot of talent in front of the camera and behind it (for instance, Will & Grace's Sean Hayes, who played Jack, is one of the executive producers), and it's a series that purposely harks back to a more innocent sitcom time, with some nice touches. Betty White announces at the start that the show was "filmed before a live studio audience," and at the end, the women are discussing their lives on a front porch that seems to have come from the set of The Andy Griffith Show. It's a series that doesn't want to throw away the past, but without a doubt, it's a story set in the present with characters, like of all us, anxiously hoping for a better future.

Geoff Williams is a regular contributor to WalletPop, an avowed fan of classic TV and the co-author of the book Living Well with Bad Credit.
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