In its eighth season, "The Simpsons" jokingly produced an episode titled "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase," making fun of potentially absurd spinoffs to the long-running animated hit. We're 13 seasons later and the show has yet to resort to "Chief Wiggum, P.I." (now with added resonance post-Katrina), "The Love-Matic Grampa" (throw in a couple death panels jokes and it's a hit) or "The Simpsons Family Smile-Time Variety Hour" (essentially what FOX tried and failed to do with The Osbournes last spring.

I guess we're supposed to just think it's a coincidence that after eight seasons, "Family Guy" has unleashed its own spinoff, "The Cleveland Show," with a premise that seems no more or less absurd than any of the hypothetical "Simpsons" spawn.

So how does "The Cleveland Show" stack up with the rest of its Animation Domination colleagues premiering on Sunday (Sept. 27) night on FOX? Although it's already had both its back-nine and its second season picked up, "The Cleveland Show" remains a bit of an uneven hodgepodge, certain to cause more than a few "Family Guy" fans to agree with Stewie Griffin's indignant, "What the hell? He's getting his own show?"

[Full review after the break...]

Created by Seth MacFarlane, Rich Appel and leading voice Mike Henry, "The Cleveland Show" finds Cleveland and an entirely new, morbidly obese Cleveland Jr., deciding to leave Rhode Island (after four minutes of "Family Guy" set-up) to move to California so that Cleveland can become a minor league baseball scout. Don't worry. That dream doesn't last long, because the Browns find themselves in Stoolbend, VA, where Cleveland is reunited with his high school friend Donna (Sanaa Lathan), mother to slutty teen Roberta (Reagan Gomez-Preston) and sassy son Rallo. Through circumstances that take every moment of the pilot to establish, Cleveland decides to stay and a new blended family is born!

Was that a spoiler? Dunno.

Anyway, he has new wacky neighbors, including redneck Lester (Kevin Michael Richardson), ageless frat-boy Holt (Jason Sudeikis) and two bears (MacFarlane and Arianna Huffington). [What? You're gonna quibble about two talking, Germanic, Jesus-loving bears after all of those years of Brian, the human-banging dog?]

If nothing else, it has a great theme song -- music by Walter Murphy -- even if racial sensitivity has robbed it of its original closing line. 

Of all of the "Family Guy" sidekicks, I don't dispute that Cleveland Brown was the one most capable of sustaining a full series. "The Quagmire Show" would have needed to be on FX at the very least and "The Joe Swanson Show" wouldn't have been funny. Don't believe me? Check out FOX's "Brothers," which probably stole half of its jokes from a discarded Joe Swanson pilot.

Cleveland is a good-natured parody of '70s African-American sitcom archetypes, funny for how poorly he conforms to racial expectations, or maybe because of the way he pronounces "terrible." He hasn't been so over-developed on "Family Guy" to set up any real expectations, so "The Cleveland Show" is mining its own territory. 

Unlike the MacFarlane co-created "American Dad," which has been suckling at the "Family Guy" teat for several years, while finding a completely different (albeit sometimes hard to describe) tone and structure, "The Cleveland Show" feels a lot like its sire. It relies heavily on cutaways and you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish between what constitutes a "Family Guy" cutaway and a "Cleveland Show" cutaway. Although both shows enjoy a good musical number, "The Cleveland Show" mines more from disco and funk classics, as opposed to following MacFarlane's love for the Great American Songbook. And "The Cleveland Show" seems to have a greater appreciation for reenacting classic YouTube clips. Like "Family Guy," "The Cleveland Show" is a domestic comedy with young characters, but that doesn't mean that jokes about Jennifer Aniston's sex partners, R. Kelly's sexual practices and The Elephant Man's penis are off-limits. 

The clearest variation that viewers will notice from the pilot is that "The Cleveland Show" is really, really plot-driven. "South Park" wasn't randomly chiding "Family Guy" for its distaste for cohesive storytelling, but "The Cleveland Show" feels almost "King of the Hill"-esque in its willingness to sometimes sacrifice punchlines to arc a full episode. Perhaps that's the influence of Appel, whose credits include "King of the Hill" as well as "The Simpsons," "Family Guy" and "American Dad." 

Probably the early balance is focused too heavily on plot, in fact. I'm not sure that I've ever seen an animated pilot that had so much exposition to work through in 22 minutes. Subsequent episodes have similar problems, in that its hard to tell a story if you're stopping for a two-minute lampooning of "ghost-riding" videos. Funny? A little bit. Clunky? A lot.

Cleveland is still a laugh-worthy character, even if after eight seasons on "The Family Guy" and on his new show, I still can't decide if he's basically a minstrel character. "The Cleveland Show" plays coy by having its main black character voiced by a white guy (Henry), but its racist, redneck character voiced by a black guy (the tremendous Richardson). Very clever, but does that mean all is forgiven? Or all is fair play, at least? I'm not sure. I don't know what to make of FOX having the only two African-American-centered shows on network TV and having those shows be "The Cleveland Show" and "Brothers." Oddly, I'm neither offended nor ready to consider "The Cleveland Show" progressive ("Brothers" offends me). It just makes me miss "Everybody Hates Chris" (and "The Boondocks") even more. 

I've now watched three episodes of "The Cleveland Show" and seen table reads for two others. The show is improving. The end-of-season episode I heard was better than any of the opening three episodes, as was the later episode read for us at the TCA press tour. That means it's a process and I can accept that, especially since I found things to laugh at in every episode. Even more than with live-action comedies, animated shows have to be given the chance to establish themselves. 

One thing that's a genuine problem is that of Cleveland's new friends, two of them -- Holt and Lester -- have yet to do anything amusing in any of the five episodes. Wife Donna isn't funny and Roberta isn't funny either. That's too much dead weight for any show to stand. A show about Rallo, Cleveland and the bears next door? Now that's a show I'd make appointment viewing.

 

"The Cleveland Show" premieres on Sunday, Sept. 27