Recently an old friend, a straight guy, asked me what I thought of Glee. I told him I’d never seen a second of it. He was aghast. A gay guy who’d never seen Glee? I explained that I’d seen ads for it and that they had made my skin crawl. To be sure, some time after that conversation I did run across a You Tube of a charming same-sex duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which touched me both because it was the kind of thing I never imagined I’d see on network TV in my lifetime and because I loved the idea of young people today becoming acquainted with wonderful old standards from the Great American Songbook instead of the horrible crap they mostly listen to nowadays. (Maybe they will develop taste, after all, I mused.) Following that experience I actually did try to watch an episode of Glee, but bailed about a minute and a half in. Yes, there is such a thing as gay culture and gay taste, but it doesn’t mean that all gay people like all the stuff that all gay people are supposed to like. Far from it.
That being said, I am, in an instance of depressing predictability, inordinately fond of the TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland, which, with a camp factor that is through the roof, seems to have been expertly configured to draw gay viewers like flies. Even so, its merits, I would suggest, transcend its appeal to niche tastes. If you aren’t familiar with this series, which will soon begin its third season, let’s start by getting the admittedly silly premise out of the way: three upper-class, middle-aged L.A. women settle in a house in Cleveland after discovering they’re more appealing to the men there than back on the Coast. Living with them is their house’s elderly caretaker, making a foursome curiously similar to that on that other notorious gay magnet, The Golden Girls, except that instead of eating cheesecake in the kitchen, they guzzle margaritas. (Nothing wrong with a retread; Shakespeare did it, too.)
Hot in Cleveland was cooked up by Suzanne Martin, formerly of Frasier, and stars three of TV’s most intelligent comic actresses. Wendie Malick, the lanky brunette who looks far younger than her 60 years and who was the best thing on Just Shoot Me, plays the narcissistic star of a recently canceled soap opera who’s constantly referencing the inane-sounding TV movies she’s starred in for the Lifetime network. Jane Leeves, the Brit from Frasier, plays a neurotic mess who back in Beverly Hills made a terrific living shaping movie stars’ eyebrows. Betty White, of course, is the smart-assed caretaker, the show’s version of Sophia on The Golden Girls. And then there’s Valerie Bertinelli of the legendarily vapid One Day at a Time, who, as a devoted housewife and mother whose husband has just left her (how she ever ended up friends with the Malick and Leeves characters is frankly inexplicable), is actually charming and manages to hold her own alongside her first-rate co-stars.
In a sea of inane TV comedy, Hot in Cleveland is full of wit and is genuinely literate. There are jokes that turn on quotes from Yeats and Tennessee Williams. In response to Bertinelli’s use of expletives like “shoot” and “darn,” Malick quips: “It’s like a Mamet play in here.” The scriptwriters are plainly not worried that some jokes or references will go over some viewers’ heads. The two or three funniest episodes so far center on Malick’s character, whose philosophy of life (from Socrates by way of Gore Vidal) is that “the untelevised life is not worth living.” In one, she lands in a community of Amish people and finds herself drawn to their simple lifestyle, so utterly antithetical to her own. The jokes mock both her and them. She’s amazed they don’t know who she is – after all, she’s starred in so many Lifetime TV movies! “It’s basic cable.” To which an Amish woman replies: “What part of ‘no TV’ dost thou not understand?” – an inspired twist on a hack sitcom formula. She learns about Rumspringa, the ritual period during which Amish youth get to experience non-Amish life in order to decide for themselves what they want in life, and in the end she decides that her sojourn in Amish country was her own Rumspringa: “my journey of discovery … and I learned that a life of excess and self-involvement is where my true heart lieth.” This show is the anti-Two and a Half Men.
One thing that’s especially appealing about Hot in Cleveland is that for all its West Coast sophistication, it is, at the same time, appreciative of Red State values. It actually pokes fun at Hollywood and treats Middle America with respect. (Though, of course, it pokes fun at Middle America, too – after all, it’s a sitcom).
The heart of the show, needless to say, is Betty White, now aged 89. In the last few years she has enjoyed a renaissance largely because she’s an old lady saying things that old ladies presumably shouldn’t say. But what makes it work is her terrific delivery and comic timing, still intact after all these decades. She richly deserves her enduring success, which she owes not only to her talent but to her character. In a business in which stardom so often turns decent enough people into petulant, demanding, self-indulgent jerks, she has been a model of first-rate, uncomplaining professionalism for more than half a century.
As the stand-up comic Lisa Lampanelli said at the William Shatner roast on Comedy Central a couple of years back, “Betty White is a real lady.” But she was also a canny, independent professional woman pre-Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. She was the first female to produce her own TV show – Life with Elizabeth, which ran in 1953-55. (You can find some of the episodes on YouTube. Not great, but cute.) While other folks in showbiz are eager to show how smart they are (or think they are), White has always masked her formidable intelligence behind a jokey, accessible persona – not playing dumb, but not showing off, either. To understand just how smart she is, watch some of her old Password appearances (also available on You Tube): nobody was sharper than she was at giving the best possible clues, coming up with the right answers, and doing it all while being friendly, funny, and self-deprecating.
There’s another admirable thing about her. Other big stars, once they make their mint, have made a show of being opposed to capitalism – to the Bosses, the Suits, the folks who run the studios. It’s a way of having their cake and eating it too, of assuaging guilt over their limousine lifestyles, and of pretending that, despite their multimillion-dollar paychecks, they’re somehow artistically purer and closer to the people than studio executives who may in fact make far less than they do. Betty White, by contrast, has always spoken fondly of her employers and made it clear that she appreciates being hired by them. In turn she has always been respected by producers and network executives for doing her job energetically, uncomplainingly, and responsibly – and, in no small part for that reason, I would suspect, has found steady work. If Hot in Cleveland is the anti-Two and a Half Men, in short, Betty White is the anti-Charlie Sheen. Long may she reign.