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Fascism and Big Business by Daniel Guerin

Monday, August 29, 2011

Empresses of ice cream

Hot in Cleveland: A Marxist view
by Jay Rothermel

Hot in Cleveland is a harsh and brittle situation comedy.  Its four women stars are contorted and raced through their quips, and still the editing cannot lend the repartee any sense of balance and conversational reality.  We are far here from the new mono-camera sitcoms that live and thrive without laugh-tracks and guest star gimmicks.

One-dimensional women

Valerie Bertinelli, Wendy Malick, and Jane Leeves star as Hollywood non-coms who lease a house in Cleveland, Ohio.  They are beautiful women, exhausted and infuriated by the financialized insincerity of LA.  They find Cleveland's supposed honesty about relationships and personal appearance liberating, and embrace it with a will.  Their house mother is portrayed by Betty White, whose character is 82 and, to flatter the vanity of younger viewing demographics, has the most hard-boiled and laissez-faire approach to human relations.  The  other three women who share the house nurse, each in their own way, illusions about themselves: an acting career; true love as the antidote to divorce; reuniting with a child turned over to foster care at birth. 

Episodes usually concentrate on a couple of the lead characters and their dating or professional travails.  White's character shuffles between lovers portrayed by Carl Reiner, Tim Conway, and Buck Henry.  One expects the departed Don Knotts to appear at any moment.  In a couple of the show's most amusing episodes, the four characters choose blind dates for one-another, resulting in some rather droll mismatches: a holistic veterinarian who looks so much like Jesus Christ that Bertinelli's character has a near-meltdown; White's character dating a Buckeye State-scale Donald Trump played by Steve Lawrence. 

The use of guest stars, long abandoned by network TV [unless we count Sally Field portraying a schizophrenic parent on ER], is resuscitated by Hot in Cleveland with a vengeance.  TV Land, a Nickelodeon spin-off that for twenty years re-ran old black and white and color TV programs, is Hot in Cleveland's home, and this clearly super-retrospective media culture accounts for part of the show's attraction.  A marginally amusing series can overcome initial teething crises with imposition of Mary Tyler Moore or George Wendt for a few minutes.

For the entertainment industrial complex, many women actors are called, but few are chosen.  And even those are not chosen for very long.  The grim actuary of sexism and the market's own narcissistic necessities means many female actresses of obvious talent, like the four women in Hot in Cleveland, never get any openings to employ their craft after a certain age.  [In this respect I think particularly of Alison La Placa.  What would we think today of Hepburn had she been down-sized after Christopher Strong (1933)?]

So the fundamental conceit becomes itself: actresses unemployable over forty portray women from Hollywood creating a constructive and independent course for themselves after realizing they are unemployable.   Constructive and independent by the old and one-dimensional standards typical of all three-camera corporate TV comedies.

For Cleveland, the forecast is host

The Cleveland in Hot in Cleveland is not Cleveland, Ohio.  A few remarks in each episode refer to local landmarks, it is true.  But courtroom and jailhouse scenes have nothing of our Justice Center's wall-to-wall Albert Speer anti-humanism.  A local bar-restaurant seems closer to a suburban chain like Max and Erma's than a Cleveland eatery.  Cleveland's skyline appears only in the beginning, and there is never a sense of the characters walking down the city streets, realizing so many of the skyscrapers along Euclid Avenue are vacant and crumbling at the margins.

Cleveland is a Black city where the demographic dividing line is a river.  Black workers and petty bourgeoisie still live predominantly on the East Side, whites on the West.  Aside from a few fleeting guest roles, there are no Black characters in Hot in Cleveland.  In episodes where characters face the perennial sit-com perplex of a night in jail, there is no hint of the scandal that 1400 Justice Center inmates are Black, out of a total population of around 2000.  The excruciating tempo of foreclosures in the city is not mentioned, either.  Bertinelli's character  leases a house whose gargantuan interiors and claustrophobic back yard are perpetrated by a Hollywood set designer. 

A city so demonstrably divided by race and class has no place in a TV sitcom.  For TV Land, there is no there there that they feel the obligation [or have the courage] to depict.  It would be easy to throw up one's hands and excuse network and producers' roles in turning the city into a counterfeit:  that's capitalism, people would rightly say.  But then, that can be said about every outrage, great and small, that we are asked to accommodate ourselves to in the United States.  This kind of bad faith and moral double dealing helped contribute to the great urban rebellions of the 1960s in cities that included Cleveland, just as it helped fuel the great urban rebellions across the UK this summer.  Perhaps the renewal of spontaneous uprisings across Europe and North Africa in the last few years will also find an echo in US cities like Cleveland, which are fertile ground indeed.  We've had enough of the tragedy and the farce already.


Jay Rothermel lives in Cleveland.  His blog is Marxist Update.  He is on Facebook.  He will be watching the season finale of Hot in Cleveland on 31 August.

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