There is something in the evolution of many cable networks that echoes the beginnings of life on Earth, as from primordial ingredients something new begins to stir. The network begins with reruns or other acquired goods, clambers ashore with low-budget, low-commitment reality series, and finally, with original scripted material, stands erect and walks.
TV Land, which began by presenting "classic" television series packaged with a kind of ironic curatorial air, has passed through the reality stage, and Wednesday night it airs its first original scripted series, a situation comedy, "Hot in Cleveland," whose title seems itself designed to echo shows that have gone before — "WKRP in Cincinnati," "Hot L Baltimore" (a play first but also a series). Created and written by Suzanne Martin, who wrote for "Frasier" and "Ellen," and with Sean Hayes (from "Will and Grace," and since Sunday night an experienced host of the Tony Awards) one of the producers, it is much as you might predict, given the venue: shot with multiple cameras before a live studio audience, with laughs sweetened to taste; starring actors already famous from other, older sitcoms; and made to appeal to people no longer as young as they were, an audience raised on the very series that make up the rest of TV Land's programming day.
So here are Valerie Bertinelli, 50, eerily still the image of little Barbara Cooper from "One Day at a Time" (CBS, 1975-84); Jane Leeves, 49, Daphne from "Frasier" (NBC, 1993-2004); Wendie Malick, 59, best known for "Just Shoot Me!" (NBC, 1997-2003); and oldster-of-the-moment Betty White, 88, whose sitcom career began in 1953, only two years after the birth of "I Love Lucy," but who hit the heights with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (CBS, 1970-77) and "The Golden Girls" (NBC, 1985-92), of which this is a kind of (mostly) younger variant.
The younger stars are semi-fabulous best friends flying from Los Angeles to Paris on an impulsive getaway when an emergency grounds them in Cleveland, where divorcing writer Bertinelli meets plumber John Schneider, 50 ("The Dukes of Hazzard," CBS, 1979-85) in a bar and decides, also impulsively, to stay. White, in a pink tracksuit, is the caretaker who comes with the house Bertinelli rents at some undisclosed low rate impossible to imagine in L.A., a house big enough, of course, to fit them all.
From the get-go, the jokes are almost all on the subject of age and aging body parts and, once the women arrive in the Midwest, about how great it is to be in a place where those things don't matter, or matter as much. "To think we spent all that time and effort and money trying to look 10 years younger and 10 pounds lighter," says Malick, a recently unemployed soap star now being offered grandma roles, "and all we had to do was crash-land in Cleveland."
That Bertinelli, Malick and Leeves (as a high-end eyebrow specialist) are by any normal measure extraordinarily attractive and fit — Leeves would very much like you to see her impressively sculpted legs — does make it seem a case of protesting too much. But this is also part of the point: They are escaping Hollywood, where normal measures do not apply, for a land where people eat without shame and grow old gracefully. (Or, in White's case, disgracefully. Leeves: "Does anyone else smell pot?" White: "What are you, a cop?") That this series is on TV Land and not on one of those big networks where they used to work is proof of that pudding.
There is nothing particularly new under this sun, but that also is part of the point. "Hot in Cleveland" is determinedly traditional, old-fashioned even in that it finds room for stars over 50. They seem delighted to be there, can sell even the least and most obvious of Martin's lines and are called on to embarrass themselves not much more than is usual in these things. Like the women in it, the show is solid and professional and holds together well.