Seth MacFarlane has won a loyal following among young guys by mixing satire of family sitcoms with wild, rapid-fire non sequiturs -- the latter made possible by the wonders of animation. Spun off from "Family Guy," "The Cleveland Show" is completely of a piece with his earlier efforts -- employing a volume-over-quality strategy that assumes if you're not laughing now, rest easy, another gag will be along momentarily. It's an acquired taste, but in fundamental commercial terms, it ought to fit right in with Fox's animation block.
"Cleveland" does broaden the MacFarlane franchise in two ways: First, it's set in the South (Stoolbend, Va., to be precise), picking up redneck jokes where "King of the Hill" left off; and its hero Cleveland Brown is an African-American, though he's voiced by a white guy (Mike Henry, who co-created the show with McFarlane and Rich Appel), which might seem more outlandish if this cartoon weren't so, er, cartoonish.
In the premiere, Cleveland takes off with his son Cleveland Jr. for California. On the way, they take a detour into Virginia, where he promptly reconnects with an old high-school flame (Sanaa Lathan), who has two surly kids.
Voila, Cleveland has his own instant blended family, which includes stepson Rallo (also Henry), whose afro is bigger than the rest of him; and teenage Roberta (Reagan Gomez-Preston), who in the second episode Cleveland has to accompany to a father-daughter dance.
The rudimentary plots, however, are secondary to the madcap flourishes, which are hit and miss. OK, it's kind of funny in the second half-hour to hear Cleveland Jr. describe his first day at school as "terrible -- worse than an ABC comedy," or a nasty potshot at Jennifer Aniston's love life. But then there's a ridiculous spoof of Halle Berry's Oscar acceptance speech with no discernible rhyme or reason to it. Oh yeah, and one neighbor is a talking bear with a Russian (I think) accent, presumably because the dog talks in "Family Guy" so, well, why not?
For those who buy into the MacFarlane formula -- a running commentary on all things pop culture, complete with naughty jokes that play off double entendres like "Cleveland Jr." -- this is all riotous fun. For the rest of us, it's a bit like Dane Cook's stand-up act -- a reminder that what tickles current teens and twentysomethings is often markedly different from the satirical material that amused their parents.
Much like "Family Guy," "The Cleveland Show's" best attribute is actually its cheeky, catchy, wryly nostalgic opening theme. As for the three-episode preview that followed, watching those felt a little bit like running into a talking bear.