This is 2010. Forty is the new thirty. Fifty—thanks to equal parts Pilates and Botox—is the new forty. So why does Hollywood still treat women of a certain age as if they have a “use by” date?

When a TV vehicle does cast older women still in their prime, they ramp up the publicity machine. In the past few years, we’ve seen this with shows ranging from “Desperate Housewives” and “Weeds,” to more serious fare such as “The Good Wife,” “The Closer,” “Saving Grace” and “Damages.” Carrie Bradshaw and her cohorts are no less in love with sex (and the city) as they reach or near menopause, and perhaps the most blatant of all is the Courtney Cox extravaganza, “Cougar Town.”

Television, it seems, has discovered a fundamental, highly exploitable fact: Older women do indeed have sex lives.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmsreerjVtk

So it’s no big surprise that “Hot in Cleveland,” the new sitcom on TV Land, has made the most of its troupe of mature (otherwise known as “fabulous”) actresses, plastering them on billboards, bus shelters, and magazine ads all over the country.

But is the proposed novelty of a grown-up cast enough to make “Hot in Cleveland” news? Like any good sitcom, “Hot in Cleveland” deals in stereotypes thrown into fairly preposterous situations. Fortunately, the actresses portraying them are a gift from the sitcom gods.

Valerie Bertinelli plays Melanie, “the nice one.” She’s an L.A. empty-nester who has survived her husband’s betrayal by writing a bestseller, 200 Things Every Woman Should Do Before She Dies. Bertinelli spent nearly ten of her first 25 years as adorable younger sister Barbara Cooper on the 1970s sitcom “One Day at a Time.” Her career has since included dozens of made-for-TV movies, a headline-making rock-and-roll marriage (and divorce), and most recently a slim new body, compliments of Jenny Craig.

Friend number one is Victoria, a vain, has-been soap opera star whose latest career wrinkle was being invited to audition for the role of Megan Fox’s grandmother in the next “Transformers” movie. Not coincidentally, Wendie Malick, the actress who portrays her, is best known as the vain, has-been model Nina Van Horn on “Just Shoot Me.” But her credits include over 100 different TV shows since 1979.

Rounding out “Hot in Cleveland’s” BFFs is Jane Leeves, who plays Joy, the “Eyebrow Queen of Beverly Hills.” Like Melanie, she’s dealing with betrayal. But while Melanie’s husband left her for a younger woman, in Joy’s case it’s Oprah, who’s now having her brows done by another beautician. You might recall Leeves from more than a decade as Daphne on one of TV’s more intelligent sitcoms, “Frasier.”

For the record, Bertinelli is 50, Malick is 60, and Leeves is 49. Among them, they must have something like a hundred years of TV experience.

And that’s before you include the resume of the show’s ace in the hole, Betty White. At 88, White has had an amazing career—and that’s without counting her recent renaissance. She hosted her own show back in 1954, then went on to seven-season runs as Sue Ann Nivens in the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Rose Nyland on “Golden Girls.” Earlier this year, she was the focus of a grass-roots social-media wave that landed her as a guest host on “SNL.”

Dream cast aside, the new sitcom’s premise is amusing from the get-go. Three friends board a flight from L.A. to Paris in an act of solidarity to help ease the pain of Melanie’s impending divorce. Within the show’s first five minutes, the plane is forced to make an emergency landing in the Buckeye State, and our California girls, understandably shaken, hit a local watering hole, only to find that they are surrounded by interested men.

“We appear to have landed in a dimension where men hit on women their own age,” says Joy. “We owe it to science to investigate.”

“The men are looking at us. In L.A., they look past us,” Melanie observes.

“Everyone’s eating, and no one’s ashamed,” Victoria adds.

The gal pals quickly learn that “over the hill” in L.A. constitutes “hot” in Cleveland. This factor, coupled with unbelievably low real estate values and an urge to reinvent themselves, is enough to uproot them for at least the next ten episodes. One-liners and mayhem ensue.

So where does Betty White come in?

Remember, this is a sitcom. So it’s no surprise that an unrelated, larger-than-life character lives nearby and has unrestricted access to the main group’s home and lives. White plays caretaker Elka Ostrovsky, a particularly ornery old dame. She drops in every few minutes to disrupt things and diss our young(er) heroines—I think she alluded to them as “prostitutes,” “whores” and “hookers” all within the pilot episode. White is wonderful, of course, but I sincerely hope they give her better material in future episodes. Old-lady-acting-inappropriately is going to get tired very quickly.

That said, “Hot in Cleveland” is fairly funny, as one would expect from creator and executive producer, “Frasier” veteran Suzanne Martin. Every line is a one-liner (and I mean that—literally every line), and clearly these actors are a bunch of pros. In keeping with its parent network, TV Land, the show feels as if it could have been produced in the 1970s or ’80s. It’s even taped in front of a live audience, so presumably, what sounds like an artificial laugh track is in reality a studio full of real and very amused people.

If you like sitcoms, you could do a lot worse.

But back to the original topic. Is it really news that there’s a sitcom about middle-aged women? Lucille Ball was already in her 40s when she made “I Love Lucy,” and older when she starred in “Here’s Lucy” and “The Lucy Show.” Bea Arthur started playing Maude at 50 and Candice Bergen turned 50 playing Murphy Brown. Even classic career girl Mary Richards was over 40 when she finally said good-bye to WJM. And I don’t even have to mention the show that “Hot in Cleveland” is compared to most often, “The Golden Girls.”

So the casting for “Hot in Cleveland” isn’t news after all. But perhaps the show is breaking ground with its content? Not really. Sitcoms succeed in part because they feel so familiar. Given Hollywood’s newfound fascination with the idea of older women as sexual beings, the show’s creators seem to think that the funniest lines they can give us are about men. When the women aren’t talking about men, they’re talking about their skin, their weight, their wardrobe … oh, let’s face it, they’re really talking only about men. After all, the premise of the show is that three otherwise intelligent and arguably successful women move almost 2,000 miles because some men like them.

We’ve come a long way, baby. Not.

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  • Moonbeam July 21, 2010 at 8:51 am

    I really looked forward to this show beginning and I do enjoy it. However, I do hope the characters continue to develop because as they are now, despite being so well acted, they are coming across as shallow, one-dimensional, and too desperate. That’s okay to establish the premise, but it needs to build from there.

    It is fun to watch all of them and they are inspirational in remaining so successful at their ages, but for the show’s longevity the audience has to bond with them on some level and actually care about them. So far that’s been hard to do. Betty White’s character is my favorite, but as the reviewer above noted, the writers need to use her more fully and not just as an old lady behaving inappropriately.

    The way I feel now, they are amusing to watch but quite one-dimensional and not people I would really want as friends — too needy.

    Reply
  • Kathleen Rawlings July 7, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    But it is an amusing show and deserves to be put on your DVR list. Just hope they let Betty White shine through her character.

    Reply