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New season: Fox's The Cleveland Show is black and white -- and blue

Stepdaughter Roberta, Cleveland Jr. and family guy Cleveland.

Premiering: Sunday, Sept. 27th at 7:30 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring the voices of: Mike Henry, Kevin Michael Richardson, Sanaa Lathan, Reagan Gomez, Seth MacFarlane
Produced by: Seth MacFarlane, Richard Appel, Mike Henry

With King of the Hill newly evicted, only The Simpsons now stands in the way of total Sunday night animation domination by the reliably scatological Seth MacFarlane.

His latest sensibility-bruiser, The Cleveland Show, is a spinoff of MacFarlane's Family Guy. He also has American Dad in play, giving Fox a trio of cartoons that Fred and Wilma would never let Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm watch. Millions of teen and twentysomething males can't get enough, though. And that's the toughest TV audience to attract.

Cleveland Show, premiering at 7:30 p.m. (central) after the 21st season launch of The Simpsons, has already drawn some fire as a cartoon form of blackface. That's because the series' creators are white, and its black central character, the pudgy and often pathetic Cleveland Brown, is voiced by middle-aged pale face Mike Henry.

Attention is called to this color bind when Cleveland's soon-to-be stepdaughter, Roberta (Reagan Gomez), tells him, "You get on my nerves, like when white people make a show they think black people will watch."

Cleveland's hopelessly inept son, 14-year-old Cleveland Jr., is voiced by a black actor, Kevin Michael Richardson. A white hillbilly neighbor named Lester also is portrayed by Richardson, so maybe all of this tends to even out.

Cleveland Show otherwise is pretty much interchangeable with MacFarlane's Family Guy and American Dad. The humor is rife with shock value, whether it's Lester and his wife dining on a dead dog named Meadowlark Lemon in Episode 2 or Family Guy patriarch Peter Griffin opening Sunday's premiere episode by chortling, "And that is how I got Liza Minnelli's poop on my shoe."

Griffin and his Quahog pals are saying goodbye to the newly divorced Cleveland, who's intent on relocating to California with his son in hopes of becoming a minor league baseball scout working for his friend, Joe Torre.

The two Clevelands first stop off in dad's hometown of Stoolbend, Virginia, where his old high school flame, Donna Tubbs (Sanaa Lathan), still resides. She's divorced, too, and the mother of both snippy Roberta and pint-sized Rallo (Henry), a lippy terror in league with Family Guy's diabolical Stewie Griffin.

Cleveland Sr. of course is re-smitten with Donna. And by the end of Sunday's premiere episode, they're married and harried.

MacFarlane and his fellow writers as always are willing to throw just about anything off the wall, including Cleveland's observation that "gays are smart. Just look at how many lines Gene Hackman's been able to memorize over the years."

Next Sunday's Episode 2 finds the bulky Cleveland Jr. eventually setting up shop as an attendant in the high school restroom. This greatly vexes his Dad, who yells, "You're not workin' in a crapper. You look like a racist cliche in a Ron Howard movie!"

There's also an exceedingly crude reference to a certain actress smelling like a chicken gizzard factory. She won't be named here, because she doesn't deserve that.

The problem with all of this is that Cleveland Show can be funny as hell, too. It's both effortlessly offensive and sometimes hilariously insane. Who but MacFarlane would populate his latest enterprise with a Russian-accented, overtly religious bear named Tim? MacFarlane supplies the voice, with Arianna Huffington occasionally guesting as Tim's wife, Arianna.

Cleveland Show arguably is every so slightly gentler than either Family Guy or American Dad. But it's mostly more of the same, which will please MacFarlane's fan base immensely. Remember when The Simpsons actually was considered subversive by some? Man, that was a long time ago.



Filmmaker Ken Burns' latest opus, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, begins a six-night, 12-hour run Sunday on PBS (7 p.m. on KERA/Ch. 13 locally).

On the face of it, this lacks the pulling power of Burns' previous marathon runs, including The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball and most recently, The War. But in a recent session with TV critics, he told unclebarky.com, "You know, it's the tortoise. The sleek hares can come in and do their stuff. But something like The National Parks, I hope, will surprise.

"It's got every bit the amount of emotion as anything we've done. It isn't just beauty shot after beauty shot, but complicated narrative stories about very interesting and diverse people. I think it fits in utterly with everything else we've done."

Sunday's opener highlights Yosemite National Park and John Muir's early explorations. Celebrity voices deployed throughout the 12 hours include Tom Hanks, Sam Waterston, George Takei, Adam Arkin and John Lithgow.

Lithgow also can be seen in the flesh on Showtime's Dexter, which returns for a fourth season Sunday at 8 p.m. (central). He's playing the not-so-mild mannered Walter Simmons, dubbed "The Trinity Killer."

Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), now a new father, as usual will be battling his demons while also on the scent of Simmons.