The first two weeks of the Fall season are finally coming to a close, and most of the premieres have rolled out. We’ve still got a few reviews of pilots coming, before we turn to reviewing some of the returning shows, but I’ll be glad to rid my DVR of some of the more unwatchable premieres and settle into a nice weekly television schedule.
Last night, the other half of ABC’s Wednesday night comedy block debuted (supplementing last week’s debuts of the more superior shows, “Modern Family” and to a much lesser extent, “Cougar Town”). The first, “Hank,” is an easy one to delete from the DVR — in fact, I nearly did so before the pilot had finished. It’s woefully, painfully unwatchable. The premise itself suits its star, Kelsey Grammar, but that is the only nice thing I can muster to say about “Hank.” It’s about a wealthy blowhard CEO in Manhattan who gets downsized and is forced to give up his nannies and maids and move to a much smaller, humbler house in Virginia, where he has to actually spend time with his family.
“Hank” is another traditional, laugh-track sitcom, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why the networks continue to try. There are a couple of successful ones on CBS (“Two and a Half Men,” and “Big Bang Theory”) but other than those two, I can’t think of a conventional sitcom that’s survived more than two years since “Friends” and “Fraiser” went off the air. Even worse, it relies on setups and bad jokes, instead of situational humor — as though real people go around cracking wise and making bad puns at every opportunity. Misunderstandings, slips-of-the-tongue, and telegraphed punch-lines dominate the show, which is terribly overacted, hammy, and completely wastes the talents of Grammer, who is a much better actor than his last two shows have indicated.
Although, the show did get me thinking about what might be an appropriate role for Grammer, and I figured it out: He and — for a little meta-ironical fun — Dan Aykroyd should pair up as Winthrop and Mortimer in a remake of Trading Places. They’re kind of perfect for it.
Patricia Heaton’s new show, “The Middle,” unfortunately, isn’t as easy to dismiss. I really wanted to dislike it more than I did, because (for political reasons) I want Heaton to die in a grease fire. “The Middle” is sort of a cross between “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Roseanne,” and while it succeeds, occasionally, as a more modern “Roseanne,” the “Malcolm” aspects of the show don’t work as well.
Heaton plays Frankie, the matriarch of a lower-middle class family in Flyover Country (Indiana). She’s struggling to make enough money as a used-car salesman to pay for the gas to get to and from her job, while also dealing with motherhood. She has three modestly dysfunctional children: Axl, her 15-year-old sarcastic son, who walks around the house in his boxers and grunts occasionally; Sue, her awkward teenager daughter, who has yet to find any sort of talent in school; and Brick, her youngest, who lacks basic social skills and talks to his backpack. (The reason for the names “Brick” and “Axl” is that the parents had hoped, by giving them a “cool” name, that they’d turn out to be “cool” children. The plan clearly backfired). Then there’s Mike, her husband (Neil Flynn), who offers enough reason to watch a few more episodes to see where “The Middle” is going — he’s a wryly funny as he was as the Janitor of “Scrubs,” though he’s given a little more substance, more warmth, and even a name.
Where “The Middle” succeeds, occasionally, is where it attempts to satirize Middle American values while also embracing them. It’s a difficult line to toe, and with Heaton doing her best Jane Kaczmarek, it’s often hard to tell how much the show is making fun of Flyover country and how much it’s celebrating it. That’s actually to the show’s credit, as it manages to appeal to Middle Americans, cultural elitist, and even those like myself, former Middle Americans who have relocated but are still able to warmly identify with fast-food family dinners surrounding the television set.
“The Middle,” appropriately enough, is not nearly as good as “Modern Family,” nor is it nearly as bad as the other show that bookends it, “Hank.” It’s somewhere in the middle. And there’s just enough promise to keep a season pass on my DVR a few more weeks to see where it’s going.