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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Hank' and 'The Middle'

Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, seen together on 'Back to You,' are now in separate sitcoms.

September 30, 2009|ROBERT LLOYD | TELEVISION CRITIC

Patricia Heaton and Kelsey Grammer, who last ventured into situation comedy opposite each other in Fox's 2007 battling-anchors sitcom, "Back to You," return to prime time tonight heading their own individual series. Hers is called "The Middle"; his is "Hank."

Both are family comedies on ABC -- a network that with "Modern Family" and (in a way) "Cougar Town" has put a lot of chips on that genre this fall. Both are set in small towns, and each is a comedy of straitened circumstances, which might have something to do with current economic realities, though given the usual relation of invented TV to the actual world might also be just a coincidence. Neither show is destined for the sitcom hall of fame, but each represents, if not quite the triumph of old-school professionalism, at the very least its durability.

In "Hank," created by "Everybody Loves Raymond" vet Tucker Cawley, Grammer plays the fired CEO of a sporting goods chain who, suddenly broke, moves his family back to River Bend, Va., where he opened his first store and met his wife, Tilly (Melinda McGraw, from last season's "Mad Men"), although neither seems to recognize it as a place they have lived in or might have conceivably visited since.

"It's going to take a lot more than a hostile takeover and losing all our savings to get me down," says Hank, the only such executive in modern history not to fail upward or ride a golden parachute to a soft landing. This is a premise marginally less believable than the one in which Mr. Douglas drags his bejeweled Hungarian wife from Park Avenue to Hooterville -- and not so different.

Notwithstanding the regular-guy name, Hank is only a slight variation on the puffed-up, self-centered yet basically good-hearted character Grammer has played almost exclusively as long as we've known him; he can play a lot of positions within that ballpark -- happy, sad, exasperated, nervous -- but it is hard to imagine him far out of it. (He is a victim of his own round tones, and 20 years of playing Frasier Crane.) Although Hank claims to look at his reversal of fortune as an opportunity to begin again as a father, he'll need to learn those skills. (That is why we are here.) "Can't we all pull together as a family and do as I say?" he cries in frustration.

Hank's kids include the familiar difficult daughter (Jordan Hinson), who asks of their new life, "Why does God hate us?," and the familiar slightly strange son (Nathan Gamble), who embraces the change: "Virginia is awesome! I can't wait to go to the bathroom here." Tilly has a brother (David Koechner), a contractor who will be working on Hank's old new house as long as the show lasts. There's nothing here you couldn't imagine from the premise, but there's also nothing wrong with what's here: McGraw is a good foil for Grammer, and Grammer is good at what he does.

In "The Middle" -- as in middle-aged, middle class and Middle West -- Patricia Heaton's family is also feeling the pinch: "I told you you can't put wet things in the dryer anymore," announces Heaton's Frankie Heck, a modern kitchen koan that instantly encapsulates their dollar-short, dryer-short life. (It might be my favorite line of the fall season.)

Set in the fictional burg of Orson, Ind., "proud home of Little Betty snack cakes, demolition derby for the homeless and the world's largest polyurethane cow," the series -- a one-camera comedy operating a half-step from reality -- owes some things stylistically to "Malcolm in the Middle" (which is to say it is eccentric in a familiar way).

This includes the conception of the younger Hecks: an older son (Charlie McDermott) who embodies the lassitude of the 15-year-old; a daughter (the excellent Eden Sher) whose enthusiasm is matched only by her ineptitude; and a "clinically quirky" small child (Atticus Shaffer, unique), who repeats certain words to himself in a spooky whisper and carries notes from his teacher tucked in his mouth. As Frankie's husband, Neil Flynn makes tactlessness nearly charming.

The pilot, written by executive producers DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler (whose credits include "Murphy Brown" and "How I Met Your Mother"), begins and ends with Frankie in a Superwoman costume trying to get a cellphone signal on a long, straight, empty country road. In between there is takeout food, frozen food (barely unfrozen) and Frankie's scrambling to manage her family while hanging on to the "latest job I'm too smart for . . . selling cars at Orson's last surviving car dealership." As Frankie's co-worker, Chris Kattan is not on screen enough to really register, but a glance suggests that a supporting role suits him.

Like "Hank," "The Middle" is no Next New Thing; indeed, both argue for the opposite, the pleasures of the known, of craft and of watching people who know what they're doing do it.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Hank' and 'The Middle'

Where: ABC

When: "Hank" at 8 p.m., "The Middle" at 8:30 p.m. today

Ratings: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)

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