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The sitcom moves back to the heartland

After years of urban-set shows in high times, TV comedy moves back to 'The Middle' and in with the family.

September 30, 2009|Meg James

For the TV networks, the meat and potatoes of prime time are back on the menu.

After abandoning America's heartland and failing in recent years to create a successful sitcom, ABC on Wednesday will try to revive its legacy of strong family comedies with "The Middle."

Set in the fictional town of Orson, Ind., "The Middle" stars Patricia Heaton as a harried mom trying her best to hold down a job selling cars while taking care of her husband and their three mostly ordinary kids -- even if that means serving them still-frozen waffles.

NBC has a show set in Indiana too. "Parks and Recreation," starring "Saturday Night Live" alum Amy Poehler, is about a warmhearted mid-level bureaucrat in the parks department of Pawnee. "To us, Indiana represented America with a capital A," said executive producer Michael Schur.

In recent years, fashionistas and other urban sophisticates have been the stars of prime-time TV. Inspired by the success of "Friends," which revolved around a circle of hip thirtysomethings and their affluent lives, the networks let loose a bull market in shows celebrating money, sex and power. Two seasons ago, just as the stock market was coming off its peak, shows such as "Cashmere Mafia," "Lipstick Jungle," "Big Shots" and "Dirty Sexy Money" were as prevalent as subprime mortgage brokers in Florida.

"We lived in a rich culture, and there was something in the zeitgeist about rich people and attaining wealth," said Samie Falvey, senior vice president of comedy at ABC, who oversaw development of "The Middle." Ordinary people, she said, didn't seem all that interesting.

But as the nation sank into a recession and the unemployment rate climbed, such glamorous shows came across as phony and out of sync with the somber reality. Tougher times have inspired the networks to take another look at Midwestern sensibilities, and ABC's return to family comedies reflects the industry's shift.

"With all that is going on in the world, ordinary is beginning to feel pretty good," Falvey said.

ABC now believes that characters don't necessarily have to be rich or successful to portray the kind of lives most viewers wish they had. It hopes to build a Wednesday night comedy block with "Hank," a sitcom starring Kelsey Grammer as a downsized corporate titan; "The Middle"; "Modern Family," which explores the relationships of a diverse family; and "Cougar Town," about a 40-year-old divorcee, with Courteney Cox from "Friends."

"We believe that some 'wish fulfillment' can be found in the ordinary," Falvey said. "We wanted to be talking to the country rather than at the country."

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Former TV staple

Midwestern ethos, once exemplified in such prime-time favorites as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (Minneapolis), "The Bob Newhart Show" (Chicago), "Family Ties" (Columbus, Ohio), "Roseanne" (fictional Lanford, Ill.) and "Home Improvement" (Detroit), gradually gave way to an urban bathos in which the "family" was a cohort of friends. "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "Sex and the City" featured New Yorkers who flaunted their freedom and celebrated their individuality.

Although network executives in recent years have abandoned the Grain Belt as fertile ground for programming ideas, "there is this whole world between New York and L.A. that would like to see some shows about themselves," said Heaton, during a recent break in shooting on the Burbank set of "The Middle."

The Emmy-winning actress, who grew up on the west side of Cleveland and is best known as the exasperated wife on "Everybody Loves Raymond," believes that neglecting the middle of the country borders on arrogance.

"These are the people who watch TV," she said. "Where are the shows for them?"

The last hit comedy about an Indiana family went on the air when Gerald R. Ford, a former Michigan congressman, was president. "One Day at a Time" forged new ground in 1975 because the CBS show featured a recently divorced mother raising teenage daughters in an Indianapolis apartment. NBC scored during the Reagan administration with "The Cosby Show," although that one was set in New York, and "Family Ties," which starred Michael J. Fox as the politically conservative son of liberal parents.

Then in 1988, ABC premiered a decidedly different comedy. "Roseanne," starring comedian Roseanne Barr, quickly became one of TV's most popular shows. Not since Archie Bunker and "All in the Family" had Hollywood produced such an influential -- and beloved -- blue-collar family. This time, it was the mother, sassy Roseanne Conner, who was at the center of the family. The Conners were hardly Hollywood-handsome, and they grappled with such real-people worries as strapped finances and rocky relationships.

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