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TV Tonight: Hank and The Middle

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Patricia Heaton's The Middle outdoes Kelsey Grammer's Hank. / ABC

Patricia Heaton's The Middle outdoes Kelsey Grammer's Hank. / ABC

Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton both starred in long-lasting hit comedies in the 1990s (Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond). On Fox’s short-lived Back to You, they teamed up as news anchors, forming a kind of sitcom-star supergroup. Now they’re debuting back-to-back sitcoms on ABC, a symmetry that demands comparison. When two sitcoms stars once united are now divided—only one can be the winner!

Who is it? Sorry, Kelsey.

Grammer’s Hank, in which he plays a fired CEO forced to downsize his life and move back to the suburbs to lead a middle-class existence, is bad in so many ways it’s hardly worth going into detail on them all: implausibility (Hank is the only unsuccessful CEO in America not to move on with a healthy golden parachute), cliched sassy-kid characters, a predictable setup-joke-setup-joke rhythm and a protagonist who is neither sympathetic (though he’s meant to be) nor flawed in any interesting way.

But a big problem is simply this: Kelsey Grammer is again playing a Kelsey Grammer character—a pompous stuffed shirt whom life is destined to un-stuff. And every time he takes another stab at it, the returns diminish. Back to You was a funnier sitcom than Hank, but its premise was still largely, “What if Frasier Crane was a news anchor who had to take a less-prestigious job?” And Hank’s is, to too great an extent, “What if Frasier Crane was a disgraced CEO?” Frasier was a funny, likeable character who would sometimes get taken down a peg, and we’d all laugh; when the premise has already taken him down several pegs, he—or, in this case, Hank—ends up constantly crabby and a little depressing.

Besides which: Frasier was a character in TV for 20 years. Enough. Grammer seems to be a talented enough actor that he could take a role that went against type—and a successful enough producer that he could develop a role like that for himself. It’s time to give Frasier a rest.

Heaton, on the other hand, again plays a sitcom mom on ABC’s The Middle, but one sufficiently different from Raymond’s Debra that you can quickly embrace her in the new role. The Middle employs another canny strategy to avoid distractingly reminding you of Raymond: it instead distracting reminds you of Malcolm in the Middle (right down to the title), which, however, at least has the advantage of being a classic sitcom that Heaton did not appear in.

The Middle is not yet good enough (I’ve only seen the pilot) to put on my must-watch list for this season. But it’s good enough that it could yet make it on that list, and—always a positive sign—it’s far, far better than its premise led me to expect. Heaton stars as Frankie Heck, a car saleswoman and overburdened mother of three living in Orson, Indiana. Geographically, Indiana is the “middle” of the title, though it also has overtones of hitting middle age in the middle class. Like Malcolm in the Middle—which was also about a family barely getting by financially—there are lots of scenes of chaos and the sense of a household held together by scotch tape and nervous energy. (When the family’s teen daughter complains about a laundry disaster, Frankie scolds, “I told you—you can’t put wet things in the dryer anymore!,” a line that could have come straight out of Lois’ mouth.)

Also as on Malcolm, each kid has a distinguishing quirk (the sullen-jock teenage son, the awkward 13-year-old daughter and an obsessive-compulsive youngest son) and an affably clueless hubby (Neil Flynn, the former janitor from Scrubs). None of this is going to seem new under the sun, in Indiana or anywhere else, but in the pilot it comes together with zest and a likeable craziness. Emphasis on the likeable—unlike the characters in the sour Hank, for all Heck family’s stress and eccentricity, you can easily and clearly see how they function as a family.

The Middle has its drawbacks. The parallels to Malcolm really are overwhelming (the younger son is like the second coming of Erik Per Sullivan), and are only dispelled by the parallels to Roseanne. Flynn’s character, Mike, sometimes crosses the line from being lunkheaded to seeming like a clueless jerk. And the pilot works way too hard to hammer its theme home (if you’re making a show about how hard it is to balance work and raising kids, you shouldn’t need to have the protagonist say, flat-out, how hard it is to balance work and raising kids).

But I laughed a lot more at The Middle than I expected to going in, whereas I expected little from Hank and got even less. Patricia Heaton, you have won this round.