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Television reviews

Heaton, Grammer go for laughs, separately

Above: Kelsey Grammer and Melinda McGraw star as husband and wife in “Hank.’’ Below: Patricia Heaton takes center stage with Neil Flynn and Eden Sher in “The Middle.’’ Above: Kelsey Grammer and Melinda McGraw star as husband and wife in “Hank.’’ Below: Patricia Heaton takes center stage with Neil Flynn and Eden Sher in “The Middle.’’ (Photos By Richard Foreman/Abc)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 30, 2009

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Recycling is good and all, but, alas, not when it comes to comedy. Recycled comedy only junks up the TV environment, needlessly increasing our DVR footprint.

Two seasons ago, sitcom stalwarts Kelsey Grammer of “Frasier’’ and Patricia Heaton of “Everybody Loves Raymond’’ doubled up for a comeback on Fox’s short-lived “Back to You.’’ The series, with Grammer and Heaton simply replaying their classic TV characters with different names, was so full of stale gas that Greenpeace almost went after it for fouling the atmosphere.

Now, Grammer and Heaton are together once again on ABC’s Wednesday comedy block, but, thankfully, they are starring in separate vehicles. Their toxic chemistry - sitcom bickering at its most grating - no longer threatens. Heaton’s show, “The Middle,’’ has some genuine promise, as a kind of “Malcolm in the Middle’’ family farce. But first, at 8 p.m. on Channel 5, comes Grammer’s “Hank,’’ a junky sitcom that isn’t old school so much as mold school.

Look, I loved Frasier Crane. He was a great character: pompous, ridiculous, fussy, and ultimately - aww - a good guy. For such a snoot-head, he was surprisingly beloved by audiences. But by the end of the 11-season life of “Frasier,’’ during which syndicated reruns had been wallpapered all over local channels, I was ready to say goodbye to him for good. But apparently Grammer was not, and once again he has brought back the character, this time named Hank Pryor, for more huffing and puffing.

“Hank’’ is meant to have a timely spin, since Hank is a high-powered CEO who’s fired from his Manhattan job and moves with his family to small-town Virginia. He’s a victim of the recession, and his solution is to find a low-pressure job and really get to know his wife and two kids. But the jokes, the laugh track, and the performances seem more like throwback to 1980s sitcoms, with David Koechner playing the eccentric local brother-in-law who pops in for a few yuks like a ghost from “Newhart.’’ Can Hank the controlling corporate boss become a regular guy and play ball with his son?

Sadly, Hank’s wife is played by Melinda McGraw, who was so dynamic in season 2 of “Mad Men’’ as Bobbie Barrett. On “Hank,’’ she’s reduced to being little more than the exasperated spouse. She gets sucked into the maw of the multi-camera mediocrity.

“The Middle,’’ which premieres tonight at 8:30 on Channel 5, is more ambitious than “Hank.’’ It’s about a middle-class family in Indiana - and nothing more specific than that. Like “Modern Family,’’ which airs after it, “The Middle’’ has no real subject other than the comic mundanities of domestic life. Heaton plays the frazzled mother of three and a struggling car saleswoman who’s always running behind on both fronts. Neil Flynn (Janitor from “Scrubs’’) is her very tall husband, whose mellow approach to life only makes her more crazed.

Heaton doesn’t merely reprise the eye-rolling and suppressed rage of Debra Barone from “Everybody Loves Raymond.’’ Her Frankie is more madcap, less angry, and clearly in love with her family. But Heaton would benefit by taking her acting down a notch or two. In the pilot, she’s using the big gestures and loud delivery usually reserved for shows performed before live audiences.

The highlights of “The Middle’’ are the two younger children, Sue (Eden Sher) and Brick (Atticus Shaffer). Sue has been in an awkward stage just about all of her life, and she never seems to make any of the teams she tries out for - but she never gives up. Her story line, involving a school musical, has a touch of the movie “Little Miss Sunshine.’’ And Brick is a unique little creature who talks to himself and shares a bond with his backpack. He steals the show.

It’s hard to know where “The Middle’’ will go after tonight’s decent pilot. And that’s part of the sitcom’s promise, that it has the potential to blossom into a sweet if small celebration of a family of oddballs living distinctly unhip lives. It’s much too easy, though, to know exactly where “Hank’’ will go: nowhere, fast.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

HANK Starring: Kelsey Grammer, Melinda McGraw, David Koechner

On: ABC, Ch. 5

Time: Tonight, 8-8:30

THE MIDDLE Starring: Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn, Charlie McDermott, Chris Kattan, Brian Doyle-Murray, Atticus Shaffer

On: ABC, Ch. 5

Time: Tonight, 8:30-9

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