On TV: The Middle

Nearly every television journalist reviewing The Middle, starring Patricia Heaton, has compared the sitcom with its ABC lead-in tonight, Hank, starring Kelsey Grammer. It is no secret that the two headliners co-starred in a short-lived series awhile back called Back To You and the reviews are quick to make puns about how The Middle tops Hank and Kelsey Grammer will be returning Back To the unemployment line when his latest sub-Frasier sitcom foray is canceled mid-season (more on that later). But at Movieline, you get the truth, and the reality is that while Heaton's sitcom easily trumps her lead-in, The Middle is comfort food. It's a Stouffer's frozen entree in gently upgraded packaging, so as not to scare away the middle American family who relies on it for sustenance after a long day of work.

The Middle cribs its title from the multi-camera sitcom's setting in Orson, Indiana or as Heaton's character, Frankie Heckman, calls it, "The Middle of Nowhere." Patricia Heaton finds herself cast again as the wry, perennially frazzled mother of three, only instead of having to deal with her in-laws dropping in unannounced, the only interlopers are her strange kids. Extensive use of children actors usually spells out disaster for a sitcom but the near-humor in The Middle stems from Frankie's own curiosity as to where these children came from and what happened to the last 15 years of her life.

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Axl (Charlie McDermott), the oldest child, wanders the house in boxer shorts, grunting out incomprehensible answers to his mother's questions. Frankie describes her middle child Sue (Eden Sher) as "going through kind of an awkward stage...for the last thirteen years." And the youngest, Brick, (Atticus Shaffer) is a loner who talks to himself and calls his backpack his best friend. The Middle's family dynamic feels like a cross between Malcolm In The Middle and a Sprint commercial with occasional hints at originality thanks to Neil Flynn, as Frankie's low-key, detached husband and Chris Kattan, as Frankie's co-worker and only friend.

While The Middle does indeed best Hank, the more interesting pairing audiences might recognize in tonight's ABC line-up is The Middle and Cougar Town. Patricia Heaton's sweater-clad character subsists on her sarcastic acknowledgment of her average plot in life with lines like: "And my latest job I'm too smart for is selling cars at Orson's last surviving car dealership" and "I made dinner!" while throwing greasy fast food bags onto the kitchen table. An hour later, in Cougar Town, Courteney Cox's sexy Maternal Monica says things like "I started thinking with my coochie cooch!" while working on bedding men slightly older than her son. To which suburban mom will America relate? My guess is they will err on the side of John Mellencamp, and choose Middle's America.



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