Hank and The Middle are linked by their network (they're back-to-back in ABC's Wednesday-night two-hour comedy block) and by their stars. Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton starred on 2007's Back to You, a frequently very funny sitcom in which the pair played abrasive TV news anchors with a romantic past. That show was canceled by Fox in a moment of network stupidity it was a good series that was just getting better every week. Now both actors have thrown themselves back into the sitcom race (Grammer after recuperating from a mild heart attack that it wouldn't surprise me to learn might have been brought on by the stress of fighting to save Back to You).
But what different directions Grammer and Heaton took. On Hank, Grammer plays a downsized executive who must move his wife and two children to a smaller house. Living on a tighter budget, disappointing your mate as a breadwinner, and listening to your teen daughter call you a loser gee, what a recipe for laughs! Hank is a downer, both within its premise and as a squandering of Grammer's talent. Lacking vividly drawn characters to react against, he must use his trademark crack timing and deadpan silences to carry the show, which just makes you feel bad for the star. Not exactly the right conditions for humor.
Heaton, by contrast, has surrounded herself with a vibrant family on The Middle. This sitcom also plays off the current economic pinch: Heaton is both a harried mom of three and a so-far-hapless used-car salesperson who's constantly pushed to exhaustion. But the tone here is more varied and brisk than on Hank. Heaton's husband, Mike, is Scrubs' Neil Flynn, who takes a nice, easygoing approach that makes for a crisp contrast to Heaton's sometimes-frantic Frankie.
The breakout kid on The Middle is 7-year-old Brick, played by Atticus Shaffer with an eerie calmness and subtle timing in his delivery. (''Clinically quirky'' is how his teacher aptly described him in the pilot.) Between Flynn, Shaffer, and Chris Kattan as a sales colleague, Heaton has the kind of ensemble support that Grammer could use to ease his weary load.
The title The Middle refers to the middle of the country Indiana, where Heaton and her clan reside. The idea, I suppose, is to cozy up to viewers who don't live in the big, bad East and West Coast media centers of New York and L.A., but The Middle has nothing to worry about: People from coast to coast are going to be laughing at this swift sitcom. Hank: C The Middle: B