Saturday, October 3, 2009

Pilot Review: The Middle

The Middle (ABC)
Premiered September 30 at 8:30pm

If this show’s title reminds you of FOX’s long-running sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle,” you’re not alone. This series is almost an exact clone, and I don’t think anyone was clamoring for a revival or a remake of that show. The unique hook in this case is that the Heck family lives in the Midwest in a location known only for its reputation as a flyover state. The gimmick is fun for a quick laugh, but once that’s out of the way, this family has to take on the burden of carrying the show, and they’re not exactly up to the task.

“Malcolm in the Middle” was largely about warring siblings who just couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble. Each of the Heck children has some quirk that’s meant to define them. Oldest son Axl is the lamest of all, as his only interesting trait is that he walks around aimlessly with no shirt and no pants. Charlie McDermott walks around with the same clueless expression he wore in last year’s otherwise terrific film “Frozen River.” Daughter Sue is the most endearing, famously not good at anything but determined to go for the gold at every opportunity anyway. Eden Sher is tragically underused in this part, and anyone who doubts her comedic abilities should watch her stellar work as an overly mature pre-teen in ABC’s 2006 comedy “Sons & Daughters.” The youngest son Brick earns his name by the less-than-impressive way he uses his brain, and his constant mistakes go quickly from entertaining to annoying. Atticus Shaffer is, unarguably, a dead ringer for Erik Per Sullivan, a.k.a. Dewey on “Malcolm in the Middle.” He’s less emotive, and the casting was likely all the physical resemblance.

And then there’s Patricia Heaton. After putting up with Ray’s antics on “Everybody Loves Raymond” for nine years, she’s doing her best impression of frequent Emmy rival Jane Kaczmarek’s Lois from “Malcolm in the Middle.” She’s trying so desperately to be the star of every scene and overplay her part to the utmost slapstick effect. It’s as if she’s competing with Lois for a hard-working mother of the year award, and honestly, she’s losing. Frankie doesn’t have nearly as much to put up with as Lois did, and while the new series is considerably sedated compared to the former one, this one actually does take place in farm country, where Malcolm’s brother Francis spent most of his time. The biggest disappointment in this copycat show is that the father doesn’t have an outrageous role. Neil Flynn, who spent eight years memorably playing the conniving, revenge-driven Janitor on “Scrubs,” has nothing to do here, and it’s a real shame. The actor’s capable of so much, and to give Heaton so much to do and leave so little left for Flynn is a tremendous oversight on the part of anyone involved in this show.

How will it work as a series? They live in the middle of nowhere – we get it. Now what? The answer will probably be as outlandish and problematic as possible, with things going wrong more and more each episode for the overstretched Frankie. The less-developed characters, or more specifically the men, will need to come into sharper focus if Frankie isn’t going to exhaust herself and short this series out.
How long will it last? The pilot episode was received far more favorably by most than by me, and it fights nicely with ABC’s attempt to successfully launch an entire night of new comedies. Heaton is well-liked, and her star status should give this show a fighting chance. Her previous show, “Back to You,” where she co-starred with newfound timeslot companion Kelsey Grammer (“Hank”), lasted a whole season before being cancelled. This one should do the same, though it likely won’t leave too much of a lasting mark.

Pilot grade: C

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