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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2009-2010 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on either a cut screened to us privately or a copy supplied by a third party NOT a screener provided by the network in question. All were received or screened prior to the networks' official mailings that went out in mid-June.]
THE MIDDLE (ABC)
(Wednesdays at 8:30/7:30c starting this fall; TRT: 23:41)
The network's description: "The Hecks are a middle class family living in the middle of Indiana, just trying to keep their heads above water. Emmy-winner Patricia Heaton stars as a wife and mother of three in a comedy about raising a family and lowering your expectations."
What did they leave out? This is actually the second try at DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler's script. Ricki Lake toplined the original incarnation back in 2007 with Lex Medlin as the dad and Brenna O'Brien, Michael Mitchell and current cast member Atticus Shaffer as the kids.
The plot in a nutshell: Orson, Indiana is somewhere "in the middle," that place in the U.S. where airline travelers don't even bother to look out their windows. But if they did, they might see Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton), a mother who's barely holding it together. "You know how you think giving your kid a cool name will make them cool?" she explains. "It doesn't." Such is the case for her youngest Brick (a scene stealing Atticus Shaffer), a oddball loner who's taken up whispering to himself and calls his backpack his best friend. Filling out her brood then are Axel (Charlie McDermott), a teenager whose only interests are sleeping, eating and not getting dressed; and daughter Sue (Eden Sher), who's been going through a bit of an awkward stage "for the past 13 years." And while any day is cause for Frankie to go running for the hills, today proves to be especially trying - her new driver's license has arrived, the photo of which more than confirms her current haggard status.
"What happened to me?" she asks husband Mike (the always awesome Neil Flynn), a quarry manager. "Well back then you were all young and shiny and wondering what your life's going to be," he explains. "And now, well... now you know." Yes, life for Frankie has become an endless parade of school commitments, take-out dinners and falling increasing behind at her job at a used car lot. But she still manages to get by, even if it means using test drives to run errands, having Brick help out on sales pitches ("Mom are you crazy, that's a $600 value!") or playing catch up with her family during the commercials on "Dancing With the Stars." This week's crises then involve Sue's attempt to try out for show choir, Brick's latest parent-teacher conference about his weirdness and having to make a sale at work or lose her job.
What works: A genuinely funny look at the lows and relative highs of family life, "The Middle" feels like it comes from an astonishingly real place. Credit Patricia Heaton for willing to look every bit as underslept and overworked as her character calls her to be. Whether it be coloring her roots with magic marker or spending a solid minute trying to get her Spanx on, Heaton somehow manages to infuse Frankie with an exasperated love for her family that just may drive her insane. (After the car lot's PA announces her kid's school called, Frankie yells back, "Hurt or just in trouble? Because if it's just trouble can you ask them if I can call them back?") The same goes for Flynn's Mike, who's accepted his fate much more so than his wife. After being told by Brick's teacher they need to be more involved more at school, he quips, "Are we supposed to? Isn't that the point of school? That between 8:00 and 3:00 he's your problem? If he eats his napkin at dinner we don't call you and ask you to come over to our house." Together they're collectively in awe of how far off the rails their family has gone that they're blindsided when things go right. When Sue informs them she's trying out for show choir, their reaction is priceless - they know she's headed for a world of disappointment. And yet somehow she makes it - leading to a "Little Miss Sunshine"-esque moment when they discover she's actually on the show choir crew, not a performer herself. Just as impressive is that despite its various forays into the silly - especially surrounding Brick - it never quite comes across as wacky or cartoonish, just them being the odd, talentless family they've ultimately become. And they're cool with that.
What doesn't: No complaints here...
The bottom line: ...just a fun half-hour of television.