- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Two TV seasons ago, TV veterans Kelsey Grammer (“Frasier,” “Cheers”) and Patricia Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) teamed up for the highly forgettable Fox sitcom “Back to You” - proof positive that even a history on long-running and award-winning shows is no guarantee for future success.

Now Miss Heaton and Mr. Grammer are back again in separate ABC comedies premiering Wednesday night. In general, they’re still playing the same characters that brought them kudos: Mr. Grammer is still as pompous as he was as Frasier Crane. Miss Heaton is still Deborah Barone, the put-upon wife and mother on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

On “Hank” (8 p.m.), Mr. Grammer plays Hank Pryor, a megabucks CEO who is fired from his sporting-goods empire in New York City and forced to move back to his hometown of River Bend, Va.

While the premise of the show may be ripped from the headlines, the jokes are stereotypical and stale, not to mention a little insulting to the millions of folks who actually live in houses that “need work” instead of Park Avenue penthouses.

“This downturn is an opportunity to find out what we are made of,” Hank tells wife Tillie (Melinda McGraw).

Haven’t we seen this show before? It was called “Green Acres.”

The Pryors and their two children return to Virginia, which apparently is full of beer-drinking, public-school-attending, backyard-sports-playing regular folks. And not only is Hank unemployed, he has to get to know his family (self-centered teen daughter, Yoda-speaking tween son) all over again. Oh, the horror!

On “The Middle” (8:30 p.m.), the Heck family of Indiana already has roots in flyover country. Miss Heaton reminds viewers, “Look down and you’ll see the middle,” during a flyover in the opening sequence.

She plays Frankie, a used-car saleswoman and mother of three. Her husband, Mike (Neil Flynn), manages a quarry. The pair are raising children and trying to keep it all going with too little time and not enough money. This premise is not a new one (see “Rose anne” or “Malcolm in the Middle”), but the single-camera format and self-deprecating story lines keep it fresh.

Part of “Middle’s” charm is the three Heck kids. Axel (Charlie McDermott) is a 15-year-old football player who mostly just walks around the house half-dressed. Sue (Eden Sher) is a 13-year-old klutz trying to find herself in a painful series of auditions for student activities. Brick (Atticus Shaffer) is a precocious elementary schooler who is likely on the autism spectrum.

“Brick is a quirky kid,” the teacher tells his parents in a conference. “Maybe even clinically quirky.”

Says Mike: “I hope he’s weird enough that our insurance will cover it.”

In today’s economic and health care climate, that seems more relevant - laughing with the regular people instead of at them.

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