As I said when ABC first announced his lineup, I was hugely intrigued by their brand-new Wednesday lineup. ABC is going very aggressive on Wednesdays this year, launching four new comedies and a drama. Having now watched the shows, I'm more excited about specific aspects of the lineup than the whole thing in general.
The night doesn't seem to start auspiciously, with Hank, the new Kelsey Grammer starrer, but as that wasn't available in its final form, it's entirely possible that the network will manage to tweak it to the point where it's the best comedy ever. Of course, in its temporary form, the show leaves a lot to be desired. Grammer is Hank, a one-time terribly successful CEO who has been booted from his own company and forced to move back to his hometown with, horror of horrors, his family.
Next up on Wednesdays is The Middle, a new comedy starring Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn. They're married, have three kids, and live in the middle of the country. It may sound perfectly generic, but both Heaton and Flynn are capable, funny actors and good with the material. The actors who play the children, Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher, and Atticus Shaffer, are all amusing without being overly cute. The youngest child in the family, Brick (Shaffer) does appear to be a little too similar to Malcolm in the Middle's Dewey in the pilot, but hopefully as the series progresses the characterization will grow and change.
There doesn't seem, at this point, to be anything new or different or overly quirky about The Middle, it just seems to be a solidly written and acted single-camera comedy. In this day and age where every comedy and drama has a twist or odd hook to bring the audience in, The Middle, relying on those old standbys of funny people and amusing scripts, feels wonderfully fresh.
Modern Family, the 9pm show on Wednesdays, unlike The Middle, opts for a hook – their tale about three nuclear families (who are really a single extended family), with the adult couples – Gloria & Jay, Phil & Claire, and Mitchell & Cameron – being interviewed for a documentary along with their kids. It's clear that each of the families have their own issues: Jay is far older than Gloria and is taking care of her and her 11-year-old son; Phil tries to be one of those "cool" dads and leaves Claire flabbergasted; and Mitchell and Cameron have just adopted a baby and are trying to sort out parental roles in a family with two dads and how to relate to the world around them.
As with The Middle, Modern Family also sports a good cast, including Ed O'Neill, Ty Burrell, and Julie Bowen. There are, unquestionably, some funny moments in the pilot, but it feels exceedingly contrived. Not only is the would-be documentary angle rapidly becoming stale, but the notion that these three families are really one "modern family" feels untrue in the pilot. That is also the exact sort of problem that ought to be alleviated down the line as the audience becomes more familiar with their workings.
The number of different perspectives and characters the show allows for, if it develops them all, could make the series very interesting and deep down the line. As it stands, some of the characters, most notably Burrell's Phil, feel merely like caricatures. The tragically uncool dad who thinks he's cool because he knows the High School Musical dances and how to text (sort of) was a cliché even before High School Musical and texting came about. Burrell can, most certainly, be funny, and while it is momentarily amusing to watch him shoot his son with a BB gun or dunk on the poor kid, it doesn't make for a good character on a weekly basis.
The best of the comedies however seems to be the one that airs last – Cougar Town. Starring Courteney Cox, the series focuses on our culture's latest obsession – attractive middle-aged women, or "cougars." Cox plays Jules, a recent divorcee with a teenage son, trying to figure out about meeting people (perhaps someone a lot younger). Cox is utterly hysterical in the pilot, with several laugh-out-loud moments solely belonging to her, and several others belonging to the supporting cast which includes Christa Miller and Busy Philipps.
For a number of years, NBC's "Must See TV" Thursday lineup was anchored by Friends, a show that was actually a must see. Cox, as Monica, was always a large part of the success of Friends. It is wonderful to report that she is just as funny – if not more so – here in Cougar Town. ABC will not be taking NBC's "must see" slogan, but with Cougar Town in their lineup, it would be hard to make a case against them if they did.
ABC finishes off their Wednesday night lineup with Eastwick, an update of the John Updike novel (and then Jack Nicholson movie), The Witches of Eastwick. The series stars Rebecca Romijn, Lindsay Price, and Jaime Ray Newman as Roxie, Joanna, and Kat respectively. The three are witches who don't know they're witches until a stranger, Darryl Van Horne (Paul Gross), comes to town.
While the movie is a great one, the television pilot feels a little too much like Desperate Housewives with magic. The three female leads all acquit themselves well, particularly Price, whose Joanna is the quickest to embrace her new found witchiness. However, Gross comes off as less a likable Devil and more of an evil donkey. The woman are supposed to be seduced by him, and while they certainly swoon here, the exact reasons for their swooning are wholly unclear to the audience. Whatever magnetism or power Darryl has over them doesn't translate to the viewer.
There's certainly nothing wrong enough with the Eastwick pilot where it's clear that the show can't be great, but the pilot itself isn't great. It does, however, show definite potential. It's got good source material and even if it doesn't follow that material, a great basic concept on which to build. If Gross and the writers can figure out a better way to present Darryl and the witches' growth can be developed in interesting ways the show could be well on its way. The latter here may be far more important than the former, and also far more difficult. Should the witches become too powerful too quickly the show may veer too far into the fantasy realm, and if they don't learn fast enough, it could become overly mundane.
In the final summation, the vast majority of ABC's all-new Wednesday night lineup is already great fun or shows the potential to be fun. Even with the big names they managed to attract, it's still a risky proposition to launch an entirely new set of shows on a single night. They may, however, strike it rich.