'The Middle' review: Familiarly funny

themiddle_neilflynn_patriciaheaton_atticus shaffer_290.jpgPatricia Heaton is back on familiar ground with ABC's "The Middle," a domestic sitcom that showcases her skills at making everyday stresses seem not only funny, but bearable.

ABC played it smart with its comedies this season, debuting the strong "Modern Family" and "Cougar Town" a week earlier to generate juice. "The Middle" isn't quite up to their level, but it delivers a few smiles and well-placed groans that work as a lead-in to the other comedies' edgier fare.

Frankie Heck (Heaton) lives in Orson, Indiana, which might as well be named Generic Midwest-ville, with her rather ineffectual husband Mike (Neil Flynn), aloof 15-year-old jock son Axl (Charlie McDermott), accident-prone 13-year-old daughter Sue and grade-schooler Brick (Atticus Shaffer), a quirky little fella who is whip smart but socially awkward enough to call his backpack his best friend.

patriciaheaton_themiddle_290.jpgFrankie lives a harried life nourishing her family on frozen pancakes and fast food dinners. She makes a valiant effort to keep track of everyone's schedule despite little help from her clueless husband and is desperately trying to hold onto her thankless job at the car dealership. Her work buddy Bob (Chris Kattan) offers moral support despite being a bit morally challenged himself.

In the premiere, Frankie is dressed as a superhero for some convoluted reason, and the symbolism shouldn't be lost on the viewers. No matter how fallible Frankie is, she's a veritable Superwoman for being able to somehow manage the difficult balancing act that is her life.

As the ultimate ordinary but tenacious woman, Heaton's character is relatable and the sassy, humorous heart of the show. "Everybody Loves Raymond" fans will be glad to see her back and taking the lead on gags. Flynn, best known for playing the surly janitor on "Scrubs," is less acerbic here, a somewhat befuddled but lovable patriarch.

atticusshaffer_themiddle_02_290.jpgThe teenagers have their annoying moments (don't they all), but out of the kids, Shaffer as Brick is a scene stealer. The expressions on his "wise beyond his years" face alone would be priceless, but he also delivers the strange lines of dialog without seeming like he's trying to be too precocious. He's still a kid playing a kid, but it just happens to be a weird little kid.

Overall, the jokes are gentle on "The Middle." Even Kattan is refreshingly subdued -- not one glimpse of Mr. Peepers, Mango or Doug Butabi in there. The show certainly has its share of silly and even preposterous situations, but they're not necessarily outrageous or raunchy.

In short, "The Middle" is cute and family-friendly, if a bit too familiar, retreading ground that we've seen in countless sitcoms before, particularly "Malcolm in the Middle." Nevertheless, it does it well, and never underestimate the power of the familiar.

Also, check out Korbi TV's interview with Heaton and Flynn. Nice chemistry, right?




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