They can't all be winners for ABC's comedy development. Or even qualified winners. Maligned for years as the home of "According to Jim," ABC's recent sitcom slate has included big winners ("Modern Family" and "Better Off Ted"), small winners ("The Middle") and a few mixed-to-positive interesting attempts ("The Goode Family" and, I hope, "Cougar Town"). [ABC went dumpster-diving for one good show ("Scrubs") and one Bob Saget show ("Surviving Suburbia").]
Sometimes, though, you just get star-struck and there can be no other real excuse for "Hank," which premieres on ABC on Wednesday (Sept. 30) night. Just as ABC wanted to be in the Jerry Bruckheimer business and was prepared to schedule the forgettable "Forgotten" to do so, ABC was determined to bring Kelsey Grammer into the fold at whatever price.
In this case, the price is that "Hank" besmirches an otherwise admirable two-hour block of new comedies on Wednesday night.
Full review of "Hank" after the break...
I've watched two entirely different versions of the "Hank" pilot now, pretty much top-to-bottom rewrites and reshoots, establishing slightly different tones and slightly different approaches to the character. Both of them stunk. I think the first version was broader and stupider, but the replacement kids in the second pilot are far worse than the original kids (who weren't all that good to begin with).
In both versions, the plot is the same: Grammer plays Hank Pryor, founder of a legendary chain of sporting goods stores. An innocent victim of the economic downturn, Hank, his wife (Melinda McGraw), his ditzy daughter (Jordan Hinson) and his erratically weird son (Nathan Gamble) have to retreat from Park Avenue to the small-town of River Bend, Virgina (presumably somewhere new Cleveland Brown's new home in Stool Bend, Virginia). Now it's time for Hank to face his worst nightmare -- No, not relative poverty and not not his brother-in-law Grady (David Koechner) -- learning to spend time with his own family.
The Rich Dude Leaves the Soulless Big City and Rediscovers His Humanity in a Small Town genre isn't one that network television has handled all that well in recent years, unless you happen to have fond memories for the 13 aired episodes of "The Ellen Show" or the six aired episodes of "A Minute with Stan Hooper." There's a condescension to the rural bonhommie that most writers just can't get past, a trap Tucker Crawley's pilot script falls into as it carefully crafts the sort of yokels who deliver partially finished six-packs as housewarming gifts and refer to New York City as "Fancy Town." That sort of good-natured mockery is considered acceptable, because we're eventually going to discover that no matter how rude and coarse the natives initially appear, our heroes going to learn that small town people are the salt of the Earth.
It's a fish-out-of-water situation that Grammer can only play in one way: Frasier Crane moves to Virginia. This follows the very short run of Grammer's Frasier Crane Does Local News in Pittsburgh sitcom "Back to You." It's becoming increasingly plausible that Grammer can only approach sitcom acting in one way. This is an very talented actor who earned a handful of respectable reviews for doing "MacBeth" on-stage and who has done dramatic work in TV and movies without any Frasier Crane affectations, but get him in front of a studio audience and give him a set-up/punchline and the elevated patrician accent and raised brow come out of nowhere. He can't avoid it. But he really should. Frasier was a character who worked because of a very tenuous balance between actor and strong material. A Frasier being Frasier with a literate Christopher Lloyd script can get away with being Frasier. A Frasier being Frasier with a joke-free script like "Hank" is just an insufferable ass-hat I wouldn't want to spend five minutes with, much less 22.
As long as Grammer is playing Frasier Crane, he also can't be left alone. This is a guy who was a supporting character on "Cheers" and his ability to function on his eponymous sitcom was predicated on a supporting cast of performers who were very much Grammer's equals (and often his betters). And even that strategy doesn't necessarily work, as with "Back to You," where a superlative supporting cast was given table scraps.
On "Hank," nobody's on Grammer's level, so he doesn't need to compete with anybody for punchlines and thus there's nobody to balance out the comedy.
I've liked McGraw in dramas -- she was dynamite on "Mad Men" last season as Bobbie Barrett -- but have I ever liked her in a comedy? Here, it would be hard to know, since she's nothing but an exasperated, screeching wife. While Hank and his missus are supposed to be a bit estranged, there's no excuse for the utter lack of chemistry between Grammer and McGraw. They share a scene of bedroom foreplay that goes from the intended awkwardness into unpleasantness in a hurry.
To protect the innocent, I won't name the child actors from the original pilot. They weren't good, but they both possessed better comic timing and clearer interpretations of their characters than Hinson and Gamble. As late arrivals, I'll excuse both young co-stars. It's not like there was anything they could have done, as both characters were just lifted from the "Sitcom Son & Daughter" manual.
The only actor capable of standing up to Grammer is Koechner, a great comic who has often struggled to find material that reaches his level. The struggle continues.
As lax as the writing and acting on "Hank" are, they're matched by the low-grade production values. The revised "Hank" pilot looks even cheaper and shoddier than the initial pilot, relying on only two sets, a generic street for the opening scene and then the family's new house on Virginia. At press tour, Sepinwall inquired about how much pity we're supposed to feel for the Pryors when they're moving into a fairly comfortable new house. The production designer's solution? Stick the oven in the living room, ball up two pieces of newspaper and throw them on the floor and voila... Instant hovel. Aesthetically it's an awful set and it's doubtful viewers will want to spend much time there.
That was my review of "Hank." It's bad. It's visually unappealing. It's a sign that Kelsey Grammer should give drama a shot, or maybe stick to producing.
Now, I need to go off on a little hyper-analytical rant. I wanted to get the review out of the way so that if you want to, you can stop reading. I also didn't want people saying I disliked "Hank" because of its politics. No. I dislike "Hank" because it's awful.
A couple friends and colleagues have commented that part of why "Hank" is so lame is that even though it allegedly focuses on a victim of the economic downturn, it could have been written in 1985.
I disagree completely.
"Hank," to my mind, is at the vanguard of the anti-Obama backlash, the first network show since the last election to focus on the plight of the disenfranchised white male in this New World Order.
In a media landscape that has recently been treating CEOs of failing companies with wariness, or even downright contempt, "Hank" gives its hero nothing but pity. Yes, we were in a recession and yes, he was fired by the company he founded, but the pilot presents Hank as the victim of a hostile takeover. There's nary a hint of mismanagement or impropriety. In the original pilot, I believe there was an implication that the entire company went under, which implied that thousands of jobs were lost, perhaps due to Hank's executive stylings. In the new pilot, there's none of that. Hank was just a scapegoat for tough times.
While not quite a "The South Will Rise Again," polemic, "Hank" presents a clear message about the white male displaced from his lofty perch, but promising (threatening) to return to his station. At one point, Hank and his daughter get into a debate about Obama. He claims he could have been president too and she scoffs.
"This is America. A rich white man has just as much chance of being president as anyone else," he declares stubbornly, as the laff-trak brays. See? This is the sort of joke we can make in an allegedly post-racial America, since in the 220 years of the American Presidency, rich white males have now only occupied the White House for only 99.55 percent of the time.
Hank even reappropriates Obama's "Yes I Can" as his family's new motto and when he's told he can't just steal the slogan, he sternly instructs his foolishly liberal teenage daughter (as all teenage daughters seem to be in sitcoms) that his high school baseball team used the phrase decades earlier. The punchline is that his high school baseball team used those words, but they lost, making it a veiled critique against the optimism of Obama's prose, especially relating to an economic turnaround that couldn't come fast enough to save poor Hank.
President Obama is used as a punchline again later in the episode, when Hank knows that the surest way to get his daughter's goat is to inform her that her mother voted for McCain. The subtext of that joke is that in 2009, dissent from the President is considered an act of betrayal. We don't need anybody to tell us who Hank voted for.
There is a rightful place where Hank thinks he belongs, a standard of living and a social station. Although the character's displacement is subject to only underlying anger and frustration, but there can't be any doubt that he feels usurped and pushed aside.
The victimization narrative for the rich white male is one with particular relevance in our current climate. When grad students write the essay "The Counter-Hegemonic Struggle of the White Male in 2009," "Hank" should have its own section. Unless it's swiftly cancelled, in which case it may only require a footnote.