Since I dedicated a lot of time and brain cells to eviscerating "Hank," it gives me some minor relief to say that Kelsey Grammer's "Back to You" pal Patricia Heaton has a far better comedy also premiering on Wednesday (Sept. 30) night.

Since there are several thousand YouTube videos involving talented kittens and amorous pandas that are also better than "Hank," I don't want to damn "The Middle" with praise that faint. It's a decent family sitcom that plays, as the title suggests, right down the middle. Although it makes concessions to trendy industry preference by going single-camera, its values, storylines and overall sense of humor are familiar and comfortable enough that "The Middle" would have been right at home in a TGIF lineup, back when ABC had such a thing.

Having the toxic "Hank" as its lead-in won't help "The Middle," but it's a surprisingly solid match with "Modern Family," which attracted a big audience in its premiere. 

The rest of my review of "The Middle" is after the break. I'm going to keep using words like "solid" and "decent" and "respectable" and "amusing." That won't be the same as "brilliant" or "hilarious" or "Emmy-bait." But it's nothing to be ashamed of either.

"The Middle" is set in Orson, Indiana and focuses on the Heck family. Frankie (Heaton) and Mike (Neil Flynn) are just two ordinary people trying to raise their three kids. He's a manager at the quarry and she's trying to sell cars, apparently the latest in a series of jobs she can't stand. Their kids are sullen Axl (Charlie McDermott), constantly failing Sue (Eden Sher) and Brick (Atticus Shaffer), who has all of the quirky habits of a proto-serial killer, only in an adorable sitcom kid kinda way.

Created by Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, "The Middle" begins with a chip on its shoulder, with Heaton's opening voiceover hectoring viewers about ignoring the states between the Coasts, even going so far as to depict a plane flying over her location. This defensiveness isn't the most endearing thing about "The Middle," but it'll probably play well to the multitudes who do live outside of New York and Los Angeles and probably feel like Hollywood is neglecting them, even though many of this season's new shows -- from "Glee" to "The Forgotten" to... ugh... "Hank" -- take place outside of those two major metropolises. 

The title "The Middle" is also supposed to reflect class, something TV mostly blurs over with its families. If the other three families in ABC's Wednesday block are on the upper side of middle class, the Hecks are probably on the lower side of the tax bracket. This mostly means that they live in slightly cramped quarters, that they pack their own lunches and that they sometimes don't immediately fix their appliances when they break. Class is such a dirty word on TV that it's refreshing to see a show that takes it as natural and organic that some families might, for example, only have one TV and that that TV might always conveniently be tuned to ABC programming. OK. Fine. Not everything is that organic.

But the title is about more than geography and more than class. Whether it's conspiratorially intentional or not, "The Middle" can't help but call to mind another single-camera comedy about a harried mother, a slightly more stoic father and their attempts to raise three eccentric children. And since, at its very best, "Malcolm in the Middle" was a classic of the genre, any legitimate comparisons would be the highest compliment.

"The Middle" is more low-key than "Malcolm in the Middle" in every way, a tone set with Julie Anne Robinson's direction of the pilot. It lacks the visual whimsy and absurdity of Todd Holland's "Malcolm" pilot and the performances are pitched more naturally as well. 

"Malcolm in the Middle" started off as The Frankie Muniz Show and opened up both when Muniz went through puberty awkwardly and when Jane Kaczmarek and Bryan Cranston proved too talented to just be supporting players. "The Middle" is beginning as a Patricia Heaton vehicle, but one would hope it will open up as well. It's not that Heaton's frenzied mom act is tired, that it's not unfamiliar. We know what she can do. She has two Emmys for it. And she does it well.

Here, I'd like to see exactly how much range Neil Flynn has. Always ready to try anything as Janitor on "Scrubs," Flynn's obviously enjoying playing a normal guy here and he has several quick lines that comic timing that's at the top of the sitcom heap. He also has a couple sweet, romantic moments that play off of our assumptions about his sarcasm. It would be nice if he were an equal partner.

The person in danger of running away with the show and leaving his grown-up co-stars in the dust is Shaffer. In a Wednesday lineup that features bad sitcom-y kids ("Hank") and great non-sitcom-y kids ("Modern Family") and one talented 23-year-old cheating and playing a high schooler (Dan Byrd of "Cougar Town"), Shaffer is proof that there's nothing at all wrong with being sitcom-y, if you're good. Yes, a good portion of his performance is being cute and just funny-looking enough to play on TV, but there are actual choices he's making that cause you to wonder if Brick is weird or if there's something wrong with him and I enjoyed watching those choices. And does he bear an uncanny resemblance to Eric Per Sullivan? Yes. Totally a coincidence. If "The Middle" were to last for several seasons can we say with any confidence that impending puberty will be kind to Shaffer? Probably not.

Shaffer's presence kinda dwarfs his on-screen siblings, though Sher has been very effective in the past playing a similar kind of comedy on "Weeds" and "Sons & Daughters" and she's very gung-ho in her ungainliness. I can't get a read on McDermott yet and while my initial feeling is that he's miscast for the part as originally written (not buying him at all as a high school football player of promise), but that the role will change to fit the actor.

"The Middle" wasn't tremendously funny, but the family dynamic felt like a healthy mixture of real and sitcom-y, all with a big dose of heart at the end. ABC had an eternity of success with a lesser, multi-camera version of this formula, a little show called "According to Jim." Were "The Middle" to have a similar run, I probably wouldn't be watching, but I also wouldn't begrudge it some success. It's solid and likable. And that's not bad.

 

"The Middle" premieres at 8:30 p.m. on ABC on Wednesday, Sept. 30.