By: Aleks Chan

You’re probably going to hear a lot about how this fall is the year of the comedy: of all the fall pilots, comedies are heading the pack in terms of buzz and praise. And ABC, who’s been a stranger to a hit sitcom for quite awhile now, is betting on a full-on Wednesday night blitzkrieg, scheduling five new shows back to back without any ratings support from an established hit. It’s the kind of high risk, big rewards gambling that seems so relevant given the…state of broadcast sitcoms.

Too bad the Alphabet Network’s opening salvo threatens to ruin the whole thing: HANK (debuting next Wednesday September 30 at 8PM), where Kelsey Grammer plays his umpteenth iteration of a blow-hard, seems so out of touch (with the national sentiment, what’s funny, what’s stupid, you name it), you’d be tempted to give up with it and just call the whole thing off.

The premise – Grammer’s title character moves his family back to Virginia after he’s booted from his own company and loses his fortune – seems only topical for the sake of mockery. How could a recession-weary viewer ever relate (or laugh) to Hank as he walks into his new, disheveled house (complete with broke-down stovetop sitting in the middle of the entry way), and spouts, “This is exactly what we needed!” No, it isn’t.

Instead of suffering through HANK, I suggest you start your Wednesdays with Julia-Louis Dreyfus on THE NEW ADVENTURES OF OLD CHRISTINE. After which flip back to Patricia Heaton and THE MIDDLE (debuting next Wednesday September 30 at 8:30PM), where the former EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND star does furrowed-browed and frazzled mother hen much better than Ray Ramano’s wife ever did.

As Frankie Heck, she’s a saleswoman in her town’s last remaining car dealership, where she considers herself “a matchmaker people and vehicles,” but can’t seem to sell any. Heaton is great, and the rapport between her and Neil Flynn (SCRUB’s Janitor, beguiling out his Sacred Heart garb) as her husband is refreshingly genuine, their relationship rife with sarcasm and understanding.

The kids are generic (the disinterested teen, the untalented sister), save for the wunderkind youngest Brick (Atticus Shaffer), who’s got nasally timing down at a young age. Besides somewhat pointed Midwestern riffing, the only real worry is wondering just how far it go to make Frankie exasperated without making it cartoonish or over-the-top.

The main and best draw of the night is MODERN FAMILY (debuting tonight at 9PM), which has, hands-down, the best pilot of the fall. And if you somehow don’t already know the twist ending of tonight’s premiere, then skip (ABC told critics not to spoil, then went ahead and did it anyways in promotional ads).

As one, big extended family, you couldn’t ask for one any better (or funnier) than this: Claire (Julie Bowen) and Phil (Burrell) are the traditional family with three raucous kids; Phil (MARRIED…WITH CHILDREN’s Ed O’Neill) and Gloria (Sofia Vergara) are the May-December relationship turned second marriage, complete with sensitive 11-year-old Manny (Rico Rodriguez); and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) are a gay couple who just adopted their daughter from Vietnam.

It manages to juggle three unique story lines for each family, but also cohesively brings them together, criss-crossing comedic styles for greater effect. The performances are all top tier, especially Ty Burrell as the helplessly awkward Phil, the father who so desperately wants to be hip for his kids, he creates even greater divide between them.

MODERN FAMILY (at least from this pilot, which is all anyone has seen thus far) is, in short, hilarious, because it doesn’t for a second take for granted all the nuances that make being family a comical experience.

And if you choose to not change the channel afterwards, you’ll either find COUGAR TOWN (debuting tonight at 9:30PM), created by SCRUBS’ own Bill Lawrence and starring Courteney Cox as a 40-something divorcee Jules, endearingly funny, or just plain repugnant. I am of the former, though I wasn’t expecting at all to be so.

As the title would imply, it is indeed about Jules getting back into the dating game (the title also makes reference to a high school football team), and it’s a downright raunchy affair. This isn’t The Hangover by any means, but the pilot ranges from “You are hotter than balls!” to implied fellatio – sex-crazed would be putting it lightly.

For all its salaciousness it ends up being funny in the same inappropriate way SCRUBS is and Courteney Cox seems willing and game to go for it, modifying her performance to resemble an older, friskier Monica from FRIENDS. But it isn’t all innuendo and double entendres, beneath it is a charming mother-son relationship headed by Cox and Dan Byrd (ALIENS IN AMERICA), who plays her son with the driest delivery.

EASTWICK (debuting tonight at 10PM) is the only new show in ABC’s Wednesday night lineup that is not a half-hour, straight-up comedy. And yes, that’s EASTWICK as in Witches of – I don’t think John Updike intended any of the characters from any of his novels to be played by Rebecca Romijn, but then again I never knew the guy.

Set in a coastal town (so everybody knows everybody, duh), three women all in need (of sex and fortune, backbone and courage, love and care) are granted their wishes after mysterious coins fall from the sky. After making a wish together in the town fountain, the women in question are imbued with magical powers and become fast friends.

Their wish fulfillment calls forth the mysterious Darryl Van Horne (the perfectly devilish Paul Gross), who swoops into town, buying up real estate and making his mark among the trio. Story of (literal) female empowerment? Not so much. It’s more like SEX AND THE CHARMED LIPSTICK, because when these women raise their martini glasses, you know Carrie and co. would have done (and said it) better. So if comes between this middling drama and an early bedtime, hit the hay.

Hank: D+; The Middle: B; Modern Family: A-; Cougar Town: B+; Eastwick: C-

  • Tim

    I have no interest in ABC’s first hour. Going up against Glee, I think I’ll watch the last 2 hours at a later date and check them out. Thanks for the reviews. I saw Modern Family and it is good tv.

  • Josh Emerson

    Your reviews basically match exactly what my first impressions of these shows were based on previews, descriptions, etc. I’ve seen the Modern Family pilot and it is fantastic. I’m looking forward to checking out Cougar Town and The Middle.

    The one show I will no doubt NOT be watching is Hank.

  • TD

    “Hank” sounds dreadful, and I will be watching “The New Adventures of Old Christine” as well over on CBS. I really wish ABC would have renewed “Samantha Who?” for their comedy Wednesday! Jean Smart and Christina Applegate were great in that show!

  • Thanks for your reviews. I’m going to include them in my link love blog for this week! I am an intern at http://www.familytvaddicts.com. Check us out!

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  • I thought Modern Family was hilarious. I laughed the entire time. If anybody missed it, you can catch it on Fancast.