ABC's fall TV lineup offers tasty treats and flavorless flops.

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This fall, all of the networks have tossed new shows into the mix. ABC, the little network that couldn’t (until it found Lost) has put a number of eggs into its Comedy Wednesday basket. But they aren’t all equally palatable. Some are like getting to eat dessert first, some are a delight that I will add to my regular viewing menu and some are like my own cooking: they left a bad taste in my mouth. Following is my take on three of them.

THE MIDDLE
Delightful.

Everybody Loves Raymond’s Patricia Heaton stars as Frankie Heck, a middle-class mother in Middle America who, with her husband Mike (Scrubs’ janitor Neil Flynn), is raising sullen 15-year-old Axl (Charlie McDermott, Frozen River), clumsy 13-year-old Sue and odd little gradeschooler Brick, whose best friend is his backpack.

Both Heaton and Flynn do a nice job of playing regular people just trying to get by. Mike works at a quarry and Frankie works at a car lot, making less than it costs in gas to get there. The dryer is broken, Frankie colors in her gray hairs with Magic Marker, and her driver’s license picture looks like a screen shot from a George Romero zombie flick.

And then there are the kids.

Axl slumps around the house in his underwear, groaning under his breath:“We’re out of chips. Great job, Mom,” Axl grumbles. “I can’t hear you if you don’t have pants on,” Frankie answers.

Sue never makes anything she tries out for, and even gets kicked off of show choir (think Glee) crew. Brick’s teacher suggests he may be “clinically quirky.”

The Middle is cute without being cutesy and should resonate with anyone for whom family is its own reward, even if the payoff isn’t always immediately obvious. I look forward to this show like a favorite restaurant weekly special.

HANK
Send this one back to the kitchen.

Kelsey Grammer stars as Hank Pryor, a man who spent the last several years as the CEO of a huge sports retailer, leaving his wife Tilly (Melinda McGraw) to raise their children, teenage Maddie and pre-teen Henry. Hank’s business suffered the rages of the recession and now he has to move his family from their fancy Park Ave. apartment to a rundown house in his small Virginia hometown.

Hank has a handful of funny moments—when Hank and Tilly’s king-size mattress won’t fit up the stairs, they have to share a twin-size firetruck bed, complete with bell that tinkles when they try to start a fire of their own—and a few funny lines that result from Hank’s inability to understand why he can’t run his household they way he ran his business, but the few laughs don’t freshen up the stale cliches. Maddie is moody, Henry is smart but strange, Tilly is caring and understanding and Hank has little idea how to deal with any of them. Yawn.

If I do watch another episode of Hank, it will be for the same reason I eat the free bread a restaurant brings out before a meal: because it’s there.


Modern Family

MODERN FAMILY
Delicious.

Oh, Modern Family. You have come to fill the hole left in my heart when the down-to-earth-slash-surreal Arrested Development was inexplicably canceled. And that scares me. A new season of Gary Unmarried has started (I actually love Jay Mohr but still); Survivor is in its umpteenth season; Desperate Housewives lives on; and Two-and-a-Half Men remains on the air. If it’s funny, clever, thoughtful or worth spending money on, a network will probably take it out back and shoot it. Let’s hope Modern Family proves me wrong.

This show is shot mockumentary style (think The Office, Parks and Recreation) with both one-person confessionals and scenes in which the subjects seem to have forgotten they are being filmed. Both ways work brilliantly to portray a satirical—but quite believable—side of three average American families.

Ed O’Neill (Married With Children) plays Jay Pritchett. He has recently married Gloria, a much younger, passionate Columbian woman who has custody of her ‘tween son Manny. More than a language barrier stands between Jay and his ability to comprehend his new family.

Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) and her husband Phil (Ty Burrell) have three complicated children of their own. While Claire has to be the voice of reason, Phil would do anything to be one of the cool kids, and is constantly trying to prove how hip he is. He never gets it quite right: “I text,” Phil tells the camera. “LOL: Laugh out loud; OMG: Oh, my god; WTF: Why the face? I’m a cool dad. That’s my thang.”

Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet)have just adopted a baby girl from Taiwan. Cameron embraces his pink paisley wearing homosexuality whole-heartedly; Mitchell has a harder time. Always worried about what other people are thinking, Cameron’s out-ness is often difficult for him to handle.

All three families come together in the last few minutes of episode one, the first time we realize the heretofore separate groups are all related: Mitchell and Claire are brother and sister, Jay is their father. Sweet surprises—and some of the biggest laughs; the Lion King bit is a gut-buster—are in store for both viewers and characters. O’Neill delivers a line that is so politically incorrect and yet so endearing and so funny, if I had to pick one line to sum up Modern Family, it would be this one.

Modern Family, I will savor you like the perfect creme brulee.

P.S. ABC’s Courtney Cox comedy vehicle Cougar Town and the TV-show-based-on-a-movie-based-on-a-book, Eastwick,fall in the Wednesday lineup as well. I would ask for another helping of the funnyCougar Town; I’m leaning toward putting Eastwick in the compost pile.