Patricia Heaton is back in harried mom territory as the star of “The Middle,” a low-key family comedy whose title is a multifaceted reference to what the coastal elites like to call “the flyover states” as well as the struggling middle class. Seeking to tap into the customary fears that parents harbor, the single-camera pilot is neither distinctive nor consistently funny enough to stand apart from the ranks of TV’s great unwashed, despite Heaton’s game efforts.
“Somehow, the life had been sucked out of me,” Heaton’s Frankie Heck concludes in horror, comparing herself in the mirror to her driver’s-license photo, in the voiceover that runs throughout the pilot. The main culprits are her kids, of course, as well as a husband (“Scrubs’ ” Neil Flynn) who seems blase most of the time.
Living in Orson, Indiana, Frankie is the sort who will go the extra mile to do what’s best for her children. That includes, if necessary, detouring a test drive during her job at the local auto dealership into a curb-side school pickup, and squeezing into a sort-of Wonder Woman costume for “show and tell.”
Frankie’s youngest son Brick (Atticus Shaffer) is a particularly eccentric type with a disconcerting habit of whispering to himself. Her older ones include a high-school age son (Charlie McDermott) who walks around in his underwear a lot, and a daughter (Eden Shur) whose attempts to fit in tend to yield flamboyantly disastrous results — in the premiere, by signing up for show choir. (Take that, “Glee.”)More than most sitcoms, “The Middle” has the bones of an independent film, except that the TV treatment blunts the rough edges. Initially, it’s not clear what this series (created by Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline) is genuinely about, other than giving Heaton a chance to don an outfit that fits her more comfortably than that superhero frock — namely, the eye-rolling mom she played in “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
Here, though, with the possible exception of moppet Shaffer — who sounds like a Catskills comic and might be just peculiar enough to warrant his own show — there’s simply not enough support to shoulder the load. (Chris Kattan plays a co-worker and Brian Doyle-Murray her gruff boss.)
ABC is betting on a lineup of proven sitcom talent (including Heaton’s “Back to You” co-star Kelsey Grammer, Ed O’Neill and Courteney Cox) in a bold gamble to establish a brand-new comedy block. In the wildly uneven quality of that quartet, “The Middle” appropriately falls somewhere in the middle, in a zone where the immediate challenge has less to do with being flown-over than flipped-away from.