Be happy for Patricia Heaton. She's in a much better place.
Two seasons ago, she and Kelsey Grammer were co-stars in Back to You, a decent enough sitcom that felt like a square peg in Fox's round hole.
This season, Heaton follows Grammer in her own sitcom, ABC's The Middle, which premieres on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. EDT/PDT. Not only is Heaton better suited to this show from DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler, the sitcom itself is stronger. Both shows were long on laughs, but this one has more heart and is a better fit with its primetime neighbors.
The single-camera show is about an atypical typical family in small town Orson, Ind., home to the country's largest polyurethane cow. Heaton plays -- what else? -- the mom, Frankie. The stories unfold from her point of view and with the help of her voice-overs. She points out and smoothes over the quirks of the other family members.
Neil Flynn (the unnamed janitor in Scrubs) plays oblivious dad Mike, manager of the local quarry and not given to emotional displays. At one point, he explains to Frankie: I told you I love you the day I married you. If anything had changed, I'd let you know.
Their three kids are Axel (Charlie McDermott), an uncommunicative teen who mostly eats and goes around the house in his underwear; klutzy sister Sue (an especially winning performance by Eden Sher), who tries out for everything but is good at nothing; and younger brother Brick (Atticus Shaffer), this season's answer to Dewey on Malcolm in the Middle.
The show begins with something approaching an apology. Heaton's voice-over practically pleads with viewers to disregard the fact that the series is set in a part of the country familiar to most people only as acreage to be flown over to get where they're going. One assumes this was largely for the benefit of narrowly focused industry types, because most viewers don't need to be persuaded about the comedic potential of life in the Midwest.
Cut to Frankie in superhero garb walking down a lonely two-lane highway with her cell phone held aloft in hopes of picking up a signal. The rest of the show explains how she got to that point. It's a nice twist on the usual way stories are told on family sitcoms and a good way to discourage clicking during ad breaks. Its defensiveness notwithstanding and based entirely on the single episode supplied, The Middle should provide a warm and dependably funny chunk of ABC's Wednesday night of comedy.