Does ABC Have America’s Funniest Night?
Ask the Yankees or Phillies how hard it is to hit a triple.
Usually we'd count ourselves lucky to total three good, successful sitcoms in a single season, let alone three on the same night, on the same network. Yet not only are ABC's The Middle, Modern Family and Cougar Town all keepers and - as they prove again tonight - all funny, they're also compatible without feeling like they're done in triplicate. They're so good, we can happily overlook Hank, a show so stale, it feels less like a series Kelsey Grammer should be doing post-Frasier than like one he could have been doing pre-Cheers.
There are, obviously, crucial differences among them. The Middle (8:30 ET/PT) is more traditional (though even it is a bit twisted); Cougar Town (9:30 ET/PT), more adult. Modern Family (9 ET/PT) is probably the most artistically ambitious, but again, none is a slacker on that front.
What unites the shows is a common tonal approach that invites us to accept the characters as real and to see ourselves in their struggles. As in all sitcoms, the situations tend to be exaggerated, but they represent triumphs and problems we all typically face. Odds are most parents will recognize a father's determination to make his son fix the door he broke, even if few of them would go so far as to do without a front door until the kid relents - as the dad does tonight on The Middle.
As always on The Middle, the battle is presented from the point of view of the loving but harried mother, winningly played by Patricia Heaton. But the show allows each character some comic room to maneuver, from the three kids (Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher and Atticus Shaffer, all a delight), to Neil Flynn's sexy, sardonic lug of a husband.
For years, ABC courted failure with sitcoms so detached from real life, they could have been imported from an alternate universe. With The Middle, the network has returned to earth and its Roseanne roots. The humor is based on life as it's led now in small towns all over America, where the economy forces families to shop at discount stores, endure broken appliances and rely on the kindness of neighbors.
Where The Middle is the story of one family, Modern Family is the story of three families in one. The upshot is a show that is just as relatable as The Middle, but with a much broader reach.
The linking character is Ed O'Neill's Jay, a good man if not precisely an ideal father, who has a new hot wife, Gloria (Sofa Vergara), and a new odd-but-adorably-confident stepson, Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Jay's daughter, Claire (Julie Bowen), has a bumbling husband, Phil (Ty Burrell), and three children; his son Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) has a flamboyant partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), and an adopted baby.
In keeping with its mockumentary form, Modern Family generally keeps its crises small and its humor sly and offhand. But unlike many such shows, Family has a heart it's willing to reveal and a style it's willing to stretch to accommodate grander gestures and bigger jokes. In almost every episode, there's at least one moment that makes you laugh out loud.
There have been some complaints that the characters, particularly the gay couple, are stereotypes, and in their broad strokes they are. But it's the small touches and defining lines between the broad strokes that make them all human, and with each week, that becomes more clear.
If stereotypes haunt Family, sex haunts and drives Cougar Town. Indeed, for some, sex seems to be all there is to Cougar, which casts Courteney Cox as Jules, a divorced mom with a newfound attraction for younger men.
Look closer. At heart, Cougar is as much about family as any of the other shows. Some of it is obvious: Jules has a bright teenage son, Travis (a terrific Dan Byrd), and a not-so-bright ex-husband, Bobby (Brian Van Holt). What's less obvious is the family Jules has formed for herself out of the worker she mothers (Busy Philipps) and her best friends and neighbors (Christa Miller, Ian Gomez and Josh Hopkins).
As befits a show from the creator of Scrubs, Cougar's style is slightly scattered, at times frantic. But in each episode, there's been at least one moment when it slowed down and allowed the characters to soften and take stock. At times Cougar can be too much - but more often, there's joy to be found in it and in watching Cox cut loose.
She's found a great new TV family - and thanks to ABC, we've found three.