'Middle,' 'Hank' debut tonight

Is it possible for a comedy to die on one network and come back as three separate shows on another? Because I think that's exactly what has happened with "Back to You."

If you don't remember "Back to You," a 2007 sitcom about a down-at-the-heels TV news department, that's probably because you didn't watch it. Nobody did, even though it starred Patricia Heaton and Kelsey Grammer, two of the funniest people on television. And it was written by veteran producers Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, who between them have worked on probably half the hit sitcoms of the past two decades ("Frasier," "Wings," "The Golden Girls" and "Just Shoot Me," to name just a few).

The show was, by any measure, hilarious. Fox unceremoniously killed it after a single season.

But like the victim of a horror-movie slasher who sloppily stitches himself back together and returns, "Back to You" has seized control of ABC's Wednesday-night lineup. Of the four shows in ABC's new bloc of sitcoms, three have major links to "Back to You."

"Modern Family," which debuted last week to an enormous audience, is produced by Levitan and Lloyd. And now "The Middle," starring Heaton as a beleaguered Midwestern wife and mom, and "Hank," with Grammer as a newly impoverished zillionaire, are joining the lineup.

If I just compared Heaton's "The Middle" to a reanimated corpse, I meant it in the nicest possible way. Until watching "The Middle," I would have said it was time the sitcom concept of the madcap mom trying to balance kiddies and career got a decent burial. But Heaton and producers Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline (who both worked on a long string of successful sitcoms) give the idea new life.

Heaton plays Frankie Heck not as a domestic martyr but a high priestess of mediocrity. As a car saleswoman, she's had more vehicles stolen from her than she's sold in the past month. And as a mom, she's raising kids who range from quirky ("clinically quirky," observes a teacher) to downright incompetent. Her parenting advice has pretty much been reduced to telling the kids not to hang around on the edge of the playground at recess: "It makes you at easy target, like the gazelle that gets separated from the pack."

If "The Middle" is animated by an air of cheerful desolation, there's an unfortunate whiff of Marie Antoinette about Grammer's breezily ungrounded "Hank." This story of a corporate wheeler-dealer limping pennilessly back to his hometown plays like a Hollywood fantasy of poverty.

Grammer's self-important hauteur has always worked best when it regularly grinds against working-class malice — provided by his fellow barflies in "Cheers," his cynical ex-cop dad in "Frasier," or the low-wattage co-anchor played by Heaton in "Back to You." The missing ingredient in "Hank," sadly, is just one inaccessible time slot away.

Now you know

'hank,' 'the middle'

o"Hank" premieres at 7 p.m. today and "The Middle" premieres at 7:30 p.m. on ABC and KAKE, Channel 10.