Television

Five Shows, No Chaff: This Season's Best Single-Network Night Of Television

Tonight, for the second week in a row, the 10 p,m. time slot on ABC will be taken up by something called Revenge For Real, a newsy (or "newsy," anyway) look at "a sensational murder in the Hamptons — playground of the rich and famous."

It's an obvious placeholder for Revenge, new episodes of which aren't scheduled to return until April 18. That delay isn't just a source of frustration for fans of the show. It also messes with what is otherwise the current television season's strongest full-night, single-network programming block.

Simply put, there's not a single dud in ABC's Wednesday-night schedule. (Cue comments letting me know which ones are the duds.) With a respectful hat-tip to NBC Thursdays — the two-week-old Awake is simply too new to know if it will maintain its promise or even survive to the end of the season — there's no other broadcast network with a lineup as solid as The Middle, Suburgatory, Modern Family, Happy Endings and Revenge.

Modern Family and Revenge, we've discussed in this space already. The former's slightly wobblier than it once was, and the latter is not on the air right now. But both are still strong enough (and coming back enough) that I genuinely look forward to seeing new episodes. So let's look at the others.

The Middle The last time I brought up this show, it was to complain about a particularly ham-handed instance of product placement. And I promised that, at a later date, I'd argue that it's a very good show. Maybe it's just an illusion aided by daylight saving time, but my watch says that later date has come.

The Middle is a bit of a hard sell, since it's the least glamorous show here by far. The Heck family is decidedly working class, with harried mom Frankie (Patricia Heaton) working part-time at a car dealership (where I'm not sure we've seen her successfully log even one sale) and taciturn dad Mike (Scrubs's Neil Flynn) working at a quarry that's been shut down at least once due to the sluggish economy.

"A working-class family struggling to get by?" I hear you ask. "Where do I sign?" Well, that's enough imaginary sarcasm out of you. The Middle acknowledges the family's frustrations without making them the focus.

Take, for instance, the Heck house: It's a mess, but that's a simple fact of life, rather than a bone of contention. Even when something occasionally gets done about it, the creep of entropy can't be halted for long; having finally tired of a dishwasher that soaks the kitchen floor with water (and requires a broomstick wedged against the door to keep it closed), the Heck family eventually saves up to purchase a new one ... which doesn't fit in the hole under the counter. And that less-than-ideal solution becomes the new normal.

Key to the whole enterprise is the fact that the jokes don't sound like sitcom ready-mades that could be slotted into any other show with the same basic premise. They're very specific to the characters, arising out of their history and particular idiosyncrasies.

And The Middle knows exactly who its characters are, something that's never more apparent than when it comes to the kids. Oldest son Axl is wildly overconfident (often to point of blithe shirtlessness). Youngest son Brick (a book-destroyingly voracious reader) doesn't see why he has to take social-skills classes with the biters and the kids who meow. And possibly talent-free middle child Sue is so enthusiastic that she doesn't ever realize how consistently she's defeated — which is how she has (unbeknownst to her, or anyone) slowly become a leader by inadvertently creating her own opportunities. Eden Sher plays her with such vanity-free gusto that it's a little breathtaking.

Suburgatory — The Middle has settled into a nice rhythm and level of popularity in its third season, and has thus passed its moment of buzzworthiness. Suburgatory, on the other hand, seems like the Wednesday-night show that nobody talks about, and undeservedly so. Thanks to the casting of Jane Levy in the central role of whip-smart, social-order-defying outsider teen Tessa, it started out looking like it was going to be Easy A: The Series, but it quickly took on a somewhat more skewed tone.

It helped — very much, in fact — that Suburgatory found a way for former New Yorker Tessa and her father George (Jeremy Sisto, from Clueless and Six Feet Under) to become incorporated into their new oddball suburban community without having them fit in, exactly. Too much resistance and Tessa would become just another caustic snark machine. Too little and the tension would evaporate.

But the show found the right balance, resisting the temptation to turn everyone into soulless caricatures. Instead, they're caricatures with souls; if you prick them, they, like, bleed or whatever. Despite her best intentions, Tessa is finding herself starting to reluctantly appreciate her new surroundings and cooperate with Dahlia, the living embodiment of everything she stands against. I can almost always get behind reluctant cooperation on a sitcom.

And as on The Middle, it's a neglected daughter who's the show's secret weapon. As Tessa's best friend Lisa, Allie Grant is doing great, utterly crazy work, screaming out in resistance against the world in which she was raised as loud as she can without ever actually raising her volume. Tessa might be the one making the most noise about how shallow the 'burb of Chatswin is, but Lisa, with the half-deranged glint in her eye and the catch in her voice, is one who looks like she could snap at any moment.

Happy Endings — Just to remind anyone who has forgotten: Happy Endings was awful when it began last spring. Seriously: awful. It has also, rather astonishingly, blossomed into a sharply-written ensemble piece blessed with a cast thrilled to play with one another and dive headlong into craziness.

For an actress who could have settled into a dire parade of "hot girl" roles, Elisha Cuthbert's eagerness to put herself into unflattering situations — she seems to spend about half of her screen time cramming (and covering) her face with mass quantities of food — is a revelation.

But as great as the cast is, it's the writing and, curiously, the editing that make Happy Endings fly. It moves so fast. And unlike a show like Community, which I also watch with my thumb resting on the rewind button to catch jokes that I miss (and I miss jokes on Community constantly), the speed of the jokes is part of the whole point. The rhythm of Happy Endings is unrelenting, which is its unmatched strength.

Towards the end of last season, when I gave it another chance thanks to the baffling reports of its improvement, I noted that it had the music down and just needed to work on the words. The jokes themselves weren't quite there, but man, did they know how to deliver them.

Credit the actors for the friskiness they bring to the material but also, again, the editing. The dialogue is cut so closely that it hones the timing down to a diamond-hard point. Done badly, it could turn Happy Endings into an incoherent mess, but as it is, it's as though the show itself is racing to keep up with its characters. Oh, and as for the jokes, they're getting better all the time.

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What's interesting about the way that all five shows work together is that they don't seem like they should, at all. The evening covers just about every economic demographic available: small-town lower-middle class (The Middle), semi-upper-middle (Suburgatory), solidly upper-middle (Modern Family), urban professional (Happy Endings) and incredibly upper-class (Revenge).

The idea of sitting down for a full night of television on a single channel is a fading phenomenon, and maybe even an outdated one. TV schedules aren't nearly as important as they were in the days when viewers had to watch a show when the network aired it or (likely) not at all. DVRs, online viewing, the proliferation of cable channels and the like have all given us options, both content-wise and time-wise, that wasn't the case when we sat down to The Cosby Show and didn't touch the remote until the end credits of Hill Street Blues ran.

And nights like this don't last long, as they're often cannibalized so that successful shows can seed other nights of programming. In fact, one of the most celebrated network nights — the NBC "Must-See Thursdays" that dominated the latter half of the 1990s — was notorious for shoving inert comedies like Stark Raving Mad and Union Square into a schedule anchored by Friends, Seinfeld and ER. (Seriously, when I saw it on the schedule just now, I just said, quite audibly, "Union Square? Uch.")

So ABC's uncommonly strong Wednesday lineup may not be long for this world. As evidenced by Revenge For Real, they're already starting to fool around with it. But it's been nice to be reminded that network programmers are still capable of thinking in terms of evenings, and not just timeslots.

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