Kelsey Grammer's new sitcom, Hank, is an ill-conceived recession tale.
Last week's strong premieres of the excellent Modern Family and the pretty decent Cougar Town provided hope that ABC's new Wednesday night comedy experiment might be not only good, but also popular — a potent possibility.
Tonight, however, with the premiere of Kelsey Grammer's absolutely terrible Hank, it becomes clear that while the entire block may be popular, the entire block will not be good, or even watchable.
A series of painful miscalculations, after the jump.
Grammer has, for the most part, been playing the same person since he showed up on Cheers as Frasier Crane in 1984. For the rest of the run of Cheers, and for the entire run of Frasier, and for most of the rest of the last 25 years, he played the good-hearted stuffed shirt, a snob who was basically a decent guy. Even Sideshow Bob, the character he voices on The Simpsons, is a variation on the same idea — underneath it all, he's a self-styled sophisticate of sorts.
In Hank, Grammer once again goes for aloofness and snobbery, still aiming for the same fundamentally anti-intellectual humor that fueled years of Frasier, except that all traces of warmth, self-awareness and, frankly, humanity have been utterly stripped out.
In the pilot, Hank Pryor (Grammer), who has recently lost his job heading up his own sporting-goods empire and fallen on financial hard times as a result, moves his family back to his wife's old hometown where he opened his first store. Because no one associated with this show apparently has any clue where people actually live when they don't have any money, the Pryors live in a house that's exactly like every other sitcom house you've ever seen, except that there's a stove in the living room and Hank and his wife (Melinda McGraw, who played Scully's sister on The X-Files and Bobbie Barrett on Mad Men) sleep in a fire-engine bed.
The idea is that Hank has never bonded with his family, because he's always only cared about work and money, and now that he has no job, he's forced to spend time with them, which he clearly dreads.
The tone of the comedy feels like it's borrowed from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when broad family sitcoms like Full House proliferated. All the jokes are telegraphed, the actors playing Hank's kids have obviously been encouraged to mug mercilessly (which they do, as hesitant as I am to take out after kid performers), and the audience laughter is cranked up to "UTTER HILARITY," despite the fact that none of the jokes justify it.
More importantly, though, there is no reason to like or care about any of the characters. Yes, Frasier was a jerk in many ways — an elitist, a neurotic, a social klutz — but he retained the ability, at times, to step back and be observant and funny about himself and the people he clearly loved. Hank, on the other hand, genuinely loves no one and has no insight into his own situation whatsoever. The show's writers don't seem to understand, in particular, that it doesn't feel like hilarious comedy watching a man who obviously feels no warmth whatsoever toward his own children and has no relationship with them. It feels depressing.
Is there family comedy in loving your family and not expressing it competently? Of course. That's half the TV families in history. But is there family comedy in not loving your family at all? Only very dark comedy, which is not what Hank is meant to be.
It's a little heartbreaking to see David Koechner (who plays Todd Packer on The Office) show up here as Hank's brother-in-law. You can feel him briefly inject his single scene in the pilot with energy, with comic timing, and with much-needed bite. And then ... he's gone. Koechner deserves much, much better than this, and is likely to get it if Hank fails as quickly as everyone involved should hope it will.
There is undoubtedly a great big hole just waiting for a good recession-fueled comedy that can fill it. But trying to capitalize on the supposedly humbling experience of owning a fire-engine bed in your great big house where your kids have their own rooms, when the worst thing that's happened to you as a result of the financial crisis is having to move to small-town America (the horror!) is an enormous miscalculation.
There are things to be happy about in comedy right now, even if you confine yourself to Wednesday nights on ABC. But Hank is not one of them.