By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
They made two versions of the pilot episode of "Hank," the new ABC sitcom starring Kelsey Grammer, both of which leave unfunny whiffs of doom in their wake. I nevertheless remain clinically fascinated by the show's lameness. Version 1 was released to critics in the early summer and fell flat on its face. This happens. No biggie, you just tweak the cast and the script and the everything-else-about-it and reshoot the pilot with a different studio audience.
So now the barely improved "Hank" debuts Wednesday night, and this new version works so hard to not fall flat on its face that of course it falls flat on its face. I wish ABC would show both versions, back-to-back or even side-by-side, as a lesson on revision, compromise, mediocrity -- a case study in sitcom makeovers. Or maybe as a case study in outdated sitcom formulas.
"Hank" is less of a sitcom than a show about sitcom assembly. It belongs in a diagram about sitcoms. Grammer comes to it with that "Frasier"-like star entitlement, the certainty that success for so many years as that character should translate into success as any character who is sorta like that character. (This idea has already fumbled once, on "Back to You," a Fox sitcom about local news anchors two years ago.) "Hank" is first and foremost a project produced, starring and built around the Grammer brand, and Grammer knows how to play one guy -- Frasier -- who is really just Grammer. Hoping for originality or innovation is sort of beside the point. The only purpose now is to create jobs.
Which is funny (not ha-ha funny, but curious funny) because "Hank's" angle is about surviving unemployment in the dreaded era known as "this economy": Grammer plays Hank Pryor, who found success and riches with his chain of 170 sporting-goods stores, but with the retail downswing he loses control of his business and is booted out by the board of directors.
He has a family, but of course he has been remote and distant to them, until now. Melinda McGraw plays his wife, Tilly. There are two children, a sullen but pretty teenage girl (here come the jokes about how much she uses the cellphone) and a misfit boy (here comes his Yoda accent), and here is the most creepy part: Between Version 1 and Version 2 of "Hank," they recast the children. I had to hunt to even find their names on the Internet anymore, which then made me think of all those children who live with their showbiz moms and dads in apartment complexes in the San Fernando Valley, hoping against hope that this pilot season, their ship will come in.
So Hank and the gang are forced to give up the high life (a Manhattan apartment, a maid named Consuela, private schools) and must now set out for a life of impoverishment and despair in . . . Virginia. "This downturn is an opportunity to find out what we're made of, to emerge stronger, to snatch success from the jaws of failure," Hank tells his family, with Frasier-like enunciation. (Gee, I'd heard that ABC sent "Hank" back to dial down the grandiloquence of Frasier.) When the Pryors get to sunny River Bend, they are horrified by their reduced circumstances. "It's like we're poor now and all we have is our bodies," Tilly purrs to Hank in a moment of rediscovered horniness.
Now, I don't know how close-in to NoVa "Hank" is supposed to take place, but I watch a lot of "House Hunters." Sure, the kitchen needs work, but this four-bedroom shanty the Pryors move to -- with its porch, yard, mature trees and giant living space -- looks like it would list in the mid-$600s, if you ask me. But sitcoms have always been rife with real-estate bargains.
In walks Grady, Hank's obnoxiously lovable brother-in-law, played by David Koechner, bearing a housewarming five-pack of beer. Him you could build a sitcom around, maybe, but that isn't how it's done. "He no doubt wants to welcome us back to his income bracket," Hank deadpans.
"We could go outside," Hank tells his neglected replacement son. "We could throw a baseball."
"At what?" the son asks.
At the television, for starters. Now, I don't build sitcoms for a living, but if you ask me, the first kid did that line funnier than this new kid. And I made the "at the television" joke the first time, too, while writing the fall TV season guide. Hey, if "Hank" can recycle and tweak and muck around, then the critic can, too.
Hank (30 minutes) premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. on ABC.