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Hank - "Pilot"

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Hank debuts at 8 p.m. EDT tonight on ABC.

I’ve been putting off writing a review of Hank because while it’s easily the worst new show of this fall season, I kind of have no idea why. Everything here feels like it should work better than it does. The script is full of well-constructed jokes. The actors are all well-chosen and boast such big comedy talents as David Koechner and no less than Kelsey Grammer. After the original pilot performed disastrously with critics, most of it was scrapped and reshot. The series’ creator and writer – Tucker Cawley – and the pilot’s director – James Burrows – are both among the most talented multi-camera folks working today. In short, everything about Hank feels like it should make at least a solid show. And, instead, it’s an absolute mess from top to bottom, even with the reshot pilot. And yet, I have no idea why.

At some level, the multi-camera sitcom is like a piece of furniture. When executed perfectly, it can certainly be artful (and, occasionally, art), but most of the time, it’s just aiming to be nicely crafted and well-formed. Just as you don’t question the craftsmanship of a solidly built chair, you don’t really get too worked up about the craftsmanship of a solidly built sitcom. This, in a way, is sort of the difference between the Diane and Rebecca years on Cheers. The Diane years were so well done that they shot past solid craftsmanship and hit an artistic peak for both the show and, arguably, the genre. The Rebecca years weren’t as artful, but every script was so solidly constructed and every actor in the cast knew the ins and outs of their part so well that the series probably could have been a lot worse than it actually was and still could have been pretty good. To toss another metaphor into the mix, randomly, a good sitcom is a well-oiled machine that draws strength and momentum both from the competence of its cast and creative staff but also from the audience’s affection for it. There’s nothing in art that’s quite like the complicated relationship between viewers and the characters on their favorite television shows (something that drew me to the medium in the first place), and maybe the best expression of this comes from the classic sitcoms.

But then you have Hank, which sort of shoots my theory all to hell. Everything here is competently crafted, and the actors certainly know how to give these lines their all. Many of the jokes are obvious, yes, but they’re not so obvious that they couldn’t be funny in the hands of gifted actors. And, what’s more, there are some genuinely funny lines here that must have played like gangbusters on the page (as well as at least one potentially funny sight gag at episode’s end). But when the show is actually watched, it just kind of lies there, occasionally twitching, yes, but mostly dead or on its way out, like a beloved pet that’s dragged its way onto your doorstep after being hit by a car. It so wants to love you, and you so want to love it, but, my God, the tire treads. Critic Jaime Weinman has turned trying to figure out why Hank doesn’t work into something of a drawing room mystery, alternately blaming a crucial flaw in the script, Burrows and assorted other things. (And while Burrows is the greatest multi-camera comedy director of all time, I think Weinman may be on to something with his thought that the guy is so far past his prime that he may be dragging the shows he works on down.)

The fault lies in the premise. Hank is attempting to be topical by going back to one of the oldest sitcom premises in the book. In the pilot, Hank Pryor (Grammer) reflects on his life as a titan of Wall Street before the recent recession and shareholder anger sent him plummeting from his position atop his company and into apparent destitution. Said destitution is not so bad that Hank and his wife and kids can’t move back to her Virginia hometown, where these Manhattanites can experience the wonder of the outdoors and meeting the colorful yokels (enter Koechner as Hank’s brother-in-law) and so on and so forth. While hanging out in America’s rural backwoods, Hank is going to learn all about the family he’s been neglecting all this time and assorted other things you’d expect to happen. It’s Green Acres, cranked up for social relevancy.

There’s at least one big problem in that premise: You’ve seen it before, and Hank approaches it in the laziest way possible. The locals in Hank’s new hometown are the sorts of backwards folk that only appear in small town sitcoms, yet they have such fine, homespun values that they’re going to teach Hank a lesson in caring for his own family before this show is over whether he likes it or not. There’s an element of smugness here that creeps into almost all Hollywood products about small towns. Weirdly, that smugness cuts both ways. Big city folks are smart and capable, yes, but they have no sense of how to raise a family, while their small town cousins are stupid-ass, slack-jawed yokels, but give ‘em a baby, and they’ll have it reciting Shakespeare in mere minutes. None of these people are characters; they’re object lessons in a Sarah Palin speech. Sure, this is a time-tested premise, but it’s also one that’s been done to death and one that continues to make as little sense as it did the first time it ever came up (maybe in the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse?).

There’s a bigger issue at play here, though. Nothing here feels real emotionally. It’s as though the characters’ emotions are all placid lake surfaces that can only be skimmed by wounds. Though we get a sense that Hank hasn’t spent much time around his family (indeed, the pilot makes a lot of this), we never really get the sense that it’s done any sort of lasting hurt to his kids or his wife, who all seem pretty nonplussed either way by the prospect of spending more time with him. All of the characters feel like machines specifically constructed to deliver jokes, not real people who deliver those jokes out of frustration or pain or the simple joy of telling a joke. Cawley cut his teeth on Everybody Loves Raymond, and whatever you think of that show, the characters were certainly emotionally affected by each other. Here, they all stare blankly at each other, then deliver a joke.

So why doesn’t Hank work? Frankly, there’s just something in its DNA that’s fatally flawed. It’s possible that this show could overcome some of this by deepening the Hank backstory and showing us that he was either a good dad who just didn’t have the time or a bastard dad who now wants to make it up to his kids. It’s possible that, given time, the yokels could become more civilized characters, and we could learn the city folk have family values too. But after this pilot, I doubt anyone’s going to want to stick around to find out. Even if you eventually and crudely fix a two-legged chair, everyone’s going to remember that first time they tried to sit in it and shy away.

Grade: F

Stray observations:

  • A lot of critics have made much of how Kelsey Grammer is just playing the same role he always plays in this one, and while that’s true, I continue to like his performance as Frasier Crane. I was one of the few who stuck with Back to You all the way through, after all. So while it doesn’t really fit here, I’m not as irritated by it as others.
  • They recast the kids between pilots, but I’m not sure I like the new kids better. I’d have to sit down and think about it, though, and I don’t think I’m willing to do that. Daniel Fienberg says they’re a step down (he must have better notes about the original pilot than I have), then launches into a truly intriguing summation of the show as the first series of the Obama backlash. Read it here.