Patricia Heaton has a field day in 'The Middle'

In the premiere episode, "Pilot," Frankie is struggling

In the premiere episode, "Pilot," Frankie is struggling in her career as a car salesperson because she has failed to actually sell a car. (Credit: ABC/RICHARD FOREMAN)

THE SHOW "The Middle," ABC/7, 8:30 p.m.

REASON TO WATCH Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn ("Scrubs") as Mom and Pop.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Opening scene features Frankie Heck (Heaton), dressed in a bright red Superman costume, jumping up and down in an attempt to get a signal on her cell phone. An endless road stretches behind her, while the vast cornfields of central Indiana spread out in all directions - think "North by Northwest," without the crop duster or Cary Grant. There's a story in how this average, Middle American mother of three ended up here, and that is the story of tonight's opener. Frankie sells cars at the "last surviving car dealership" in town, while husband Mike "manages a bunch of boneheads down in the quarry," she explains in voice-over. The kids may appear quirky, but they are really just three normal kids: high school football player Axl (Charlie McDermott) walks around the house in his underwear; Sue (Eden Shur), also in high school, is what you might call a late bloomer; and Brick (Atticus Shaffer), about 9, is eccentric. "I just hope he's weird enough that our insurance covers it," Mike says, hopefully. How did Frankie end up in the cornfield? You'll have to watch this shaggy dog story for the answer.

BOTTOM LINE There are four new comedies on ABC's Wednesday slate, and, sight unseen, "The Middle" would seem to be the runt of the litter. All the critical love went to "Modern Family," while "Hank" has Kelsey Grammer, and "Cougar Town" has been declared the Next Big (Courteney Cox) Something. But don't be surprised if a year from now only one survives. If so, I'd put my money on the runt. "The Middle" writers are DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler, TV veterans who have worked on many shows dating back to "Roseanne." They have great ears for "real" dialogue, and, in fact, not a single line here feels like a dead ball. The characters, too, arrive fully formed and believable. First impressions are absolutely vital in TV, and "The Middle" makes an excellent one.

GRADE A

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