Wednesday nights on ABC are now devoted entirely to family comedies: The Middle, The Goldbergs, Modern Family, and Black-ish. It’s the most thematically consistent comedy block since the network’s old-school TGIF lineup, with ABC apparently hoping that sweetly funny sitcoms about misunderstandings and hugs are going to be big. But not all family comedies are created equal — and certainly not these four — so here’s a ranking of last night’s premiere episodes from worst to best.
4. Modern Family
Admittedly, I tend to pick on Modern Family a lot, mostly just because I’m so baffled that such a mediocre show continues to win award after award — and I say this as someone who thought the first season was OK. The Season 6 (six) premiere of #MoFy was more of the same, with a central conflict involving the ongoing disagreements of (now married) couple Mitch and Cam. In a stunningly predictable turn of events, Cam is going crazy-overboard with the love declarations, and Mitch is getting tired of it. No one really cares. In the Dunphy household is another tired plot: Alex has been gone all summer and everything’s going great. When she returns, everyone’s annoyed at her grumpy presence, but soon the family realizes they needed her all along! Hugs all around, as per usual.
Personal annoyances with the show aside, Modern Family was still easily the worst premiere of the Wednesday night lineup. I can’t imagine even its diehard fans putting this episode in their top ten. It was entirely predictable, most of the jokes failed to land, and there was a completely forgettable C-plot. If you want to make the claim that Modern Family is the best comedy on television, go right ahead, but this won’t be the episode to prove your point.
3. The Goldbergs
The Season 2 premiere of The Goldbergs showcased both why it’s a solid show and why it’s often nothing special. It’s a perfectly harmless show, with a concept that basically amounts to, “Here’s a family doing wacky family things — but set in the 1980s so we can wear silly clothing and have a cool soundtrack!” More often than not, it manages to succeed at this very basic premise, with episodes that don’t deserve much thought or have much re-watch value, such as last night’s “Love Is a Mixtape.”
To its credit, “Love Is a Mixtape” smartly focuses on one of the best aspects of the show: young Adam’s crush on his classmate Dana. As you’d expect from the title, Adam decides to express his love via an ’80s-tastic mixtape, but, in a sitcom misunderstanding, his overbearing mother believes it’s for her and hijacks the situation. Unfortunately, the Beverly character still doesn’t work for me — she’s not just a helicopter parent but someone who has actually actively try to sabotage her own daughter’s SAT scores just so she’ll go to college near home. With smaller, somewhat funny side stories like Adam’s first fake ID, “Love Is a Mixtape” falls firmly in the middling category for the night. It’s far and above Modern Family but fails to resonate.
Black-ish is ABC’s newest family-oriented sitcom and one of the season’s most promising comedy pilots. The newest family on Wednesdays is the Johnsons, a well-off black family consisting of an advertising executive father, a doctor mother, and their four adorable children (plus a grandfather, Pops, played hilariously by Laurence Fishburne). Black-ish aims to be more than the standard sitcom family fare by tackling on an issue you wouldn’t expect from ABC: the struggle to maintain your cultural identity when living in an all-white neighborhood and assimilating into mostlywhite environments, like Andre’s job or his children’s school.
With that alone, Black-ish is the most original half-hour of the night, and it’s also damn funny for a pilot, with laugh-out-loud clever jokes ranging from sight gags (Andre in full African-American garb) to smart racial humor (his coworker asking how a black man would say “good morning”). The episode is somewhat rough and has a very distinct, expositional-pilot feel — and the awful excessive-voice-over trend that’s plaguing the fall 2014 season has got to end — but Black-ish clearly has the talent to take it far. And score one for Black-ish airing a Bar Mitzvah episode before The Goldbergs!
1. The Middle
Of all the sitcoms on ABC, The Middle is probably the one that’s talked about the least — which is a shame because it’s also the one that’s most consistent. It’s not always hilarious, but its tone, characters, and balance between sweetness and laughs has remained constant since the pilot. Sue Heck is the breakout character of the show, a delightfully awkward but endlessly optimistic teenager who has spent far too long in braces. In “Unbraceable You,” Sue finally gets her braces off — the best day in any adolescent’s life — and revels in her metal-free life until she learns her teeth are going back to normal. But Sue is a character that really, really deserves a win, so instead of getting the braces back on, she just has to wear a retainer for a bit.
There’s funny stuff happening throughout “Unbraceable You,” the funniest being the early reveal that the kids should have started school a full week ago but everyone just kind of forgot. This is what The Middle is known for — plot points like being so overwhelmed as a parent that you can’t even remember your children have to go to school — and it’s very funny here. The subplot with Axl and Mike has been done before (father realizes he’s getting older), but it remarks on the aging that everyone, including the show itself, has done since the beginning. Some shows last night had better jokes and some had better runners, but The Middle had, as usual, the most well-rounded and consistent overall episode.