One of the pleasures of the 2010-11 TV season so far has been watching the growth of a number of ABC's Wednesday night programs. While I still can't say the entire three-hour block keeps me from changing the channel (the new sitcom "Better with You" -- which airs at 7:30 p.m. -- left me cold both times I tried it and the less said about the now-cancelled 9 p.m. legal drama "The Whole Truth," the better), there's a trio of outstanding comedies -- the deservingly Emmy-winning "Modern Family," (8 p.m.) plus the steadily rising "The Middle" (7 p.m.) and the truly surprising "Cougar Town" (8:30 p.m.) -- that are now "must-watch" programs for me. All three have distinctive voices and points of view, all three are well-written and performed, but most importantly, all three are just plain funny.
"Modern Family" found its voice in the very first episode, so they haven't messed with the formula too much. If anything, this second season -- so far, anyway -- has been about refining what the show did so well in year one. The sterling cast -- including the kids, who are usually the weakest link in a show, but here are absolutely top-notch -- seems even more comfortable in their roles, which appears to be freeing the writers up to give them even more to play. In particular, Sofia Vergara has developed into a marvelous comedienne in her role as Gloria, while Nolan Gould -- who plays Luke -- has been the show's secret weapon this year, delivering crackerjack one-liners week after week with the precision of a seasoned pro. (I'll even go so far as to predict that Vergara's performance in the Halloween episode -- where she attempts to swap her Colombian accent for an American one, and perhaps succeeds too well -- should earn her an Emmy next year.) Right now, "Modern Family" is in that rather rarified time in the life of a good show: that moment when it's firing on all cylinders.
Meanwhile, "The Middle" has built itself into a surprisingly clever and wise (and even compassionate) family sitcom. The Hecks of Orson, Indiana -- the family and the town where the show is set -- could have been portrayed as a sloppy "Hollywood" caricature of a Midwestern brood, but instead, the writing and performances make them recognizable and realistic, even when some of the storylines are a bit outsized. The family members fight with each other over things trivial and not so trivial, they struggle against financial and social pressures, but in the end, even when they are holding on for dear life, they're holding on together, with smiles on their faces. This is a likable family, one that you root for and want to spend time with. (By the way, this is another sitcom where the kids are equally as strong, performance-wise, as the adults on the screen; that there are two comedies on the air where the younger actors not only hold their own, but thrive, is another reason to treasure it.)
Of all three of these shows, "Cougar Town" is the happiest surprise. I hadn't hated the original pilot episode, but I certainly didn't love it, either. I laughed quite a bit, but there were enough moments -- mostly off-color humor -- that turned me off and made me wonder if this was going to be a show worth sticking around for after "Modern Family." Well, as if by some kind of audience thought-reading process, the co-creators of the show, as well as star Courtney Cox, figured out what the show needed to be about: the familial bonds of a group of friends. In making that discovery, they saved their show. Seemingly overnight, "Cougar Town" morphed from a somewhat-misbegotten sex comedy into a much more human (and humane) look at a group of people who are really only functioning well when they are together. A character that underlines how far the show has come is Bobby, the ex-husband of Cox's character, played by Brian Van Holt. In the pilot, he was easily the worst character on the show -- a smug, unlikable, unpleasant man; the walking cliche of a lousy former spouse. But as the show grew, so did Bobby. Van Holt was given the materials by the writers to build his character into someone who has tried to bury his bundle of insecurities, self-loathing and regrets underneath a surprisingly fragile exterior of forced confidence. Now Bobby is a character a viewer can love: a good man trying hard to make up for his past mistakes. The joy of the show is that all of the actors have had this gift given to them and they've responded by making their characters as full and rich as they can. In turn, the stories are sharper, funnier and measurably more enjoyable. Now I'm glad to say that I stuck with "Cougar Town" -- it's worth catching up on if you didn't, or even if you haven't watched it at all.
Modern Family: Four stars (out of four).
The Middle: Three and a half stars.
Cougar Town: Four stars.