A note on ‘The Middle’Posted: March 15, 2012
I’m trying to do this thing where I watch TV shows that are neither Chuck Lorre bad nor Matt Weiner buzz-worthy. These are the shows that slip through the cracks, shows that are legitimately good but for whatever reason don’t quite have the same sexy swoon plaudits of Modern Family and Mad Men, the two most consistently overhyped shows on TV (or about to be on TV in Mad Men’s case.)
I’ve stated my affinity for The Middle elsewhere on the Internets, namely on Facebook, but attempts to get my cabal of gal pals to watch the show have floundered spectacularly because a) watching movies/TV shows with my friends is seldom a good idea when said friends are giggly, tired and disinclined to believe you when you say, “But it’s actually really good!” and b) I could never find the really good episodes to screen.
Anyway, The Middle chronicles the quotidian travails of a lower middle class white family living in Indiana. Patricia Heaton and her really bad wig play Frankie Heck, the nagging matriarch, Neil Flynn of Scrubs fame, plays Mike Heck, the hilariously stoic dad, while Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher and the adorable Atticus Shafer, play the kids: Axl (the oldest, athletically-inclined son), Sue (the rarest of creatures: a happily awkward teenage girl), and Brick Heck (unabashed bibliophile with a penchant for whispering.
It’s the believable family dynamic that really makes the show work. The main characters veer just left of sitcom archetype and the children especially are so finely developed and characterized they feel like a breath of fresh air. Sue, with her indefatigable optimism, as the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum astutely points out, is a novelty in a culture landscape dotted with sarcastic, jaded TV teenagers. That the Hecks is a family of moderate means is a central theme of the show and its fastidiousness to this detail add to the show’s sense of calculated whimsy.
In one hilarious episode from the first season, for example, the family’s frantic attempts to gather the garbage before the truck comes, result in Frankie accidentally lobbing a beer bottle at Brick. Brick gets a tiny scratch and in his typical oddball way, fashions a bandage for himself that is so big a teacher at school notices and Frankie and Mike are accused of being abusive parents. Their attempts to get Brick to not lie, but not tell the whole truth either is hilarious.
I realize that The Middle is a particularly hard show to rave about. On paper, it doesn’t necessarily sound funny. It lacks the nonstop zingy pop culture references of other single camera comedies like Happy Endings, 30 Rock and Community. It’s about a traditional white family, which frankly doesn’t excite TV critics and culture pundits as much as it used to (for good reason too.)
But in both its warmth and in its pessimistic realism–birthdays are forgotten, tickets for a Justin Bieber concert are scrounged for, the roof leaks–it paints a picture of America that in many ways, TV has essentially abandoned in favor of reality shows, crime procedurals and quirky avant-garde fare.