Though overshadowed by the hype, buzz, awards and acclaim of last season’s breakout series Glee and Modern Family, ABC’s The Middle consistently delivered the comedy goods.
Set in the Midwest, the Patricia Heaton-starrer offers a refreshing take on the otherwise generic premise of life for a lower middle class family in the easily-overlooked state of Indiana.
Unlike their far more prosperous familial counterparts on Modern Family (also on ABC), the Hecks of The Middle more or less live paycheck to paycheck in a consistent struggle to make ends meet. Mike, the father, works in a quarry while Frankie, the mother and narrator, lost her job at a dental office and is currently far from successful as a car saleswoman.
In its honest reflection of the lives more and more Americans are leading, The Middle picks up where the groundbreaking Roseanne (also on ABC) left off but with shades of Malcolm in the Middle. Like the families represented on those two series, each setback is met with relatable humor and the innate ability to somehow survive and carry on despite the circumstances.
The first season saw a breakdown of the dryer, Mike’s temporary layoff from the quarry, a shutdown of the electricity, the short-term cable cutback and the constant threat of Frankie’s termination from the car dealership. Fortunately for the series, none of these real-life conditions comprised entire episodes but instead took a backseat to typical family situations motivated by the most universal of factors – love.
Though references are made to the country’s current economic woes, it is handled rather comically via flashbacks speaking to “things getting better in 2009”. By the end of the season, they were looking forward to 2012.
After nine years as Ray’s wife on Everybody Loves Raymond, Heaton steps naturally into the central lead character of Frankie Heck with the same strength as in her previous role, for which she won two Emmys as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.
Neil Flynn, fresh from his eight years in the supporting role of the Janitor on Scrubs, upgrades nicely to the head of the Heck family. As is the case with Heaton, it is difficult not to think of his former TV existence but the odd-on-paper pairing of Heaton and Flynn works on screen just as well as the more antagonistic screen pairing of Romano and Heaton. Whereas Raymond was more focused on husband versus wife, The Middle shifts that focus to the eternal struggle of parent vs. child and family vs. world.
Even more well cast are the three young actors playing their children. Charlie McDermott plays eldest son Axl, the sullen teenage jock with the occasional spark of maturity. Eden Sher is the middle child and only daughter Sue, the pre-teen misfit with an indomitable spirit. Atticus Shaffer is perfect as the socially awkward youngest child Brick with an odd habit of randomly whispering to himself during a conversation.
In the typical motherly way, Frankie tries very hard to endear herself to her once-loving son, tries even harder to be supportive and encouraging to her rather oblivious daughter and tries hardest of all to understand the precocious one.
In the typical fatherly way, Mike does his best to stay outside the fray by focusing on working, coming home, eating, relaxing and providing for his family. Though he’d love to be completely left alone, both Mike and the viewing audience know that in the end, he’ll do just as much for those kids as Frankie — even if he gets to that point long after his wife does.
Though each child role could be played solely for laughs, the humor is rooted in three richly drawn and multi-layered characterizations performed by three talented young actors.
Rounding out the cast is Saturday Night Live veteran Chris Kattan, appearing as Frankie’s friend and co-worker – a lonely heart who serves as a much-needed ally to her at the car dealership.
The Middle recently launched its second of what is hoped will be several seasons on ABC with an episode featuring Raymond co-star Doris Roberts as Brick’s teacher. With Glee and Modern Family firmly in place as two of TV’s top shows, let’s hope viewers, critics and award groups take enough notice to make room for another.