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The Middle

Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.

In the middle of the 100th episode of ABC’s family sitcom The Middle, mom Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton) shares a quiet moment with her husband Mike (Neil Flynn). “Think about how much this town has done for us,” she says, the two of them sitting in sleeping bags against the float they’ll drive the next morning for their town’s centennial. “Well, after this we’re even,” he says. It’s the kind of punchline that would land differently on Modern Family, whose industrial line-delivery system spares no sentimentality for a snappy reversal. The Middle is more humane, and is focuses on the characters as people, not as open-mic comics. Frankie and Mike take a couple of jokeless minutes to reminisce about how they wound up in little old Orson, Indiana, a pair of stressed-out working-class strivers with three wonderfully exhausting children. For a celebration of such an overlooked stalwart, it’s beautifully restrained and an unexpectedly calm moment in the chaos of financial obligations and fast-food dinners, but it’s just right. The great family sitcom of the 2010s hasn’t arrived exactly. It’s still arriving.

That’s partly literal. While the Fox-produced, four-time Best Comedy Emmy-winner Modern Family is available on Blu-ray up to its latest season, Warner’s The Middle is lagging a year behind schedule, its third season debuting on DVD (no high-definition release in sight) at the onset of its fifth. Nevertheless, Modern Family is slipping in the ratings, and The Middle’s last season was its highest rated yet, averaging 8.4 million viewers (a million fewer than Modern Family’s first, and lowest-rated, season). The show keeps chugging along in the background, punching its time card at the beginning of ABC’s Wednesday night comedy block every week. 

The comparison is easy, the two sitcoms anchoring an evening, but it’s also illuminating even beyond the obvious class and geographic distinctions of The Middle. For instance, both shows open their current seasons with parents dropping off their children at school. On Modern Family, Phil and Gloria decide to get coffee together to help ease the transition as their high school freshmen pull away. At the coffee shop they wind up as background extras in a commercial, where their sadness leads to I Love Lucy-style antics that ruin take after take. Empathy is for suckers, at least until the scheduled heart-warming ending. On The Middle, Frankie is sending her eldest, Axl (Charlie McDermott), off to college, and he’s comically eager to leave, the episode mining laughs from her clinging to him even as he’s an ungrateful brat. Once at school, Axl abandons his family for an impromptu dorm party without even a hug goodbye, leaving Frankie to unleash her maternal feelings on his unresponsive roommate. After a brief shot of the ride home as a teary Frankie laughs at her lot in life, she walks into her usually busy home in a dim wide shot. The emptiness is overwhelming; even the remaining kids are quiet. That is, until Axl announces himself by complaining about an empty pantry, having made the 45-minute drive from college to retrieve some more supplies. Their heartwarming ending? Frankie rolls her eyes and thanks God that he doesn’t live there anymore. On Modern Family, the emotional honesty serves comedy. On The Middle, the comedy serves emotional honesty.

Like its godmother Roseanne that lent the series not only its creators Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, but also Frankie and Mike’s wry parenting, The Middle has always been a serious sitcom. The Hecks are so strapped for cash that the second episode climaxes with a scared Frankie telling her children she doesn’t know if they’ll be okay financially. The second season made the leap to greatness with such mounting economic pressure that a little container of eye cream forces Mike and Frankie to get part-time jobs. When youngest child Brick (Atticus Shaffer) develops a new behavioral tic that his parents take forever to notice, it isn’t a joke. It’s a symbol of their parental failures and yet another expenditure. The Middle is the only family sitcom that doubles as a recession thriller. 

But as it matures, The Middle has been finding time to deliver quiet moments of nostalgia on top of its goofy, heartfelt comedy with familiar, lived-in types. Before leaving for college, Axl and his recurring buddies climb the Orson High water tower and look out at their city in a quiet, wistful scene exactly like the one Frankie and Mike share before the centennial parade. Even their G-rated surname suggests a simpler time. The Middle is baseball and apple pies and a washer that needs to be duct-taped shut. It’s modern Americana.

That kind of heartwarming earnestness has earned Parenthood’s Jason Katims a reputation among fans for eliciting laughter and tears in the same episode. But Parenthood and his earlier series Friday Night Lights rely on a fussy naturalism: insanely overlapping dialogue, comically straight (uncomprehending) faces, arguments that build only to entrenchment, the better to earn release upon episode’s end. Anything that rings false threatens the whole, overworked design. The Middle is a stylized dip in that well, but unlike Modern Family’s mockumentary-for-no-one format, the artificiality is motivated. Katims’ specialty frog-in-your-throat, smile-on-your-face effect is achieved through a bold cartoon color scheme, broad physical gags, and sitcom characterizations. The look of The Middle has as much energy as its desperate characters.

Each of the Hecks embodies an American value: Frankie’s commitment to family, Mike’s simplicity, Axl’s confidence, Sue’s optimism, Brick’s curiosity (and isolationism). They’re at their best bouncing off each other in the family car or around the TV, but lately The Middle has wrung surprising pathos out of them individually: Axl’s roommate troubles, Sue’s lingering feelings for an ex, Mike missing his son. It’s a sparing effect, but just as bright-eyed Sue (Eden Sher) has become the show’s dynamite, the Hecks always manage to get by. One of the show’s recurring tropes is an existential version of Frankie’s habit of wanting but settling: to accept the futility of a situation the only way possible, by laughing. Naturally that’s how the 100th episode resolves, the Hecks and their community of recurring characters bonding over absurdity. But for all its gravity, The Middle never privileges settling over striving. Even as everything goes awry, The Middle gives Sue a reason to keep hoping. The American dream may be impossible, but you never know until you try.

Created by: Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline
Starring: Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn, Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher, Atticus Shaffer
Debuts: Wednesday at 8 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Format: Half-hour family sitcom
Complete series watched for review

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