I don't think The Middle has become a bad show in its first season, not exactly, but I do wish it had become a better one. Indeed, a lot of the stuff I wrote about the pilot still stands, even as the show as slowly sharpened some elements of its worldview. It's still a Malcolm in the Middle and Roseanne clone that's struggling to develop its own voice. It still boasts a cast that's often far better than the material. And it's still got a unique viewpoint that struggles to see out from underneath all of the family sitcom quirk. I like The Middle. I watch it every week and mostly don't regret the experience. But I always want it to be a little sharper, and every time it starts to head in that direction, it undercuts itself to keep from really exploring what it's trying to say.
Really, this wouldn't be a problem if it hadn't been paired with Modern Family and Cougar Town, both of which spent most of the season deepening their characters and building sitcom worlds that were at once inviting and specific to the shows themselves. There are a lot of B-level sitcoms out there, shows that have one or two outstanding elements but mostly coast on everything else. Think of your New Adventures of Old Christines (where a game cast saves often tame scripts) or your Big Bang Theories (where, again, there's a game cast but, also, occasionally, very sharp joke writing). These are shows that just don't have all of the elements but still provide a reasonable amount of enjoyment every week. The Middle is protected in the ratings by those other two shows, but it also suffers in comparison to them. Stick it on, say, Friday night, and it's easier to appreciate it for its comfort food tendencies.
Comfort food sitcoms are somehow less irritating to me than comfort food dramas. I like to call them socks-folding TV, and I somehow end up DVRing and watching a lot of them, including this one. They're just enjoyable little places to slip away to every week, and spending just 20-some minutes there is less of an investment than a full 40-some minutes. And, to be fair, The Middle is constantly threatening to turn into something really interesting, a blue-collar family comedy that's unapologetic about the fact that money concerns have more of a detrimental effect on families than we want to believe in our most prominent cultural myths. The happy poor family that doesn't have a lot but still has a lot of love is practically omnipresent in fiction, and while there are plenty of poor families like that, there are just as many whose money concerns keep them from being as happy in their relationships as they might be.\
Take tonight's season finale, for example. I rather love the central idea of the episode: Frankie and Mike Heck have been such lazy parents that they don't realize that their oldest son is a genius, their middle daughter is completely ignored, and their youngest son is about to have to repeat second grade on a technicality. It's a very funny premise for an episode, particularly for a season finale, and there are some great scenes where Mike and Frankie insist that it's not them that are the problem but, rather, their kids, who just don't care enough. Now, obviously, the show has spent a lot of time spelling out just how little daughter Sue is noticed by her peers (largely because Eden Sher's winningly gawky work as the kid is some of the most underrated supporting work on TV right now and the writers, realizing this, have written to her physical comedy gifts). But by wrapping this idea into the rest of the narrative - with Frankie deciding to become one of those parents who agitates school officials to get her daughter every advantage - it becomes a good centerpiece for the episode.
This is not even to mention all-purpose TV all star Betty White (who signed on to this guest spot long before Facebook returned her to prominence). White is a funny woman, and even though she's given very little to work with here, she makes the most of it, and her work with Atticus Shaffer, as youngest Heck Brick, is generally pretty fun. The show occasionally leans a little too heavily on "weird kid" stereotypes for Brick, but it's also capable of creating a weirdly specific portrayal of a really smart little kid who doesn't quite fit in, and seeing him sort of bond with White's librarian character, only to have her reveal her anger by forcing him to find the 31 books he still had checked out, lest he repeat the second grade, worked as well. I even liked the final gag - where Brick found the last book he had checked out by checking it out at the public library and turning it in at the school one - which was the kind of specific, "Here's how you get by when you don't have the cash to make everything right" gag that this show does well when it wants to.
I also liked the Sue storyline, which felt like a minor step forward for the character. Since Sher is so good at playing this kind of humiliation, there are whole episodes that occasionally feel like Sue Heck torture porn, but this one at least had the inspiring payoff of her completing five laps around the track on her crutches so she could make it on the no-cut cross country team. Sher sells the hell out of Sue's delusions but also just how desperate she is to feel like she fits in, and even though the show works overtime to keep her looking like a 13-year-old (she's 18), Sher keeps the character feeling like a young teenager through accentuating everything inherently gawky about her performance. Sue loses so often and so spectacularly that it was nice for the show to give her a win, even if it could be seen coming from a mile away. Again, this is the kind of sweet, family togetherness story the show does well when it wants to.
The problem is, I think, that it often feels like the show doesn't want to, at least not enough. I rather liked the idea of making oldest son Axl an unrecognized genius, for instance, but the show chickened out through the most cliche reveal ever (the smart kid who sits behind him got his test results mixed up with Axl's). I guess I wouldn't have a problem with Axl staying dumb - though I think the idea of him as a genius Frankie and Mike are just too tired to inspire is much better - but the out for the storyline is too easy and too much like something you've seen on other, better shows.
The most interesting thing The Middle has had going for it some weeks is that it feels like it's a show about parents who are slowly realizing they're in over their heads with their kids, and the show always backs away from this with easy answers at the end of an episode. Similarly, the show is very concerned with its characters' finances - as opposed to every other comedy on television - but it never really makes the most of the tension and humor that come from stretching every paycheck out as far as it can go. Nor does the writing really get at the emotional core of what's up with Sue, at least not as well as Sher does.
The Middle has enough going for it - and the way it nails its Midwestern setting is one I haven't gotten into here - that I feel just a little disappointed every time it turns into a TGIF sitcom at the end of every episode. There's a sharp show inside of The Middle somewhere, but the series keeps sanding off those edges, in favor of kooky sight gags and broad comedy. I don't have a problem with either, but The Middle is always at its best when it embraces the strained realism of its premise, and the show seems too reluctant to do that.
Finale grade: B
Season grade: B-
- This show is also way, way overscored. Jaime Weinman has talked about how the things single camera comedies have replaced the laugh track with to fill the dead spaces are often worse than the laugh track would be, and I think that's the case with the musical cues here. I'd rather hear dead people laughing than yet another zany leftover bit of interstitial music from Green Acres.
- Which just reminds me of the invention exchange from this episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
- "What magazine or lady show can I blame for this?"
- "Hey, mom, look. I'm using my history book as a plate. No clean up for you."
- "You think you can make it out in the real world without cursive? You CAN'T."
- "I think we're good parents and that we got stuck with crappy kids