The Middle debuted in 2009 in a timeslot right after what ABC thought was going to be a huge hit: Hank, a cynical mess about a laid off rich guy that used the words “bailout” and “recovery” a lot. It went after a middle American, working class audience while also making fun of that same audience. The Middle seemed like it might have been that kind of thing, too: a modern-day take on Roseanne, centered on a family of slobs from a state nobody in the writers’ room had ever met who can’t make ends meet and are gross and lazy but God love ‘em because they love each other and are real Americans, right real Americans sitting on your reinforced couches? Actually, at first, The Middle was exactly that. It was pretty bad, but so were Parks and Recreation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Newhart. The show found its footing and has since evolved into a sharp comedy that is darkly satirical of a listless America, but is also Cosby sweater-warm and family suitable.
The Heck family lives in Orson, Indiana, the prototypical blue collar midwestern town. The show is essentially a vehicle for former Everybody Loves Raymond star Patricia Heaton, who narrates and stars as Frankie Heck. Frankie is a perpetually tired mother, vaguely disappointed but accepting of her life because she doesn’t know any better, a refreshing and familiar alternative to the seemingly coked up, far too wealthy, perpetually displeased Claire on Modern Family. But here’s why you should watch The Middle instead of whatever it is you’re watching on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. (probably Whitney, am I right? No.)
It’s about the Sysphian nightmare that is being working poor in America
Most comedies have a thesis, or an essential theme that is repeated each week. (Except Seinfeld, of course.) Parks and Recreation is about the triumph of passion and love for the fellow man over idiocy and red tape; New Girl is about how everyone is born broken but slowly heals; The Cosby Show was about how kids are essentially stupid and need parents to nudge them in the right direction. The Middle is about the unrelenting cruelty of the universe. The Hecks never, ever win. And they never, ever will win. And they know that. Teenager Axl (Charlie McDermott) is a high school football phenom who uses that to completely mortgage his future — the show spent two years leading up to his getting a college scholarship, the only way he could possibly attend, as his grades are poor (because why study when you’re a football god) and his family poorer. Then his sister, while ineptly trying to get her driver’s permit, ran over his foot. Football over, college over, dreams over. Another example: Frankie Heck never, ever, actually sells a car at the dealership where she works part time. Then she got fired. All the while, they live in constant filth, appliances are perpetually broken because the Hecks can’t afford to fix them, and their youngest son, Brick, has serious social disorders and physical tics which go ignored because they are far, far too depressing and/or expensive to treat properly.
Breakout star Eden Sher.
You might remember Sher as a slutty party guest from the first episode of Party Down. On The Middle, she plays the middle child, Sue Heck, who is the human personification of the middle. Most of Sue’s subplots are about her extreme, infectious enthusiasm never being squashed by the world’s indifference, hostility, or forgetting that she even exists. (She has to find video evidence that she had perfect attendance for an entire school year; even her parents forget her birthday; she’s the high school mascot.) She loves being a teenager, but takes cues on what is cool (such as her loud print sweaters and puffy paint-decorated school supplies) from out of touch sources, such as “KickinItTeenStyle.com.” Also, she thinks it’s cool to perform skits about the dangers of drunk driving in front of the school. She is mocked, forgotten, overlooked, but never does her enthusiasm waver. She is a young Leslie Knope, and Eden Sher’s performance of her has ironically and appropriately not garnered much attention from awards givers.
People you like are on it.
Neil Flynn, the janitor from Scrubs and improv legend, plays emotionally stoic man’s man dad Mike Heck. His brother and father, equally emotionally distant and withholding, are portrayed by Norm MacDonald and John Cullum, respectively. Brooke Shields, who was funny enough on Friends to get the unfunny sitcom Suddenly Susan into production, plays a white trash neighbor. (She has comedy chops, you guys.) Chris Kattan from SNL plays a pathetic, Members Only-jacket wearing, mom-living with coworker of Frankie’s at the car dealership (or he did — she’s gotten fired, because the Hecks lives must always suck). Frankie’s unctuous scumbag boss was played by Brian Doyle-Murray.
Most child-appropriate sitcoms now have been shifted off to the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon and they are godawful and smarmy. Most network sitcoms are a little too racy for kids (although I’ve let my young child watch Community and Bob’s Burgers because he must learn). The Middle, despite it being about the crushing failure of modern life, is probably the only family-friendly comedy on network TV, by which I mean its funny and smart enough for adults, but the plot lines are relatable to kids, too.
Brian Boone makes words on the Internet.