Family sitcoms aren’t exactly thin on the ground, so finding a new spin on the format is always going to take some work. Originally intended as a vehicle for Ricki Lake, The Middle is a case in point. After several years in development, it finally aired in autumn 2009 with a new lead: Patricia Heaton, one of the stars of hugely popular show Everybody Loves Raymond. Writers Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline had previously been responsible for Roseanne, so the track records of all involved boded well for the series’ prospects. Six seasons later – with a seventh confirmed in May – expectations have well and truly been proved correct.
The Middle is a warm, beautifully performed and acutely observed portrait of a family struggling to cope with the demands of everyday life in an economic downturn. Mom Frankie (Heaton) keeps domestic life running more or less smoothly as her family – laconic dad Mike (Neil Flynn), layabout eldest son Axl (Charlie McDermott), sweet odd-one-out Sue (Eden Sher) and gifted baby of the family Brick (Atticus Shaffer) – find their own unique ways to throw a spanner in the works. Extended family, the annual demands of holiday celebrations, youthful romance and classroom tribulations all play their part as the Hecks muddle their way through small-town life.
What really distinguishes The Middle from other shows of its kind is its faultless cast. Heaton’s Frankie is a wholly believable creation, with her Herculean efforts to pull the many strands of family life together in the face of work pressures and filial strife. Her partner in this is Mike, whose combination of patient stoicism and frequently infuriating detachment is given vivid life by the reliably superb Flynn. As for the Heck kids, you’ll struggle to find three finer young actors. Shaffer plays Brick’s quirks to perfection, skilfully conveying the difficulties of life for a boy whose high intellect and trouble socialising will always set him apart. Sher works wonders as Sue Sue Heck, so good they named her twice. (Actually, the elder Hecks made a mistake when registering her birth, but the point still stands.) A perennial optimist whose ability to see the good in every crushing social snub is often heartbreaking, Sue’s awfully hard not to love. Rounding out the trio is McDermott’s Axl, a handsome would-be jock whose fundamental devotion to his siblings is often put in jeopardy by his desperate attempts to avoid losing cool points by association. McDermott’s talent for physical comedy brings many of the show’s biggest laughs, while more recent seasons have seen Axl gain in depth as high school recedes into the past.
There may not be a weak link in The Middle’s main cast, but they’re also given sterling support by its many fine guest stars. Spotting all the Saturday Night Live alumni is one of the show’s incidental pleasures. Chris Kattan appears frequently in the first three seasons as Bob, Frankie’s hapless work colleague at the car showroom run by plausibly dreadful Don Ehlert (Brian Doyle-Murray). Mike’s brother, the permanently confused and thoroughly likeable Rusty, is played by the brilliant Norm Macdonald. Though Mike’s relationship with his brother and equally unfathomable father Big Mike (John Cullum) is often hilarious, it also makes for touching moments as the straightforward younger Mike comes to understand that his awkward relationship with his son Brick in many ways mirrors that with his other emotionally distant male relatives. This is typical of The Middle, a show that mines its central relationships for comedy while never forgetting the humanity of the characters at its heart. Though devoid of schmaltz, there is an endearingly soft centre to the show that doesn’t hold it back from taking sharp jabs at the more ridiculous aspects of modern family life.
The Middle is both a classic family comedy and a well-judged commentary on a specific time and place. A dark shadow’s cast over its first season by Mike’s temporary unemployment when the quarry he works at is closed due to the discovery of dinosaur bones. The post-recession setting provides an ominous backdrop to the Hecks’ financial struggles, while Frankie’s constantly confronted by two images of possible success and failure in the shape of seemingly perfect neighbours the Donahues and, in stark contrast, the troubled home life of Rita Glossner (Brooke Shields) and her three tearaway sons.
Despite all this, the show is ultimately about community. Sue’s bond with rebellious guidance counsellor Jane Marsh (a sublime Whoopi Goldberg) develops as both trade stories of their relative isolation, while the many dreaded social events the Hecks suffer through often come with a silver lining attached, even if it is just a shared laugh over the absurdity of it all. The Hecks and their kindly, live-and-let-live working-class values provide a pleasing alternative to sneering depictions of the so-called ‘flyover states’. Long may their bickering continue.
Here are five of The Middle’s most memorable episodes…
The Neighbor (S1, E12)
Nightmare neighbor Rita Glossner and her three uncontrollable sons have been terrorising the Hecks for years. When Frankie tries to teach Brick to kick a ball and succeeds in booting it over the Glossners’ wall, it’s time to face their fears head-on. Frankie, however, goes and buys a new ball rather than speak to Rita. The fearless Sue and her friend Carly confront the Glossner boys over their untrained dog, only to be challenged to a fight. In inimitable Sue fashion, the girls turn up armed with a boombox and launch into martial arts moves, soundtracked by Kung Fu Fighting!. Brooke Shields is brilliantly cast against type as Glossner matriarch Rita, while the combination of big laughs with a touching sideplot of Brick’s attempts to bond with Axl are typical of The Middle’s first season.
Foreign Exchange (S2, E5)
As usual, it’s advice from supermom Rita Donahue that gives Frankie an idea for her latest improvement scheme. The rest of the family’s thoroughly unenthusiastic about the prospect of hosting a Japanese exchange student, but Frankie is adamant. The quiet Takayuki proves difficult to handle, however; even the cultured Brick can’t manage to get through to him. In desperation, the Hecks embark on a road trip to rustic Brown County with their indifferent guest. When, inevitably, the car breaks down and all descends into chaos, Takayuki reveals a hidden talent for gadgetry. “Foreign Exchange” unpicks the awkwardness of cultural clashes to hilarious effect. The priceless final shot of Takayuki – back home in Japan and showing troubling signs of having learnt far too much from Axl and Brick – is the perfect ending.
The Guidance Counselor (S3, E21)
The Middle’s roster of guest stars has been impressive, but Whoopi Goldberg has to top the list. She plays shy guidance counsellor Jane Marsh, whose advice is sought by Sue after yet another humiliating setback when she’s left out of the school yearbook. Jane, it turns out, is a kindred spirit struggling with her own feelings of isolation, but Sue’s dauntless optimism gives her a jolt of energy. Nobody will be putting Sue in the corner from now on – and the same goes for her earnest mentor. “The Guidance Counselor” is undoubtedly one of the show’s finest episodes, treading the fine line between comedy and pathos with sure-footed care while ensuring that each of its key players get their moment in the spotlight. Goldberg is a joy, reminding us that, although we seldom get to see her in comedic roles these days – more’s the pity – nobody can touch her when it comes to quirky, funny roles touched with real feeling. Watching her deliver that magic opposite the always superb Eden Sher is a rare treat indeed.
The Wedding (S3, E24)
Mike’s relationship with his abstracted elder brother Rusty’s never easy, but by season three’s finale, they’ve begun to find some common ground. That’s why he and Frankie are delighted to learn that Rusty, to their surprise, is about to marry. That pleasure fades somewhat when they find out that their house is going to be the wedding venue. Neil Flynn and Norm Macdonald are perfect as the mismatched siblings, while Mike’s speech at the wedding brings both laughter and tears. From the revelation that Rusty’s real name is Orville (Mike himself only found this out when it was read out in court) to the antics of Axl and his two spectacularly daft friends attempting to remove a tree stump from an elderly man’s garden for a summer job, season three ends a fantastic run of episodes on a high.
Life Skills (S4, E11)
One of the most appealing aspects of The Middle is its emphasis on finding a place for everyone in a community. Without a hint of preachiness, the show manages to find its humour in everyday frustrations and sadnesses while never mocking those going through such experiences. Brick’s social problems and difficulty fitting in at school have always been treated with immense sensitivity, and one of the most touching examples of this is ‘Life Skills’. When the school refers him to therapist Dr. Fulton (Dave Foley) Brick finds himself forced to defend his outlook on life. After all, what’s so great about being a kid? The rapport between Brick and the unfulfilled Fulton rings all too true, and the episode’s other story – Axl and Sue end up in the same class, much to their horror – gives the whole family more than enough to keep them occupied.