Stuck in "The Middle" with the Hecks
Channel Surfing bloggers Malavika Jagannathan and Adam Reinhard were surprised that this sort of, well, middling show could be so heartfelt, hilarious, and the season's most underappreciated new sitcom.
Malavika: To be honest, family-centric sitcoms always made me a bit uncomfortable. As much as I loved "The Cosby Show" and, yes, even "Growing Pains," I grew out of that phase pretty quickly. If I wanted to laugh at someone's family, well, I'd laugh at my own. So, I was pretty surprised at how much I liked "The Middle." Patricia Heaton has always been good at playing the harried mom type and Neil Flynn pretty much shines in anything he does. But, truly, it's their kooky kids -- teenage son Axl, almost always wandering the house in nothing but boxers; the eager but perennial failure at whatever she does Susan; and the totally weird youngest child Brick -- that pushes this past "Malcolm in the Middle" territory.
Families are weird, and the Hecks are no exception. But they don't treat the weirdness as something to be ashamed of. If there's a message you want to pass on to your kids, it's that being different is OK (unless, of course, you're in junior high), so it's nice to see a show doing that without getting all preachy about it.
The Hecks are also a middle-class family in a normal, suburban neighborhood like the ones most of us grew up in (no offense to "Modern Family" but the palatial houses the characters live in are a tad ridiculous, especially when it seems like none of them ever actually go to work). Instead, they live in a house that's often messy, where everyone has to fight over the bathroom and no one has any privacy. With dad Mike (Flynn) working at a quarry -- and recently losing the job -- and mom Frankie (Heaton) eeking out a living as a car saleswoman with almost no sales, the Hecks aren't rolling in dough. Undoubtedly many families can relate to that given the state of the economy. One could argue that television ought to be an escape from real life, but in a television landscape where the lives of the rich and wealthy are often extolled, it's nice to see an average, middle-of-the-road family given the same respect.
Adam: I totally agree. The Hecks are the most realistic, relatable family on TV right now; in fact, I'm having trouble thinking of any family in all of TV history that could give them a run for their money.
"The Middle" has obvious forebearers, like "Malcolm in the Middle," as you mentioned (although it is thankfully far less wacky), but especially the mother of all blue-collar comedies, "Roseanne." Whereas that undoubtedly classic sitcom served as a showcase for Roseanne Barr's standup routines, with her children little more than window dressing, "The Middle" is much more of an ensemble effort. Heaton is obviously the main character, but unlike Roseanne, she doesn't get the lion's share of laughs. In other words, she doesn't sit around the kitchen all day spitting wisecracks; on the contrary, Frankie Heck is almost constantly in motion, running from one family emergency to the next, and that's where the humor is derived from. That's what we can all relate to.
It's a near-miracle that "The Middle" is as funny as it is. Shouldn't all the jokes about family life be exhausted by now? Yet these are some deftly written characters. There have been shows with geeky teenagers before, but not one quite like Sue Heck (Eden Sher). With her boundless optimism that always -- and I mean always -- comes crashing head-on with her stunning social ineptitude, she's unique for a TV teenage girl. Take the episode where she stands up to some neighborhood bullies, challenging them to a fight after school. Unfortunately, her concept of "fighting" obviously comes from "You Got Served," and merely includes choreographed dance moves to "Kung Fu Fighting," which results in the bullies pushing her and her friend over and stealing their boombox. "They didn't even let us finish!" she cries to her parents later. "And we worked really hard on those moves!"
Each character is given similar moments to shine. Youngest child Brick (Atticus Shaffer) at first seems like a clone of "Malcolm in the Middle's" Dewey -- he even looks like Erik Per Sullivan. Both boys are highly intelligent for their ages, and a bit withdrawn, Brick never seeks to be the center of attention. He favors sleeping under the table for a month unnoticed rather than telling his parents he doesn't want to share a room with his brother. Yes, his penchant for repeating some words as a whisper while staring at the ground seemed like it would get old after the first few episodes, it is used infrequently, and only as punctuation on other jokes.
"The Middle" will never be confused with edgier fare like "30 Rock" or "Community," but it's a show you can watch with the entire family.
"The Middle" airs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC.
-- Malavika Jagannathan, firstname.lastname@example.org; Adam Reinhard, email@example.com