There are very few shows that we watch with our twelve year old, Sophie, that aren’t reality series. Thanks to my daughter’s viewing habits, I’ve become a fan of DC Cupcakes (which isn’t about the scantily clad heroines of DC Comics, go figure) and Cake Boss, as well as the ridiculousness of Wipe Out. Almost any scripted series that she watches appears on Nickelodeon or The Disney Channel. Can’t say that I’m a fan of many of those derivative sitcoms, although I have been known to get sucked into an episode of Good Luck, Charlie, from time to time. The other night, Julie suggested that Sophie may like The Middle, ABC’s single camera sitcom that anchors the network’s Wednesday night lineup of comedies. It’s rated TV-PG, so my wife and I figured it would be okay for our tween-age daughter to watch it with us.
I was pretty excited about her discovering one of “our” shows. I can still remember watching MASH, Benson and WKRP in Cincinnati with my father when I was Sophie’s age. He would be stretched out on one of our couches, laughing out loud at jokes I didn’t necessarily get, while I rocked incessantly in one of our yellow rockers (before it was relegated to the basement). There was a thrill in being able to watch a “grown up” show, especially with my dad. Part of the reason I still enjoy the reruns of those aforementioned sitcoms is the memory of hanging with him (with my mom, our shared entertainment experiences would involve more serious material, such as St. Elsewhere).
If you haven’t seen The Middle, you’re missing a real quality show. It kind of goes unnoticed by the press because it isn’t “hip” or “edgy.” Created by Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, the show hews closer to Roseanne than The Office or Modern Family. Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond) stars as Frankie Heck, the matriarch of a blue collar Indiana family living on the fringe of the middle class. Frankie sells cars for a living, her husband, Mike (Neil Flynn, aka the Janitor on Scrubs), is the foreman at the local quarry. Frankie and Mike do their best to make ends meet each month, sometimes working two jobs at a time. Flynn and Heaton work well together creating a realistic marriage (albeit, one in a sitcom world). Heaton has shown that she has more range than her Raymond role showed, and it’s great seeing Flynn, who was always the secret weapon on Scrubs, get a chance to shine in a leading role.
Frankie and Mike have three kids and they couldn’t be more different. Axl is the oldest. He’s a high school jock who plays football and basketball. When he isn’t slacking around the house in just his boxer shorts, Axl works at the local movie theater. Charles McDermott does a great job as the eldest Heck kid. Although Axl is primarily a typical teenage guy, he does have a softer side, as shown when he got his heart broken and could only be consoled by Frankie (much to her delight).On the surface, Axl appears pretty stereotypical, but the writers and McDermott have added little flourishes that make the role well rounded.
Sue is the middle child. With braces and unkempt bright red hair, Sue sticks out like a sore thumb. She’s socially awkward and tries to hard to get accepted. However, she doesn’t let her unpopularity or clumsiness get her down. Sue is eternally optimistic, finding the bright side to most everything. Eden Sher portrays Sue with so much manic energy that she creates laughter just with her facial expressions. Sue may be my favorite character.
The youngest Heck child is Brick, named so because Frankie and Mike thought it would give him strength. Eh. Brick would rather read a book than lift a finger to do chores or play a sport. In fact, Brick loves reading so much that when he throws a birthday party, 30 minutes of reading time is incorporated into the activities. Brick is a strange kid. He has habit of lowering his chin and whispering to himself words or phrases that interest him. The writers got a little carried away with this running gag toward the end of the first season but have reined it in and found the most unusual places to have him repeat something. Atticus Shaffer plays Brick and give the odd character the right combination of cuteness and weirdness.
Like any show, there are recurring characters that come back for visits. Chris Kattan is very funny as Frankie’s co-worker and a (forced) friend of the family. The Heck kids are always having to babysit Frankie’s elderly aunts (Aunt Ginny and Aunt Edie), plus we’ve met Mike’s dad, “Big Mike,” (John Cullum of Northern Exposure) and his brother, Rusty (Norm McDonald).
The Middle certainly delivers its share of laughs, but it also has great heart, which I really appreciate in an age when so many sitcoms can be cynical and mean spirited (especially the shrill ones on Disney). Used to be a family could sit down and watch a Happy Days or Cosby Show and share some quality entertainment together. Now, you’re lucky if there’s even one show on the major networks that aren’t filled with some inappropriate . Not that I have anything against mature comedies; it’s just nice to have a show we all can enjoy, and possibly create new memories that Sophie will recall when has kids of her own.