5 Seasons (2009-present)
The Middle is a typical family comedy. The conceit is that this show is supposed to show us what real life is like in Middle America, not how typical TV sitcoms show it. And what makes this show so great is that it actually does what it sets out to do in its own hyper-comedic way.
Patricia Heaton is lead and mom Frankie Heck. Her character here is so different from the more composed, sophisticated part she played on her star-making run on Everybody Loves Raymond. Frankie is always yearning for her messy life to be better. She constantly wishes that her husband Mike (a fantastic Neil Flynn) was less stoic. She wishes that her eldest son Axl (Charlie McDermott) was less of a jerk. She wishes her daughter Sue (Eden Sher) was more popular and successful at school. And she wishes her youngest Brick (Atticus Shaffer) was less weird. She constantly compares herself to her neighbors and to the people she sees on TV. Her life, her home, her finances, and her job are constantly a mess. And in that, the show taps into the great truth about ordinary life: it's messy.
I love the Heck house for its messiness. It seems very real to me. I can remember growing up with a house filled with clutter everywhere, only cleaning when company was coming (and that usually consisted of hiding the trash). It captures the messiness of sibling dynamics, how they both foil and mirror each other at the same time.
And that mess is reflective of daily life. When Axl finds out that his grandparents set aside a few thousand dollars for him for college, he becomes enraged when he finds out his parents already spent it. Mike says, "We made a resolution that we would only touch that money in case of an emergency. Little did we know that everything would be an emergency."
What makes Frankie's frustration so frustrating to watch is that most of these problems are her own. She wants to have a perfect life, but she doesn't want to work for it and cuts every corner. In that, I think Heaton captures the essential American dilemma. We want happiness, but we want it easy. The show isn't a satire of Middle America, though it does poke fun at it. Underneath all of the mess there is some real heart.
In fact, one of the biggest selling points for me regarding this show is that it is a true family show. While I love sitcoms like The Office and The Big Bang Theory, I would be very uncomfortable if a small child were watching, because of the adult humor. The Middle is a show that I would be very comfortable sharing with the whole family. It is also a show that treats religion with respect as well as humor. The recurring character Reverend TimTom is both a dig at "cool" youth ministers, but his sincerity comes through and his words are actually very wise. And that this show is still full of wit is a testament to the cast and crew. Most "family" shows fail to find the funny and so overdose on the wholesome. The Middle doesn't do that.
And I love Mike Heck. He is one of the best TV dads I've seen. He isn't very affectionate or sympathetic, but he understands the job of a father, as illustrated in the scene below.
"The Block Party" (Episode 1x05)
Here is where I think I really started to understand the show. First of all, Brick's quirkiness really got to me. Mike wants him to socialize more and so he asks Brick if he likes basketball. Brick says yes and so Mike signs him up for peewee basketball, which Brick messes up horribly. When Mike confronts him about it and says, "I thought you said you liked basketball!" Brick responds "Oh sure, I like all words with 3-syllables." It's then that I understood Brick.
And the show also really hits home about parenthood. Mike sacrifices his chance to win a lawnmower race in order to keep a weird promise to his weird son Brick. When Axl shows genuine affection to Sue by giving her his jersey to cheer her up, Frankie has more joy than if she got it herself. Here is where I saw the plan in the chaos.
JUMP THE SHARK
The show is still going strong, I don't quite see it losing steam yet. In fact, this season had its best episode…
"The Wonderful World of Hecks." (5x24)
This vacation episode had me laughing the entire time. Sue wins a trip to Disney, so the Hecks drive down to Orlando. It's only when they arrive that they realize that their tickets are for Disneyland in California, not Disneyworld in Orlando. What happens next captures the strange experience of going to a place like Disney. I don't want to give away any of the jokes, but it centers around the pressure to have fun and how that pressure squeezes so much fun out of the experience. You feel all of the absolute frustration that comes from a big family Disney vacation that also at the same time creates life-long memories.
There something inherently honest in this strange little show. And that honesty is why this humor should strike a universal chord for anyone who grew up in the Middle.