Friday, October 15, 2010

Heart and Humor Meet in (ABC's) The Middle

Last fall, when the new sitcom "The Middle" was introduced to ABC's Wednesday night line-up, I didn't like it at all. The show centered around the Hecks, a middle-class, middle American family planted firmly and unpretentiously in Indiana. You had Mike, the straight-talking quarry manager dad ("Scrubs's" Neil Flynn); Frankie, a frazzled used car saleswoman-slash-supermom (Patricia Heaton, "Everybody Loves Raymond"); Axl, their popular football playing teenage son; Sue, their awkward preteen daughter who gets cut from every team she tries out for; and Brick, their brilliant but socially hopeless second grader. Weekly plots focused on all the icky little details of work and home life: paying bills on time, shopping for suspect meat at the discount grocery store, getting the kids to do their homework, squeezing in family dinners, shopping for anniversary present carpet remnants, trying not to be late for work, etc. To be honest, it depressed me. So I stopped watching, clicking over to the vapid but more cheerful (and now cancelled) "Gary Unmarried" on CBS until it was time for the upper middle-class glamor of "Modern Family" to dazzle me as far away from reality as was possible.

Things went on like this until mid-season last year when I decided to give "The Middle" another chance. And you know what? I started to feel ashamed of my prematurely snobby dismissal. I started to, well, like it. Because behind all the tedium, the Hecks had something that most sitcom families didn't: heart. Their struggles became more funny than bleak, probably because they rang true. I especially liked Brick, endeared by his kooky, too-cerebral-for-his-own-good differentness and the way he repeated the things he said out loud in whispers. Before long, "The Middle" had eclipsed "Modern Family" for the top spot in my Wednesday night TV-viewing affections.

I still watch and enjoy "Modern Family." But sometimes its big, perfect houses seem kind of cold compared to the Hecks' lived-in rancher with the unfinished basement and lime green living room. Similarly, "Modern Family's" three couples seem to be strained by tensions that remain unresolved even after plots are sewn up. Although Mike and Frankie Heck squabble over the usual who's-going-to-drive-the-kids-to-practice sort of issues, they never seem to resent each other as lingeringly as Phil and Claire Dunphy. Interestingly, Claire (Julie Bowen) sometimes reminds me of the high-strung stay-at-home mom that Heaton used to play on "Raymond." Although considerably poorer and more heavily burdened, Heaton's character on "The Middle" appears happier and more grounded. Of course, that could just be because her mother-in-law isn't lurking across the street . . .

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