Now in its fourth season, The Middle is a modest ratings hit for ABC, where it kicks off the network’s Wednesday night comedy lineup, but while people are obviously watching the series, they rarely talk about it. That’s not too surprising; The Middle is a throwback to the bygone era of working class sitcoms. If Modern Family‘s wealthy Pritchett-Dunphy-Delgado-Tucker clan is the fictional family you fantasize about joining, the Hecks likely resemble the family you already have. Frankie and Mike worry about how they’re going to pay their bills, have perpetually broken appliances and their trio of kids treat squabbling like an Olympic sport. The series is at times painfully real, but it’s also always hilarious, which is why it’s such a shame that it often gets overlooked for its flashier cohorts.
Let me be straight here: The Middle isn’t a “cool” show. It doesn’t spout pop culture references or reinvent the sitcom genre. What it does is deliver consistently smart, funny and warm stories about on a weekly basis. Four seasons in, and the series shows no signs of flagging. In fact, season four is shaping up to be the series’ strongest season yet thanks to episodes like “Christmas Help”, where Frankie took a retail job in order to get a discount on Christmas presents for her kids, and “One Kid at a Time”, which offered up an incredibly moving look at parents doing their best to relate to their kids (and vice versa). The Middle is that rare series that has figured out how to age gracefully.
By design, The Middle is reminiscent of shows like Roseanne, but the series is perhaps the most au courant sitcom on television. The Heck family reflects many of the problems the typical American family has faced since the recession hit, from dealing with losing a job to contemplating downsizing from home ownership to apartment living to save money. It may sound like dour subject matter for a comedy, but no matter what misfortunes befall the Hecks, they carry on, thanks in large part to their healthy sense of humor. Furthermore, the writers deserve kudos for tackling the tricky subject matter with such ease. The Hecks’ trials are often played for laughs, but they’re funny because they ring so true.
It’s not just their financial woes that make the Hecks relatable though, it’s the sheer amount of craziness packed into their family. Mike is largely unemotional, unless he’s talking about his work cat. Frankie sets up play dates for her husband, and once accidentally ate her son’s toenails. Axl is disturbingly self-obsessed. Sue is somehow more positive than Chris Traeger, and Brick is…well Brick. Like all families, they fight with each other and get exasperated by each other’s quirks, but at the end of the day they always have each other’s backs.
There was a time when the networks were stocked with family sitcoms, but shows like The Middle are now rarities. Blame the Friends effect or just changing tastes, but for whatever reason, hang out comedies about pop culture obsessed twenty and thirtysomethings reign supreme these days. Don’t get me wrong, I love those shows. In fact, I’m fairly certain I watch all of those shows, but those shows also have a hard time attracting viewers (unless they’re The Big Bang Theory). The sitcom landscape is in a state of flux, with many shows wrapping up long runs this year (The Office, 30 Rock) and with many more facing uncertain futures (Happy Endings). Meanwhile, The Middle keeps quietly chugging along, producing exemplary television and receiving little to no awards or critical attention.
With so many shows poised to leave the airwaves at the end of this season, there is no better time to check in with a stalwart like The Middle. Don’t let the fact that it’s four seasons in scare you, all you need to know is that it’s about the Hecks, a typical family living in flyover country, trying to make ends meet, stay sane and maybe actually sit down and eat dinner together every now and then (as long as dinner comes out of a bag). Like I said, it’s not “cool,” but it is great.
The Middle airs Wednesdays at 8PM on ABC.
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