[13 September 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
On the surface, The Middle looks like your average family sitcom. Patricia Heaton leads a great cast as Frankie Heck, a middle-aged, middle class mom from the middle of the country (hence the title) who steers her family through life’s every day ups and downs. Frankie and her husband Mike, played perfectly by Neil Flynn (Scrubs), are in the middle in a lot of ways. They wind up in the middle of workplace dramas, get caught in neighborhood squabbles, and they’re often stuck in the middle of the trials and tribulations of their three kids.
However, The Middle isn’t your average family sitcom. Sure, it has many of the hallmarks like the blustery boss (Brian Doyle-Murray), the weird work friend (Chris Kattan) and a string of high-profile guest stars (Brooke Shields, Amy Sedaris, Betty White). It has the sitcom kid roles: the athletic, popular one, Axel (Charlie McDermott), the geeky, unpopular one, Sue (Eden Sher), and, uh, Brick (Atticus Shaffer). Brick is the other one, and Brick is “other” in so many ways. He’s one of the first clues that The Middle: Season 1 is different than the family shows you’ve seen before, because for all its similarities, it is decidedly different. That’s because the family in it is presented so authentically. The Hecks aren’t the Hollywood version of a midwestern family, they’re an accurate portrayal of the an Indiana family. Frankie works hard to keep her family going and still ends up with fast food for dinner, or driving somewhere in the middle of the night in her pajamas.
The Hecks are a family you know, they’re probably your family, which makes them imminently relatable. Don’t worry, though, they’re also quite funny. Heaton’s spot-on, but still sympathetic, take on the frazzled working mother and wife anchors everyone else with a dry, observational wit. Flynn’s Mike is the completely supportive, but sometimes totally clueless husband. McDermott has a way with the combined surly expression and sarcastic line delivery that makes Axel so believable as quintessential teen boy. That he spends most of his time eating in front of the TV wearing nothing but his boxers just cements it.
Eden Sher as Sue, poor invisible-but-eternally-optimistic Sue, is the one from whom much of the laugh out loud moments of The Middle come. She’s just so middle school. From horrendous school pictures, to rhapsodizing about her future or her first boyfriend to be, although it’s clear to everyone else his future won’t involve girlfriends; from forgotten birthdays to trying out for—and failing at—every club, sport and after-school activity, Sue is just a heartbreak with braces.
In one episode, when the neighborhood is being terrorized by bullies. This rouses Sue’s “sense of justice, which is inexplicably greater then her sense of fear” and she accepts a fight challenge. The fact that she then enlists her best friend and choreographs a dance routine for the fight makes her dear to my heart and to the hearts of everyone who’s ever done something so hilariously absurd and ultimately pointless in the name of what’s right. Sue Heck is the poster child for determination in the face of defeat.
Brick Heck is another sort of poster child altogether, for marching to the beat of your own drummer perhaps. Or for wandering off to read a book while your drummer does all that marching stuff. He’s obviously the genius in the family, but he doesn’t care about anything outside his own little world. His quirks and tics are simultaneously exasperating and endearing to those around him, but endlessly amusing to the audience. Atticus Shaffer gives Brick a sweet, open, nonchalance that makes it obvious why the family rallies around him and his weirdness. It’s partly because they’re family, and partly because they’re weird in their own ways, too.
The Middle: Season 1 features 24 episodes on three discs, with deleted scenes and a gag reel. Other bonus material includes “Sue’s Best Shots”, where cast and crew recall their worst photos, and “Raising a Sitcom Family” with the creators discussing the development of the show. The Middle may not be as groundbreaking as some of the shows surrounding it on the TV schedule, it may not be quite as much of a critical darling yet, but it’s definitely destined to become a favorite of anyone who has every found themselves in the middle. Of anything.