"The Middle was an unlikely hit and in its nine seasons the successful character development meant the show just kept getting stronger."
The Middle review by Brian Slade
Welcome to the fictional town of Orson, Indiana. Unremarkable in its location, its residents are caught between devoted loyalty to their quirky town and contempt for the daily struggles that life there condemns them too. This is most applicable for the Heck family, battling bills and bizarre family and friends to keep a roof over their heads in the unlikely smash ABC show, The Middle.
When the writers came looking for stars for ABC’s new show in 2008, the network having passed on an original pilot cast a few years earlier, they found the perfect combination for the parents of the family. Patricia Heaton had already worked her way through a full nine seasons of success as Debra Barone in Everybody Loves Raymond, while Neil Flynn was fresh from torturing Zach Braff’s JD as the janitor throughout the run of the quirky comedy Scrubs.
The pair are the perfect fit for the Heck family. Heaton plays Frankie Heck, the narrator of each episode and an exasperated mother of three who juggles her own employment initially at a used car lot with trying to keep a family home running for her, her husband and their three children, each with their own attitudes and foibles. Frankie is exhausted from seemingly putting in the most effort to keep the home running while getting almost nothing in return.
Flynn plays her husband, Mike Heck, a foreman at a local quarry who works hard for a living and is well aware that the life he would so love to provide for his family is well beyond the wages he earns. As such, when he is not working he’s at his happiest with a beer watching the game on tv and trying to ignore the chaos all around him.
Frankie and Mike would probably be doing just fine were it not for the clashes from the three children. The oldest of them is Axl (Charlie McDermott). For the full nine seasons we are never fully sure whether Axl is failing at school because he is not naturally gifted or because he simply cannot be bothered to make the effort. Oozing self-confidence, he considers all around him to be minions, inferior people whose existence thwarts his attempts to be the coolest person in town. He spends most of his time lounging around the home expecting to be waited upon or niggling his nemesis, the polar-opposite sister Sue.
Sue Heck (Eden Sher) is indeed everything that Axl is not. Organised, committed and determined, she maintains none of the chip-on-the-shoulder demeanour that Axl has. She is permanently happy, trying out for every team, entering every contest, always reaching for the next step up. The trouble is her attempts are always doomed to failure, but her natural never-say-die spirit just ensures that she gets back up, dusts herself off and tries even harder next time.
At the bottom of the hierarchy is Brick (Atticus Shaffer). Diminutive in stature (in real life, Shaffer has a bone condition that causes his smaller frame), Brick is left at the end of all thoughts. Even as a new-born the Hecks took home the wrong child, not realising their mistake for a full month. His birthday is frequently forgotten, he is often not collected from school…as such he has an array of tics such as whooping at random intervals and repeating key words from his most recent sentence in hushed tones while looking down to his midriff. But despite the lack of attention, or maybe even because of it, Brick is never happier than when disappearing into books. He reads at every opportunity and is therefore easily the best-educated within the household.
The Hecks are an oddball family. They agitate each other, particularly Axl and Sue, and on the surface it is a wonder they survive without descending into levels of cartoon violence only The Simpsons would understand. They are frequently measuring themselves against other families in town, most notably the Donahues, whose house is spick and span in total contrast to the Heck household and whose eldest son is training to be a doctor. Frankie is always looking to them as the measure of success, but Mike fails to try given that it is a lost cause. Meanwhile on the other side of their home is the Glossners, whose kids roam the neighbourhood at will, stealing what they want, destroying mailboxes and terrorising anybody in their path, Head of that family is Rita Glossner (Brooke Shields), who instils fear in all.
The creators of The Middle, Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, previously worked on Roseanne and the show is aimed at the same targets. A hardworking couple stumbling from one payday to another, with a house falling apart and kids who see only their own problems is familiar territory to that shown in the Connor household in Roseanne. The Middle works somewhat better if anything as it is not specifically a one-person vehicle. The characters are all nicely rounded and while each has the potential to become annoying, the writers offer just enough development to allow the rougher edges to be smoothed out over the nine years of the show. Every one of the actors portraying the Hecks play their roles to perfection.
There are some wonderful cameo roles that bring family members in from time to time. Mike’s brother Rusty (the late Norm MacDonald) flakes all responsibilities and normally only shows when in need of financial assistance. Mike’s father, Big Mike (John Cullum of Northern Exposure fame), is a no-nonsense recluse who refuses to accept his age and its resulting limitations. But perhaps the highlight of the wider family is Frankie’s father Tag, whose crotchety character is brought to life wonderfully by Jerry Van Dyke. The casting also gives the opportunity for real life brother Dick Van Dyke to make a memorably appearance as his brother Dutch.
The Middle was an unlikely hit and in its nine seasons the successful character development meant the show just kept getting stronger. Guests queued up to make one-off appearances, including Marion Ross, Whoopi Goldberg, Betty White, Kirstie Alley and Heaton’s former Everybody Loves Raymond co-stars Ray Romano and Doris Roberts. Perhaps the most underrated of characters however was the town itself, with its odd rituals and street events. Perhaps that is as much a reason why American audiences connected with the material as any.
British audiences were reliant on cable and satellite channels to follow the Hecks, but for those who haven’t had the pleasure of this dysfunctional family, the warmth and realism of the characters and their circumstances make The Middle somewhat of a hidden gem among the many modern American sitcoms and well worth the time and effort.
Published on May 9th, 2022. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.