TV Review: Young Stars Shine in “The Middle”

If I were to judge a TV show by its premise, plotlines, or protagonist, I’d have never watched “The Middle.”But moment after moment, “The Middle” sparks with quirky, zany comedy. It is the story of the Hecks, a middle-class Indiana family, that is three parts rah, rah, rah, and two parts middle-America satire.The premise is tired and the plotlines unremarkable, but the show’s young stars shine, their ingenious comedic performances a delight to watch.The Heck family is ABC’s rosy-tinted response to the recession: a portrait of a middle class, middle-American family that is getting by with three kids, a mortgage, and appliances in need of repair. Sure, some weeks they have to shop at the discount grocery store (for unmarked can products and 30 year-old Ronald Reagan jelly beans). Sure, Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and Mike (Neil Flynn)’s romantic getaway is a trip to the carpet remnants discount store. But at the end of the day, they’re a happy, functional family with superb karma.Did I mention that Frankie and Mike, Ma and Pa, are both stuck in ill-fated industries—he’s at the quarry and she’s selling cars (or at least attempting to)?“The Middle” is a glorification of Joe and Jane America targeted primarily at dear, hard-working Jane. Narrated by Heaton’s character, the eternally overworked and stressed but blissfully-happy-just-to-be-a-mom-and-wife Frankie, the show is “Malcom in the Middle” with a twist toward mommy power. Week after week, Frankie is the hero, saving school projects, acquiring library books, tending to elderly alcoholic relatives, and settling stand-offs between father and son. If you’re not shouting “Go Frankie!” by the end of the episode, then you’re not paying attention. Brick (Atticus Shaffer), the littlest tyke of the family, is achingly adorable and hilariously odd. He has a habit of whispering under his breath what he has just said aloud, and carries packages of ketchup in his pockets, which he calls his “soothing security condiments.” He is a self-professed fan of words with three syllables.Blessed with all possible genes for cuteness, Shaffer is so adorable that he carries “The Middle” with his scrumptiously oversized head, raspy voice, and spot-on comedic delivery. Middle child Sue (played joyfully by Eden Sher) is uncoordinated, socially inept, astonishingly clueless, and completely endearing. Think bashful puppy dog meets stereotypical geek. Sue tirelessly tries out for school performances, athletic teams, and clubs, but is so uncoordinated that she fails time and again. She does make the tech crew for the show choir, but gets so excited to see her parents in the audience that, instead of doing her very important job, she stands in the middle of the stage waving to them while the dance team crumbles behind her.Her lack of self-awareness is cringe-worthy, but her resilience is charming.Axl (played by Charlie McDermott) is the eldest Heck child and a raging adolescent. Moody, hormonal, and lazy, he refuses to wear clothes in the house—boxers, no mas—and his vocabulary has dwindled to the words “lame” and “grunt.”Despite the woes of everyday life with their ducklings, Frankie and Mike are happily in love.Tiffs are frequent, but by the end of the episode, the teammates always kiss and make up. More stressful for Frankie than her home life is her job, where she faces a crotchety, misogynistic boss and a recession that has not been kind to the car industry.There is something Groundhog Day-esque about the episode structure: problem, humor about problem, Frankie almost fails, humor about Frankie almost failing, Frankie saves the day. Heartstrings satisfied.It’s Mother’s Day every week on “The Middle.” You get the feeling that behind this show is an army of supermoms writing what they know. They haven’t proven particularly innovative yet, but with endearing characters and the ability to pull effectively at viewers’ heart- and giggle-strings, they’ve created a comedy worth the casual tune-in. Episodes are self-contained anecdotes, which makes here-and-there watching an option.“The Middle”’s equation is simple: the saga of a supermom and her brood, plus poking fun at middle America. Hence, the double-meaning of “The Middle”—Frankie is literally in the middle of her country, and also in the middle of her family’s incessant hubbub. Out of which a third meaning arises: “The Middle” is of mediocre cleverness. Relatability? All the way! Reality? Not so fast—there’s no room for such heaviness on “The Middle.”

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