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The Middle: "Pilot"

Illustration for article titled iThe Middle/i: Pilot
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The Middle debuts at 8:30 p.m. EDT tonight on ABC.

The Middle may be the most boring show to debut that fall. That’s not actually a detriment, either. It’s just that when you hear that ABC is going to do a single-camera family comedy set in the Midwest with Patricia Heaton as its star, you can pretty much predict exactly what The Middle is going to look like, right down to the camera angles. And that’s not a bad thing. What The Middle is isn’t bad, even if it’s never surprising enough to be super good. It’s more middling (ha ha!), but in an engaging way. If you’ve been looking for a broad, family sitcom that is something of a Malcolm in the Middle and/or Roseanne successor, then you’ve come to the right place. If you’re looking for, I don’t know, 30 Rock or something, you won’t find it here, but you might find something to laugh at all the same. The Middle isn’t terrific (like Modern Family, on after it), but it isn’t awful (like Hank, on before it) either. It’s simply quietly good at what it does.

Heaton plays Frankie Heck, a harried mother of three living in Orson, Indiana, home of a giant cow statue, a low-rent used car dealer and an ultra-competitive show choir. Her husband, Mike (the always amusing Neil Flynn), is trying to be a good dad but just isn’t as good at parenting as his wife is. Their three kids include sullen teenager, Axl (Charlie McDermott); gawky girl, Sue (the truly awesome Eden Sher); and weird kid, Brick (Atticus Shaffer). Frankie works at said used-car dealership, where Chris Kattan (of all people) is her co-worker, and she struggles to balance her work life with her home life, even as her family needs her to keep working so they can afford to live. Raise your hands if you’ve seen this all before.

But despite the fact that The Middle feels like it’s dropped in from the Little Miss Sunshine universe, by way of Malcolm in the Middle and Roseanne, it’s still refreshing to just see the increasingly strained middle-class existence portrayed on TV without much fuss or comment. Where the preceding Hank tries too hard to be topical, The Middle is topical merely by existing. The Hecks just aren’t going to get ahead no matter how hard they try, and all they want to do is just stay afloat. In the grand tradition of middle class sitcoms since time began, they don’t complain about it too much and overcome with lots of love and gentle good humor. Again, this is a song you’ve heard before, right down to the key it’s played in and the rhythms it adopts, but it’s been off the air for long enough that hearing it again is kind of like hearing someone do “Wonderwall” at karaoke. Damned if you didn’t hate that song at one time, but now you remember why it became so popular.

Well, to a degree. The Middle doesn’t so much find its own take on this material as just play it straight back to you, so it’s more like going to karaoke and seeing someone nod along as “Wonderwall” plays on the jukebox. It’s that aggressive repurposing of other people’s material that keeps The Middle from reaching the loopy highs of Modern Family or even daring as much as the deeply uneven but consistently interesting Cougar Town. For God’s sake, Shaffer even looks like Malcolm’s youngest brother, and though that can’t be held against the show (since the two actors aren’t even related), it’s still not hard to want to hold it against the show for constantly reminding you of how unoriginal it is.

But, hey, there’s lots to like about The Middle, too, starting with that cast. Whether or not you like Heaton is ultimately up to you and how much her politics bug or please you, but she’s managed to create a character similar to Debra Barone (her Everybody Loves Raymond mom) while still being quite different. Where Debra had been essentially beaten down by life and having to be near her extended family at all times, Frankie still has a central chipper perkiness that manages to carry her past the bad times, even when she realizes how little her life has turned out like she wanted it to. Flynn is just as good, drawing laughs even from non-laugh lines just from the way he carries himself and delivers the English language like he’s just learning what all of the words mean. Flynn’s role here is much straighter than his role as Janitor on Scrubs, and seeing him as what’s essentially a normal guy feels almost revelatory, to the point where I almost want to stick with the show to see how much he can be a normal sitcom dad while avoiding the normal sitcom dad portrayal.

The kids are all fine, too, with Sher and Shaffer as the standouts. Sher became a favorite of mine after her terrifically awkward portrayal of a girl just entering teenhood in the sadly forgotten Sons & Daughters (another ABC sitcom about wide-ranging families), and while she’s playing essentially the same role here, she’s still quite good at it. Shaffer, though, is one of the best weird little kids I’ve seen turn up in a show like this in quite a while. He’s playing Brick as someone who’s constantly floating on the edge of having serious mental health issues, but he somehow makes it seem winningly funny, which is not easy, particularly for an actor that young. He’s the most conventionally funny thing in the pilot, and he’s great with everything he’s given.

But the nicest thing about The Middle, ultimately, is how it portrays its world. When the episode begins with a long rant from Frankie about how everyone forgets about the flyover states, it seems like it might turn into random Midwestern boosterism, but The Middle captures what it’s like to live in a dead-end small town and realize your life has pretty much stranded you there. There’s a creeping sense of frustration and anger around the edges of the show – as when Frankie expresses just how far beneath her her job is – but that frustration never overwhelms the show’s more heartwarming aspects. It’s an interesting balance for a series, and it finally reminds one of the very best of ABC’s blue-collar sitcom hits, Roseanne. This show is not as good as any of its most obvious forebears yet, but it has the potential to be that good if it keeps with it.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:

  • Oh, hey, if you can guess which song ends the pilot (it’s not that hard), you will win my respect and admiration for your ability to spot easy television choices.
  • I like the shot that opens the pilot quite a bit. Not an all-time great shot, to be sure, but one that sums up the central ideas of the show fairly adroitly and fairly quickly.
  • It’s worth pointing out that while this is on the same night as Glee and set in roughly the same region of the country, the show choir here is much more like a real high school show choir, filled with middling singers and adequate dancers who often seem like they’d rather be anywhere else. It’s the verisimilitude of The Middle’s setting that makes me think it might end up being better than the pilot down the road.

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