It’s easy to take The Middle for granted. It’s basically a traditional family sitcom, albeit the decade’s standout. The characters and performances play into certain types. The subversion, or at least complication, isn’t immediately clear, which is part of the point for this family trying to fit in. But does any sitcom set on television feel as lived in as the Heck house? Under the supervision of production designer Randy Ser and set decorator Julie Kaye Fanton, there’s clutter everywhere, and the props are in constant use. As dad Mike says suspiciously after the kids claim someone threw a rock through their window, “Only in this house would broken glass all over the floor be considered neat.”
That’s part of The Middle’s take on class. Most television families are well off enough to have purely decorative stuff and nice, clean houses. The Dunphys on Modern Family have enough disposable income that their bookshelves are stuffed with things they’ve never touched. Suburgatory’s Chatswin is purposely punctuated with bulky baubles like Dallas’ mall-kiosk crystals and even that pueblo pot George displays prominently and knows nothing about. Sometimes even the poor live in gigantic apartments with delicately coordinated faux-Boho shit. (Here’s to 2 Broke Girls!) Money is so tight on The Middle, though, that there’s a whole episode about Frankie, the mom, wanting to buy a decorative plate. It doesn’t go well.
The Hecks don’t just use the couches and beds to give their snappy dialogue some dimension. The Hecks actually use all that stuff everywhere—the huge boxes of snacks, the magnets covering the fridge, the clothes strewn all over the floor. The house is full of business. They’re always duct-taping the washing machine shut so it can run a new load or rearranging their copious stacks of bills or chipping away at the dirty dishes on the counter. They really take conspicuous consumption to a whole new level. They whip out flip-phones and take walks around the block listening to CD players. They hunt and peck on a boxy yellowish computer that could use a cleaning. It’s the perfect set for a house of harried day-to-day strivers in Nowhere, Indiana.
What distinguishes The Middle from the other big working-class shows like Raising Hope and Shameless is its cleanliness. The Middle isn’t dirty. The design is scattered but not gross, stained but not sticky, and purposely so. Life is messy, but it doesn’t have to be unclean. The Middle bears the weight of Shameless’ financial strife and the constant settling of Raising Hope without indulging those other shows’ cynicism (the happy-go-lucky poverty acceptance of the one, the melodramatic misfortune of the other). Frankie Heck tirelessly wants the life she was always told she’d have: a weekday job; a husband; a few kids; a house in the ’burbs; plus some time to embrace popular rituals she doesn’t much consider, like the royal wedding and Thanksgiving with Marines. She’s barely holding that life up, but that’s not to say she won’t ever achieve her dream. The Middle finds real-life gravity without going for grit. Give or take a fact of life for aging teenagers (for instance, Snapchat after dark), The Middle is wholesome, or tries to be, and the set decoration follows suit.
That wholesomeness helps The Middle achieve a sort of Americana. Consider the shot of two teenagers bending over a trashcan to kiss at the Valentine’s Day dance or the graduating seniors climbing the local water tower and looking out past the farmland to their quiet town. Those season-high vignettes are made by the set design: the budget Valentine’s dance with a pink-balloon border and the primary-colored water tower with the all-American logo. It’s Recession Rockwell.
The best part, though, is that The Middle bursts with color. So many sitcoms leave the color to the costumes and trick out their backdrop apartments with a vibrant array of tasteful browns (New Girl, Happy Endings, How I Met Your Mother). Don’t Trust The B—— had a nice, monstrous green streak, and Ben And Kate gave its sunny yellows the hard sell, but The Middle goes in for the whole rainbow. The house has a yellow kitchen, a green living room, and blue or purple bedrooms. An Etch-A-Sketch sits on a lime placemat next to a crumpled Twister-inspired apron in front of Joseph’s Technicolor afghan. The neighbors’ front yard is littered with every color of Playskool plastic. It’s like the show is designed by a classic Crayola eight-pack that’s missing the black. The effect is enriching. The splotchy blocking contributes to the feeling that The Middle is full of life and activity and dreams, and the bright, bold colors complement the show’s can-do attitude. It’s as expressive as it is functional. It may not look like it, but there’s a method to The Middle.