Never let it be said that your voices go unheard here at The A.V. Club. After an outcry of support for The Middle in the comments of our year-end Best Of TV list, we decided to do at least a drop-in. I volunteered to do it, as the commercials for the show during my Tuesday night No Ordinary Family viewing were surprisingly appealing, and I'd also seen The Middle spoken of in glowing terms by famously curmudgeonly critic and friend of The A.V. Club Jamie Weinman.
I intentionally didn't do much research before jumping in tonight, preferring instead to treat the idea of “dropping in” on the show literally. This means that I'm not sure if this was a representative or high-quality episode. I could already tell that it was a family sitcom (though that's not apparent from the title, unless you take it as a deliberate homage to Malcolm in the Middle, which seems plausible to me based on my limited experience with both.)
I had two immediate aesthetic reactions to tonight's episode of The Middle. First, it's colorful, both literally and metaphorically. The characters' clothes and the set itself are bright and almost artificially vibrant. It makes the characters stand out, like cartoon characters. Which is good, because the characters are played broadly, like cartoon characters–the overly nerdy younger son, the overly rebellious older son, the overly enthusiastic middle daughter, the overly motherly mother, and the overly oblivious father.
The second thing about The Middle is its pacing. It's a single-camera sitcom, complete with narration (from Frankie, the mother of the family), and it maintains a pretty steady stream of jokes and physical comedy. But it's done at a slower pace than a Community or Arrested Development, and it leaves you time to catch your breath after a joke, similar to a multi-camera sitcom with recorded laughter.
Tonight's episode focused on the youngest son, Brick, who I have no doubt is the breakout star of the show. He's a little geek, and no doubt much humor is derived from him enjoying older-people things, like reading, while his dad prefers boy things, like sports. The father, Mike, is busy reading the Super Bowl preview in the newspaper, and he tries to connect with his son by encouraging him to like football. Brick, meanwhile, is only interested in the paper for its layout, and that's a delightfully nerdy thing for him to be into. Nerds who are only into math and science are so 2000s. On the other hand, if you're going to have him be a font nerd, at least get your fonts right. Coppertone Gothic, which Brick gushes over for being a sans serif, is totally serifed. And gushing over a sans serif font is pretty meaningless anyway, kind of like saying that you really love a particular cheese because it's a dairy product. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is some sort of a…. magic xylophone or something? Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.
At any rate, regardless of the veracity of the font-nerdness, Brick's amiable introduction concludes with Mike saying that since he likes big words (“I find them soothing”), he'll like football, because it has three-syllable words like “quarterback” and “flea-flicker.” Brick starts obsessively learning about football, just in time for him to watch the game with dad and his buddies. And then to drive dad's friends away with his obsessive, annoying recitation of facts and stats about football.
The Super Bowl aspect of the episode is probably its weakest aspect. I tend to be dubious of shows presented around a specific date (unless it's a Halloween episode, of course). The Super Bowl seems like an especially bad idea, as it forces a kind of superficial depiction of America's second-greatest holiday. What's more, since it was filmed in advance, there's no way that the characters could know what teams are in the game. Which makes it even more bizarre that the episode isn't airing on Super Bowl week.
Meanwhile, Sue, the daughter, is trying to help her friend and ex-boyfriend, Brad, win the junior high's “Squaredancing With The Stars” competition. She's really bad at it, and Brad tries to squaredancing break up with her, saying “It's not you; it's me. For thinking you could do it.” She convinces him to give her another chance, which he does, in a montage set to “Eye of the Tiger.” But it's not a normal “Eye of the Tiger,” it's a cover of the song appropriate for squaredancing, fiddles and all. Although the comedy of the squaredancing subplot might be the broadest in the episode, up to and including Sue getting hit in the face with a football, as well as doing a squaredancing robot dance, it cultivates a genial and absurd comic atmosphere, broad though it may be.
A third plot sends Frankie on a road trip with her boss at the car lot. He claims it's a management seminar to get her to go, but it turns out that he needs a driver for his impending colonoscopy. She's put out by this but accedes to his increasingly frustrating demands. While the storyline starts amusingly over-the-top—her co-workers are convinced it's a romantic trip, but the boss says “If I wanted to cheat on my wife, I'd go to the city, and do it with an ethnic gal”—it loses steam quickly. He's needy, she's exasperated, and that's about it.
Over the course of the episode, I found myself equally attracted to and pushed away by The Middle. It created a good, likeable comic system, but I was also concerned by the broadest comedy being the only thing that grabbed me. Perhaps I'd have liked the episode more if I was more attached to the characters, as is often the case with sitcoms.
- Just one here, since I posted most of my favorite lines in the review text: If you'd like someone from The A.V. Club (maybe me, maybe not) to make that week-to-week connection to The Middle and its characters, click on this link, share it with your friends, and post comments. If it seems like it'll be popular, we may add it.