What made The Middle one of the best family comedies in years

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.

To say that family sitcoms are a dime a dozen is to devalue the dime, but the voluminous number of half-hour comedies revolving around the goings-on among a mom, a dad, and their kids in no way means that all of them stand out in a crowd. If anything, there’s far more of a tendency for such series to come and go quickly without leaving much of a trace, with the few that do make an impact only doing so because there’s a big name attached or because they cause a vague controversy among more conservative viewers. What you almost never see, however, is a series that plays to the mainstream without really dumbing anything down, and makes its mark by hewing as close to reality as possible, even when that reality might hit closer to home than some viewers might prefer.

When The Middle first arrived on ABC in the fall of 2009, the two biggest things the series had going for it were its leads: Patricia Heaton, returning to the familiar groove of a family-oriented sitcom (her previous endeavor, FOX’s Back To You, teamed her with Kelsey Grammer, the pair of them playing local news anchors in Pittsburgh), and Neil Flynn, finally getting a chance to play someone other than the janitor on Scrubs. Also important, if not as immediately known to viewers, was that the series’ creators, DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler, came with a major cache of comedy credits to their names, including Kate And Allie, Doogie Howser, M.D., and Murphy Brown. What proved to be the most valuable experience in their back catalog, however, was the time the duo spent working on Roseanne, a show that managed to find humor in the struggle to make ends meet.

Frankie and Mike Heck, the characters played by Heaton and Flynn on The Middle, are definitely cut from the same mold as Dan and Roseanne Conner. Mike’s a blue-collar guy who goes to work, gets paid, comes home, and enjoys life’s simple pleasures when he’s not being annoyed by his kids. Frankie tries to be the best mom she can, but she also has a full-time job, which means that she gets just as annoyed by the kids as Mike does. Still, they do their best, although it’s sometimes a struggle to deal with the disparate personalities of their daughter and two sons.

Viewers who investigated The Middle because of their familiarity with Heaton and Flynn quickly grew to realize that the show had a much deeper pool of talent than just its matinee names, particularly when it came to the trio of young actors playing the Heck kids: Charlie McDermott as Axl, the easily annoyed eldest son; Eden Sher as Sue, the always enthusiastic daughter; and Atticus Shaffer as Brick, the youngest of the three. Although McDermott, Sher, and Shaffer each grew at their own pace, the three have flourished in their roles over the years, taking their respective quirks and making them integral parts of loveable, believable characters with considerable emotional intricacies in their parent and sibling relationships.

Over the course of four seasons, however, The Middle has struggled to overcome the one major (perceived) flaw that can’t be fixed: It isn’t the buzzier awards-magnet that is Modern Family. Even as critics and viewers have watched the series evolve into one of the best sitcoms on television, The Middle has earned precisely one Emmy nomination to date: Outstanding Makeup for a Single-Camera Series (Non-Prosthetic), which, while no doubt warranted, is not exactly a high-profile category.

No, The Middle doesn’t have a high profile. If a series can be renewed for a fifth season and still be considered to be “flying under the radar,” then that’s where The Middle continues to fly. Despite the fact that other shows get more of the glory, The Middle continues to deliver big laughs, a lot of heart, and far more real-world problems than virtually any other sitcom that’s currently on the air, and here are 10 episodes that best demonstrate those attributes.

“The Cheerleader” (season one, episode two)

Like Modern Family, the universe of The Middle was more or less fully formed from its pilot. Even the embryonic versions of the characters we know and love today were still easily recognizable from the beginning, but it’s the second episode of the series that better introduces one of the key attributes of the Heck family: They ain’t exactly rich. They’re not completely destitute—they’ve got a roof over their heads, and they do pay their bills—but they’re still poor enough that late fees are a regular part of their monthly existence, so when the dryer breaks down, Frankie’s already-frayed nerves are pushed to their breaking point, leading her into a lengthy rant about the state of the family’s finances which ends with her screaming, “We are screwed!” Four seasons in, things aren’t much different in the Heck household from a financial standpoint, but “The Cheerleader” is the episode that really sets the tone on that front.

“Thanksgiving” (season one, episode eight)

Holiday episodes are a staple of any family-themed sitcom, but they’ve always brought out the best in The Middle, starting with the series’ first Thanksgiving episode. Sue surprises her parents when she asks if she can invite her boyfriend to the family dinner, but they’re even more surprised when they meet Brad (Brock Ciarelli), a flamboyant young man who, uh, doesn’t seem as though he’d be interested in someone like Sue. Although Brad is more caricature than character during his initial appearances on the series, he evolved into one of the most entertaining recurring characters on the show. “Thanksgiving” is also a strong spotlight for Frankie’s job at Ehlert Motors, underlining how her boss’s whims directly impact the amount of time she spends with her family.

The Break-Up” (season one, episode 17)

From the start of the series, Axl goes out of his way to perpetuate people’s belief that he is a cool dude, a football player who dates cheerleaders and has nary a physical nor an emotional flaw to his name, but as the series progresses, viewers learn that beneath his sarcastic, easily annoyed exterior is a guy who’s as confused as the rest of us. “The Break-Up” is the first time we see Axl as anything other than a young punk, revealing his devastation over the end of a relationship. It’s also the first real acknowledgement that, despite his best efforts to pretend otherwise, there is a very strong bond between him and his mother.

“Back To School” (season two, episode one)

Every parent both loves and loathes the day when the kids go back to school—loving that those kids are somebody else’s problem again while loathing the organization needed to get a child out of bed, ready for school, and onto the bus. In this episode, things go so poorly on the first day of school that Frankie decides that things are going to change, and damned if they don’t, at least for a few days, as she starts getting up earlier, planning for things in advance, and doing everything in her power to be as prepared as possible. Although everything is more or less back to normal by the time the closing credits roll, “Back To School” proves that somewhere inside Frankie Heck still lurks a great mother and homemaker, even if she doesn’t have the time or energy to come out and play very often.

“A Birthday Story” (season two, episode seven)

The Middle has never been afraid to reveal that Frankie and Mike Heck, like most parents, are fallible, making decisions that don’t exactly leave them looking like candidates for Mother And Father Of The Year. Early in the second season, it’s revealed that Sue’s first and middle names are Sue, making her Sue Sue Heck, an issue that her parents have been meaning to fix ever since she was born but somehow have never found the time to accomplish. “A Birthday Story,” however, takes parental screw-ups to the next level, with Brick learning that, as a result of Mike being too distracted by a football game, he actually spent the entire first month of his existence with a complete other family, the Fergusons. It’s become a regular occurrence for Brick to suggest that, as the youngest child, he’s often an afterthought, but this is where it’s most evident that he’s probably right.

Hecking Order” (season three, episode three)

As the Heck kids grow older, there’s a definite change in the family dynamic as well as the power structure of the home, but it’s a real shock to Frankie when she realizes that she’s the only one who thinks she’s in charge. Everyone else seems confident that it’s Mike, while Mike wisely opts to stay out of the discussion altogether. Frankie gets pissed and promptly throws Mike to the wolves, sending him off to talk to Brick’s new teacher, someone with whom he can’t even remotely relate. In the middle of all of this, Axl and Sue are trying to learn to share the same high school and are failing miserably, but the end of the episode provides Axl with one of his sweetest moments in the series, surreptitiously helping Sue make it to class in a timely fashion because, well, she’s his sister, and that’s what big brothers do.

The Map” (season three, episode 13)

If budget cuts ever necessitate the shrinking of this feature to TV Club One, where we’re forced to define the entire run of a series by a single episode, “The Map” would be it for The Middle. The opening scene features the entire Heck family in the car, driving home from Aunt Ginny’s funeral and reflecting on her life, and their conversation offers a perfect distillation of the characters and their respective eccentricities while also offering a surprising amount of poignancy. There’s more to the episode beyond these moments, including Frankie and Mike contemplating their mortality and Sue finally getting a boyfriend other than Brad, but they’re all gravy after that car scene.

The Guidance Counselor” (season three, episode 21)

As a rule, The Middle does not tend to be overflowing with high-profile guest stars, instead preferring to quietly bring in familiar faces who are well-honed utility playerslike, say, Jerry Van Dyke and Marsha Mason as Frankie’s parents (“Thanksgiving III”)and just let them do their job without necessarily making a big deal about it. Whether the lack of big names has been by choice or happenstance, the end result has been that, on the rare occasions when the show has managed to pull a major player for an episode, they’ve made the most of it. But rarely has a guest star been as well used as Whoopi Goldberg, playing Sue’s guidance counselor, Jane Marsh, whose chipper outlook and unbridled enthusiasm nearly rival Sue’s. After so many years of seeing her co-host The View, it’s easy to forget how strong Goldberg’s comedic chops can be, and her interactions with Eden Sher bring out the best in both actresses.

The Second Act” (season four, episode three)

As The Middle progressed through its first three seasons, it evolved as most series do—slowly but surely discovering which characters and storylines worked best and which were ultimately unnecessary. It’s arguable that Frankie’s job at Ehlert Motors could’ve been phased out somewhere in season two without damaging the show in any significant way, but as it was, Mr. Ehlert (Brian Doyle-Murray) somehow had the heart to keep her on until the beginning of the fourth season, despite the fact that she was a horrible salesperson. Frankie’s sudden unemployment is a definite game-changer for the series, one which has an immediate impact on the family—in particular, Axl starts out frustrated at how he’ll be affected but eventually finds sympathy for his mother’s situation—but it also serves as an opportunity for Frankie to explore other career options, ultimately leading her into the wonderful world of dental hygiene.

Twenty Years” (season four, episode 10)

Frankie and Mike have, since the very beginning of the series, been spouses who love each other without question but require very little romance to maintain their relationship. Still, it works for them, and it has for 20 years. Yet on the occasion of their 20th anniversary, Sue decides that she and her siblings should team up to throw their parents a proper anniversary party. What ultimately ensues is nothing at all like Sue had originally planned, but the episode is a fantastic opportunity for all three kids to take the spotlight, simultaneously revealing their selfishness as well as the love they have for each other and their parents. As for Frankie and Mike, viewers get to see both the flaws in their relationship and the strengths that allow them to pull back from the abyss.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “The Trip” (season one, episode four); “The Scratch” (season one, episode seven); “Foreign Exchange” (season two, episode five); “Taking Back The House” (season two, episode 11); “Back To Summer” (season two, episode 24); “The Play” (season three, episode nine); “Year Of The Hecks” (season three, episode 12); “The Hose” (season four, episode five); “Halloween III: The Driving” (season four, episode six); “Winners and Losers” (season four, episode 16).

Availability: The first and second seasons of The Middle are available on DVD, but the third season, while technically available for preorder on DVD, remains without a specific release date, so why bother? As for the fourth season, only the most recent five episodes are available for online viewing on Hulu.

Next time: Sean O’Neal picks the 10 most representative hours of one of the greatest sketch comedy shows ever made: The Kids In The Hall.

You may remember me from such features as Random Roles, or my oral histories of Battle of the Network Stars and Airplane!