After following the turmoil of “Downton Abbey” and the smart, cynical Mamet-like prose of “Veep,” I was struck by the ordinary, offbeat appeal of "The Middle."
Family sitcoms are usually divided into three categories: condescending or loopy parents (“Everyone Loves Raymond,” "Cosby," “The Goldbergs”), witty and clever (“Modern Family,” "Arrested Development") or screamingly banal and forced.
In short, “The Middle” is the anti-“Modern Family.”
The Heck family of “The Middle” doesn’t live in Southern California, with great weather, ample funds, gay relations and cutting asides worthy of Noel Coward. The proudly dysfunctional Hecks live in Orson, Indiana, “home of the world’s largest polyurethane cow.” I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say if you could live anywhere, Orson wouldn’t be in your top 100.
No disrespect to the Orsons of America. I grew up in a small town and appreciate its charms. But Orson, in 21st-century TV America, is a land of tract homes, few good jobs and reams of unhappy people — from the schoolteachers to the car salesmen, whose boss refers to them as “team worthless.”
No one is having a good time.
The Hecks are reminiscent of Tolstoy’s line about families from “Anna Karenina”: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The caveat: the Hecks’ unhappiness is sitcom unhappiness — but it speaks to overworked, budget-stretched America. “The Middle” is more like “Roseanne” — but gentle rather than hostile. It’s got the same exhausted parents, geeky kids and a comedic struggle for survival. The Heck’s familial landscape — worn-out furniture, broken dreams and fast-food dinners — isn’t pretty. In real life, such circumstances don’t beget comedy, but despair.
“The Middle” has brushes of '50s traditionalism; the mother is in charge of all things. Her husband, a flannel-shirted dad, backs her up, but he’s never the first line of defense. They have three weird kids. There's Sue, a luckless teen cursed with anonymity, and Brick, described by his teacher as “clinically quirky,” who whispers to himself. He’s sweet and highly intelligent, but his social skills, to put it kindly, are off. Older brother Axl is a snarky slacker who spends most of his time in boxers.
Still, ABC managed to successfully hedge its bets story-wise: Both “The Middle” and “Modern Family” click with audiences.
“Modern Family” is funny because everyone tries so hard; conversely, “The Middle” parents care, but champion indifference. Sure, they do their best, but their best means proudly expending as little energy as possible.
Indifference, spread among three singular kids, has humorous potential. And it may reflect, in part, a larger truth: Money buys happiness. Simply, enough money is liberating. Freed from endless worries about paying bills, parents can devote more time to familial concerns. The Hecks can’t, so they don’t.
After all, TV is the opposite of reality. Only on TV could a taped-up washing machine or a dead-end job appear even remotely funny. In reality, it can make you go postal. Instead, ABC adds a few wacky plot lines and viewers enjoy 22 minutes of pleasant escapism. (Or, if you’re in the 1%, slumming.)
These are tough times. We don’t always escape the blues by watching the aristocratic indulgences of “Downton Abbey.” If you or your neighbors see themselves in the Hecks, you’re clearly not alone. You’re a hit TV show.