Tuesday, April 14, 2015

the best show you're (probably) not watching

The Middle has been on television since 2009, but I just discovered it with my daughter this past Christmas, when she binge-watched a ton of episodes. At first I only partly paid attention to it, as a sort of background noise, hearing her coo over her favorite character, Brick. But I soon got sucked in, and found myself watching a series of episodes with her, as the quirky working-class Heck family from fictional Orson, Indiana began to ring some suburban growing-up bells for me.

The show is narrated by the mom, Frances "Frankie" Heck, played by Patricia Heaton, of Everybody Loves Raymond fame. I never much liked Raymond, despite its stellar cast (Ray Romano, Doris Roberts, Peter Boyle, Brad Garrett), and really didn't like Heaton's character of Debra, Ray's wife. Most of the time she just seemed strident and pissed off at him. I didn't buy their relationship. Frankie on The Middle, however, is a completely different kind of TV mom.

Frequently frazzled and even obnoxious, but always sympathetic, her rapport with her TV spouse Mike (Neil Flynn) and kids Axl (Charlie McDermott), Sue (Eden Sher), and Brick (Atticus Shaffer) is completely believable and a hoot to watch. I have not only had to re-assess my former ideas of Heaton as an actress, but on many times connected with her portrayal of a woman constantly on the edge - emotionally and financially. The Hecks are far from trying to have it all. They can barely make ends meet. Although many of the situations are exaggerated and even absurd, the all-too-real depiction of Americans struggling to hold home and hearth together can be attributed to show-runners Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, whose previous projects include Roseanne and Murphy Brown.

The show also has some fabulous guest stars and recurring characters (and this is only scratching the surface):

Bob (Chris Kattan) is Frankie's best friend at her Ehlert Motors job in the first two seasons of the show. Their awful boss is Don Ehlert (Brian Doyle-Murray). After Ehlers fires her to cut costs Frankie has a hard time getting another steady job until Seaon 4, when she is hired as a dental hygienist by Dr. Ted Goodwin (Jack McBrayer).

Mike's dad "Big Mike" Heck Sr. (John Cullum) is an ornery hoarder who doesn't have that much to do with his son's family. Mike's younger brother Rusty (Norm Macdonald) is goofy and a little bit helpless, and lives at various times with his father, in a tent, and in his car.

Frankie's parents are Pat (Marsha Mason) and Tag Spence (Jerry Van Dyke), a bickering but loving duo who appear in most of the holiday-themed episodes.

Sue is very impressed by youth minister  Reverend Timothy "Tim-Tom" Thomas (Paul Hipp). The family also receives some (hilarious) counseling from Keegan-Michael Key, as Reverend Deveaux.

Having the time of her life is Brooke Shields as Rita Glossner, the Heck's scariest neighbor.

Have I intrigued you enough to take a look? If you need any further nudge in that direction, consider the character of the Heck's middle child Sue. The writing of the character and acting by Eden Sher manages to tap into the inner nerd of every tween and teen girl. Sue is beyond enthusiastic and desperate to join in to various school, sports, and club activities - and chronically unsuited for all of them. From her perpetual braces to her long, lifeless hair, she is an illustration of the awkwardness that is youth. While her high school athlete, constantly in his boxers older brother Axl, and strange little brother Brick may get most of the attention for their respective accomplishments and odd behavioral quirks, it is Sue who seems to epitomize a family that may be out of their league and underachieving, but is always funny and relatable.


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