Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The one show that really made me laugh

So after watching lots of new sitcoms and quite a few returning ones over the last couple of weeks, the show that made the laugh the most was – are you ready? – THE MIDDLE.

THE MIDDLE??

Yes, THE MIDDLE – a show that gets no love and certainly no press and yet is beginning its fifth season on ABC. It also gets hardly any on air promotion. Here’s a typical ABC promo: “Tonight it’s a new episode of THE MIDDLE followed by the best comedy on television, MODERN FAMILY.” Nice.

Having spent years on WINGS and BECKER I know full well how frustrating it can be to work on a damn good show that gets no respect. THE MIDDLE certainly belongs in that category.

Unlike MODERN FAMILY, it’s not trendy, or sexy, or glamorous, or… “Modern”, but that’s its charm. It’s a middle-class family living in Nowhere, Indiana, trying to make ends meet. Period. Except everyone in it and everything they do is damn funny.

I love the three kids. First of all, they look funny. They’re not particularly precious and adorable. The teenage girl is skinny with braces, the older brother is goofy and gawky, and the younger sibling could go either way between your typical American kid or future serial killer.

The older son’s name is Axl and for five years now every time someone calls his name it sounds like they’re calling him “asshole.”

My favorite of the three is Sue, the all-elbows-and-knees, chrome-grilled teenage daughter played by Eden Sher. In a family of under achievers she over achieves for all of them and your family too. Plus, she’s going through puberty – badly. She’s one raw exposed nerve.

The parents are equally fun. Patricia Heaton’s Frankie is not above lying and scheming to keep things together. Nor is she above leveling with the kids that things are doomed. Patty plays a more active character than she did on RAYMOND and it’s fun to watch her operate under pressure – which is most of the time.

Neil Flynn as the dad attempts to add sanity to this motley brood and happily rarely succeeds.

Beyond the characters, I greatly appreciate the storytelling. The stories are always well-thought-out, clever, funny, paced well, and service everybody. The season opener saw the family drive oldest-son Asshole… I mean Axel off to college. A 45 minute trip took five hours, complete with mishaps, an inflatable palm tree, funny lines, purse spray, a fax machine, potato chip binging, missing cell phone, missing college scholarship, nice character moments, and half a squirrel (the top half).

Maybe it’s not cool or hip to recommend THE MIDDLE, but when have I ever been cool and hip? Check it out. The best new show you might discover this year is one that is now its in fifth season.

60 comments:

Matt said...

The Middle is a really great show. I love the 'Eastbound & Downs' and 'Always Sunny's' of this world too, but if that's the only sort of sitcom you'll let yourself watch, the edgy, cool stuff, then you're really missing out. Why this isn't a bigger hit in America is a mystery, but at least it's managed to stay on the air.

Gazzoo said...

I find that people under 15 and over 40 love the show, but it doesn't register with those in-between...I have nieces and nephews in their 20's and 30's with great comedy tastes, but they can't make it thru an episode.

Mike said...

@Gazzoo: Interesting. I've not seen it. Do 40+s relate to the parents, 15-s to the children and there's no characters of in-between age?

Chris said...

Friday question: Dave Hackel's failed 1995 show, The Pursuit of Happiness, has an interesting piece of trivia attached to it on imdb:

"The episode that aired on October 10, 1995 featured a wedding. The other sitcoms aired that night - NewsRadio, Frasier and Wings, all featured a funeral. This was an NBC promotion capitalizing on the popularity of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, but switching the ratio between weddings and funerals with one alteration (the "four" became "three")."

Were you there on Frasier/Wings for this? Do you have any info on how that happened/how much the writers hated doing funeral episodes just because the network said so?

Gazzoo said...

@Mike...that's exactly the case.

*tarazza said...

@Gazzoo - I guess it's just them, because I'm 29 and The Middle is one of my favorite shows. My boyfriend, who is 36, absolutely loves it too.

Scooter Schechtman said...

I like the show too but it relies on the old Hollywood truism that unpopular teenage girls can be portrayed by cute 20-something actresses. Why not an overweight actress for accuracy?

[whisper]"Truism."

McAlvie said...

Yep, The Middle is just an old-fashioned sitcom. Although the youngest still talking to his groin has moved from weird into creepy terrority. They seriously need to end that routine. I can't say it's my favorite because the daughter grates on my nerves and, as I said, the youngest is creepy these days. But Mike and Axl make the show for me.

Chris said...

Good call, Ken. Loved "The Middle" from the start. It reminds me of a quote that I've most often heard attributed to producer Arthur Freed (of the Freed Unit at M-G-M): "Stop trying to be different. Try to be good. Good is different enough."

Karen said...

Love, The Middle. So aptly titled as this family is in the middle of everything, the country, in class, in finances, in capabilities and in a society that doesn't really value the middle of anything. Yet, not by being bitter or living over their heads they very sweetly and ploddingly apply themselves to living good lives. Very well done show (much like Raising Hope) that trully does not look down on the people it is telling the story about. Plus it is FUNNY and the sets are amazing!

Gitano131 said...

ABSOLUTELY!!! I just discovered this show this summer, after several friends recommended it to me. The usual pitch was, "You're a mom of three. Trust me, you'll understand." And that's so true.

As a 40 something mom of three I feel this show completely represents my life. I do live "in the middle" of the country and while my economic status is thankfully no as grim as the Heck's, I completely relate to the stressed-out working mom, who doesn't have time to cook (I love it when she walks in the house, plops down bags of take-out food and yells "I made dinner!") who often feels guilty that she's not raising her kids well. Plus I love the fact that the house is usually a cluttered mess. This is the truest representation of a "real" family on TV since Roseanne.

Mr First Nighter said...

This is one of the best comedies ever. I can't think of another show where I think of the characters as people, and not characters. When there was the episode where Sue ran over Axl's foot, I immediatyely wondered how that will affect his football scholarship. I don't worry about the backstories of characters on other shows.

Great Big Radio Guy said...

And does anyone even know it's in syndication? Now that it is, it might be the next Big Bang Theory...a show that blasted off once people discovered it in reruns then set their VCRs to catch up. The Middle is indeed terrific.

Jon88 said...

Another vote in support of "The Middle," and, at risk of destroying any credibility I might have, a kind word for "The Neighbors." I started watching at the end of season 1 (last two eps), and I must confess, this show makes me laugh. Okay, it also makes me cringe every now and then, but the parts that work work really well.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I don't often watch THE MIDDLE (or family comedies in general), but I do think it's the best of all the current family comedies.

wg

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to see you wrote about The Middle. I love Neil Flynn from Scrubs, so we tuned in when it first premiered and have been loyal to it since. Much less flashy than Modern Family, but also much more consistently funny and rewarding to watch.

Definitely a great show!
-sammy

Brian Fies said...

It's a good show! As a dad of two now-grown girls, I grin every moment Eden Sher is on screen. She deserves an Emmy nomination that'll probably be denied her because her series isn't one of the cool kids. Sue Heck would understand.

Covarr said...

I really find it difficult to watch this show. I think Neil Flynn is excellent, and I like the way he handles his kids and wife, but Frankie just grates on my nerves too much. I can't really place what it is about her, but I find her incredibly annoying.

I don't think it's the actress, because I had no such problem with her in Everybody Loves Raymond. I dunno, maybe it's just the fact that I don't see her as a likable character, yet she still gets protagonist status and gets treated as the good guy. At least when Frasier was a jerk (pretty frequently), the audience wasn't supposed to sympathize with him.

Mike Barer said...

I try not to let Patricia Heaton's political leanings get in the way of her craft, but they do. Sorry!

Jeffro said...

I like how the characters of the kid are evolving in certain ways. Especially Brick. By the way, the actor who plays him has that glass-bone disease, which has stunted his growth so it allows him to play a much younger person. But it also gives him that unusual posture that adds to his character's weirdness. I think he has to wear some sort of body armor under his clothing in the show.

And Eden Sher was awesome in her role on the short-lived sitcom Sons & Daughters. She was one of the only reasons to watch that show.

Bradley said...

The Middle is a great show! It's one of the few I actually watch these days, when it airs no less. This entry made my day.

cshel said...

I have mentioned at least a couple of times previously in your comments section how much I love The Middle, so I'm not just jumping on the bandwagon here when I say I love The Middle. The casting is great, the writing is great, it's just a really fun, good-natured show.

I really enjoy seeing Patricia Heaton play such a fun character after her stint as the stereotypical bitchy wife on Raymond, which was not a favorite show for me.

I was flabbergasted to learn that Eden Sher, who plays Sue, was in her early twenties, playing such a young character so believably, especially back when she was supposedly in junior high.

Charlie McDermott, who plays Axl, is also amazing as an obnoxious teenager. He reminds me of my nephew.

I often encounter known actors when I am going about my routine day, but I never just start talking to them, unless they talk to me first. But I was crossing the street one day, and Neil Flynn, the dad on The Middle, was crossing from the other direction. So, as we passed each other in the crosswalk of a very busy street, I felt compelled to blurt out - I love your show! And he said thank you. And I felt like an idiot. : )

craig m said...

I'm also a big fan of The Middle. My one problem with it is its music -- it seems to belong on a goofier sitcom.

Dave Denholm said...

Good call, Ken. I have felt "The Middle" has been the most consistently funny comedy on TV for years. Patricia Heaton is gold and Eden Sher's "Sue" is the funniest character on TV right now. Highly recommend as well.

Carolyn said...

I love the program, too. The regular cast is outstanding, and the guest stars are great. Brooke Shields as Rita Glossner, the trashy neighbor; John Cullum as Mike Heck's father; Norm Macdonald as Mike's brother; Jerry Van Dyke and Marsha Mason as Frankie's parents -- and on and on.

(And Mike Heck referring to Brick's study group as the "Odd Squad" cracked me up.)

LAprGuy said...

This is only series on the air right now that makes out laugh out every week. As I posted (poorly) yesterday, THE MIDDLE has gone from a show that my kids watch and I tolerated to a show that I will watch, rewatch and laugh at without them.

As great as the Sue Heck scenes are, the way the writers introduce new idiosyncratic traits for Brick is somehow even funnier. The episode where he "meets the challenge" of eating all of his Halloween candy over night (brushing his teeth and eating a lollipop!) had our whole family in stitches, and we must have replayed that sequence a dozen times.

To quote Brick, "Whoop!"

Cap'n Bob said...

My wife was a fan so I watched it a few times because I was too lazy to leave the room. I ended up liking it but I'm one of those who finds the girl annoying. Too shrill for my tastes.

Rob said...

A great show with a great cast, and the star leaves her politics off-camera (unlike Tim Allen). Even Charlie McDermott, who was originally the weak link, grew into an excellent comedic actor. Thank you for highlighting it and I hope more people discover it in syndication.

I wish ABC had kept "The Neighbors" after it - that show is now floundering on Fridays - but what can you do?

404 said...

I also love The Middle. I still remember watching the first episode and thinking "My God, they just wrote a show about my family." It's very easy to relate to and the characters are believable and funny--and not in a snappy one-liner sort of way, although they do have those at times. It's more just good funny situations and personalities that naturally create comedic situations. Sometimes, Frankie does go a little over the top, though.

Iesrato said...

The Middle is a consistently good show with talented actors who make it look effortless. It verges into satire at times, but I vastly prefer it to Modern Family's contrived plotting.

Drew said...

I work with a woman who complains that "The Middle" is 'inappropriate' because Axl--the teenage son--spends too much time 'half-naked,' apparently referring to his character's habit of often being shirtless when he's at home. Is that not one of the stranger things you've ever heard?

Tyler said...

If guys not wearing a shirt when they're hanging around home is "inappropriate" then about 2/3 of the guys in my dorm are inappropriate when they're hanging around here. What does she want, to go back to the days when Ward Cleaver relaxed around the house dressed better than my dad does to go.to church?

Austin Edwards said...

@Mike Barer, politics shouldn't ruin it for you. I would've hated for me to miss out on 30 Rock because I don't necessarily like everything Alec Baldwin says. Rest assured that politics don't come into play in this show!

I love my Indiana comedies ("The Middle" and "Parks & Rec"). They're easily the best on TV right now! (RIP Happy Endings!)

I'm in college and several of my friends like The Middle. It makes us feel at home!

Chris said...

Friday question: I always think about this when I watch reruns of old shows. Since they started using videotape in the 60s, who has made the decision of which shows get to be filmed and which get to be videotaped?

The shows that were lucky enough to be shot on 35mm film and also be very successful could be transferred to HD, whereas the ones on videotape did not age so well, wouldn't you say that cuts their chances of being rerun nowadays?

Also, do you happen to know if they are "future proofing" shows done now? As far as I know, they are being shot in digital at a 2k resolution, which will most likely look like crap in 20 years (unlike 35 mm film, which can be scanned and re-scanned at huge resolutions, such as 4k).

Michael Stoffel said...

Eden Shur is a treasure!

Ed said...

Ken- thanks for writing this! The Middle is great and underappreciated show. I've been a fan from the beginning. It's great someone that knows what they're talking about shows it some love.

Steven said...

The writing on The Middle has improved greatly since the show started, to the point I'd say it's above average and definitely one of the better sitcoms on ABC. They've also made an effort to evolve the characters, a concept totally foreign in any one of the more popular Chuck Lorre sitcoms.

However I've never liked the kid who plays Axl because he seems content to scream all his lines and act perpetuity agitated. I understand that's how his character is written, but it would be nice if he could convey subtlety every once in a while.

More than any of that though, what I hate is the voiceover narration from Heaton that introduces and closes each episode, reinforcing a particular theme. Heaton as narrator also scores a few punchlines during the course of each episode.

What is you opinion of voice over in sitcoms? I think it's a tired device that's used simply because writers don't believe readers can comprehend an episode's theme.

John said...

Couldn't agree more, Ken. The wife and I were just saying, "Ya know, so far this season, 'The Middle' is funnier than 'Modern Family'". As you say, it's extremely well written, cast and acted. But I think some of my feelings come from getting awfully tired of that jerky, reality show camera style shows like Modern Family and "The Office" use. I think anything that draws attention away from the story and actors performance and towards the direction and technical workings of a sitcom is an unwanted interruption. Self conscious directing. Modern Family has succeeded in spite of it.

Pat Reeder said...

Thanks for giving a little love to this neglected show. How can you not love any sitcom where the weird uncle is played by Norm McDonald? Personally, I've never been blown away by "Modern Family" and don't understand why Emmy season consists of everyone who has even one line on it getting a nomination to the exclusion of so many people I like better, like Eden Sher. Maybe now that "The Middle" has just gone into syndication, more people will discover it.

On an unrelated note, what do you think of this new article from Cracked.com:

http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-famous-television-gags-well-never-see-again/

scottmc said...

A possible question for Friday. The final season of 'How I Met Your Mother' will take place over the 72 hour period leading up to Barney and Robin's wedding. Most story arcs are 3-5 episodes. Based on the first three episodes, it doesn't look promising. And Jason Segel just speaks to other characters through video, or he is in stand alone scenes(as if he agreed to another season on the condition that he doesn't have to be too involved). Do you think it is too much to devote a whole season to one location/story?

Ben Koch said...

Friday Question; I know you hate 2 Broke Girls, but it brings up a question I've always wanted to know. Whenever Jennifer Coolidge comes on screen the first time, the studio audience goes wild with Ooohs. I remember this happening with Christina Applegate on Married With Children. I'm sure it happens with other shows too. Why do audiences do this? Is it only reserved for the sexy/slutty character? Does the stage manager encourage it? It drives me batty.

Whitaker Walt said...

"However I've never liked the kid who plays Axl because he seems content to scream all his lines and act perpetuity agitated. I understand that's how his character is written, but it would be nice if he could convey subtlety every once in a while."

I'm guessing you have never had a teenage boy at home -- if not sleeping, they are almost always agitated. Subtlety? Not so much.

Len said...

On the mark as always, Ken. In fact, the only two sitcoms currently in my DVR are the Big Bang Theory and the Middle. They are the only ones that still make me laugh out loud. And even Modern Family is starting to feel a little old hat as good as it has been. Meanwhile, The Middle is still consistently surprising me with their storylines.

John Leader Alfenito said...

Caught the pilot of "We Are Men" kind of by accident. Watched the second episode this week by choice.
Tony Shalhoub is funny, again.
Show's got a chance.

Anonymous said...

What politics has Tim Allen put on camera?

HCarvalho said...

What about the best, smartest and funniest sitcom on network tv? Parks and recreation

Charlie O'Brien said...

I've watched The Middle every week along with Modern Family since they hit the air and loved both equally. They have a completely different tone and sometimes I feel The Middle is more relatable - I live in the mid-west and our house most days is just as cluttered as Frankies. Modern family is impeccably written and the characters well rounded - but somehow I just care a bit more about the oddballs in The Middle. Eden Sher may play the funniest teenage girl ever! ABC has never been able to figure what goes in between and maybe Suburgatory was the closest to bridging the gap. That part they may never get right - but let's be happy for these 2 shows. Wednesday is must-see comedy tv night. For some reason I've just never been able to swallow any of the CBS comedies - 2 half Wits and a Kid, Big Bang, Mike and Molly or the others.

Brian Phillips said...

I enjoyed "The Middle", but got out of the habit of watching it. It's nothing to do with the quality of the show.

One thing I am happy about is that it features two people with humdrum jobs. For a while, it seemed as if we were inundated by folks that worked in the media or had trendy gigs.

Also, short note to Chris, I really liked "The Pursuit of Happiness"! Thanks for mentioning it.

WizarDru said...

I know Ken had mentioned Patricia Heaton and the Middle at some point in the last few years, so I correctly guessed this...but I hadn't really ever watched the show. Then a few weeks ago, ABC Family put it into syndication.

IT IS EASILY ONE OF THE FUNNIES SITCOMS IN YEARS. Everyone on the cast is talented and the scripts are funny but REAL. I watch it with my 13 year-old, 16 year-old and wife (both of us in our 40s) and not only laugh but think it's pretty truthful. That's one reason it works so well. Can't recommend it enough.

The episode where the kids are running around trying to manage things themselves has a running gag where the youngest is reading 'Of Mice and Men' and summarizing for the oldest (who hasn't read it for a book report due the next day) and it's both hysterical AND a pretty accurate summary of the book. "They shouldn't have called this 'of Mice and Men'! They should have called this MEN KILLING MEN! What kind of book is this?!?".

DJ said...

Which one is Malcolm?

Amy K. Bredemeyer said...

I initially caught a few episodes of The Middle by accident when I was watching Better with You a few years back. Wound up totally loving the Hecks, and now I find it to be one of the shows I most look forward to during the week (and at the start of this season I'm watching 18, so that's some stiff competition).

Brian said...

I agree - its a good show.If you have had kids, you can identify.

Mark said...

The Middle is a lot of fun. The episode where they forget Sue's birthday is an all-time classic. So are the "Simple Christmas" and "Taking Back the House" episodes.

As for you, Mike Barer: when you grow up, you'll learn that not everyone has the same opinions as you. And you can appreciate the talents or enjoy the company of a person who has differing views. It's called tolerance and maturity. Try it.

RareWaves said...

I love Eden Sher's energy. She puts everything into her character and it shows. I get the feeling that she really does love playing that character.

D. McEwan said...

I don't, and won't, watch The Middle. You know the reason, and her initials are "PH".

However, the show gives irregular employment to my good friend Ginny McMath, who has a recurring role on it. Any show that employs Ginny (Who is brilliantly funny, and should be starring in her own series, not irregularly supporting Malificent) can't be totally damned.

Much as I love Ginny, she is unable to overcome my loathing of PH enough to get me to watch her episodes (And I'll go a long way for a friend's work. I saw every bloody-awful episode of The Nanny merely because a dear friend was a staff writer), but at least, in keeping her employed, PH is using her Evil do do some accidental good. Not enough to make up for her relentless public opposition to, and fund-raising to fight, stem-cell research (Why did PH want to keep Christopher Reeve and others injured like he was crippled? Because he was a liberal?), but it's at least doing some good. I do, however, wish Ginny would get a job on a show without PH. (Ginny's aunt was Ginger Rogers, whose real name was Virginia McMath, exactly like Ginny's.)

Little Miss Smoke and Mirrors said...

Neil Flynn is terrific. But because Bill Lawrence and crew gave him so much room to do what he does best, namely improvise his dialogue, I prefer Neil as the Janitor in Scrubs.

Ike Iszany said...

"Seinfeld" has been running at 7:30 on one of my local stations since "Seinfeld" went into syndication and they finally moved it out and replaced it with "The Middle". The funny part is I had never heard of it. Of course I haven't watched a sitcom on ABC since like "Barney Miller". Something about ABC sitcoms. They just seem so lame.

Bob B. said...

I have the same problem with the Middle that I have had with the Simpsons since year eight. It's very difficult for me to find humor in mentally challenged people.

trish said...

I was so happy to read this review. I love the Middle and cannot understand why more people are not talking about it!!

Anonymous said...

This is honestly a show that has made me sit down and enjoy a few stimulating moments of the "boob tube". I am always saddened when the few episodes run along so fast on weekday nights; I just can never get enough!