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Our review of The Middle: Season Two, published September 18th, 2011, is also available.
Welcome to Orson, Indiana.
"It's your turn and you know it."
Facts of the Case
Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton, Everybody Loves Raymond) is an ordinary woman…or maybe an extraordinary woman, depending upon your perspective. She spends her days attempting to sell cars at a small-town dealership in Indiana. She's married to a nice guy named Mike (Neil Flynn, Scrubs), who works at a local quarry. Frankie and Mike have three kids: a perpetually bored teenager named Axl (Charlie McDermott, Hot Tub Time Machine), a clumsy pre-teen named Sue (Eden Sher, Weeds) and a very strange young child named Brick (Atticus Shaffer, Hancock). The Middle follows the lives of Frankie and her family members as they attempt to navigate the stresses and complications of the world.
All 24 episodes are spread across three discs:
For the 2009-2010 television season, ABC decided to wipe their entire Wednesday night slate clean and repopulate it with new shows. With the well-regarded but ratings-challenged shows Pushing Daisies, Eli Stone, and Dirty Sexy Money booted out the back door after two short seasons each, ABC reloaded the Wednesday night lineup with a series of comedies. Their biggest success was Modern Family, which proved to be a huge hit with both critics and audiences. The flops were the Kelsey Grammer vehicle Hank and the lighthearted adaptation of John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick. Somewhere in-between was the surprisingly tolerable Cougar Town and the aptly-named The Middle.
The title refers to the fact that the Heck family is located in the middle of nowhere (a rural town in Indiana apparently qualifies), the fact that they are an ordinary middle class family, and (unintentionally) the fact that the show is, uh, middling. I wanted to like The Middle, I really did. Alas, the show's manic tone, weak recurring gags, and somewhat thin characterization prevented me from being able to focus on the virtues of this occasionally smart and insightful sitcom.
While there are a few small supporting characters of note, pretty much every episode revolves around the five family members. Considering that, it's particularly disappointing that four of these characters are so one-note. Mike is the nice guy willing to tell the truth in any situation (even when the truth is the last thing anyone needs to hear). Sue fumbles all over the place, fails at every tryout and comes up with a never-ending series of misguided ideas. Brick is a little oddball who behaves in a variety of peculiar ways (he has a habit of repeating phrases he has just said in a whisper, like some sort of mantra: "I want to play Super Mario…Super Mario." Axl lounges around the house in his boxers and rolls his eyes. There are elements of reality lurking within all of these characters, but the show seems too intent on treating these people like cartoons to let that happen.
For that matter, the entire show seems too intent on making things cartoonish. The tone is pitched somewhere between Glee and something from the Disney Channel, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself but which seems inappropriate for a show about the small realities of life in the middle of Indiana. There really is a terrific, timely sitcom hiding within The Middle, but its wacky, candy-coated exterior does it absolutely no favors. This is a program that demands quiet observation, not screeching frenzy. Joey Newman's wretchedly chaotic original score does the series absolutely no favors; overplaying every single bit of comedy and doing its best to kill laughs on a regular basis.
The DVD transfer is somewhat underwhelming, which isn't a huge surprise given that they've stuffed over 3 hours of content onto each disc. The image is bright and cheerful (sometimes gratingly so), but it doesn't quite pop the way it ought to most of the time. The level of detail is also slightly underwhelming, though flesh tones are accurate and blacks are reasonably deep. The audio tends to be overdone more often than not (jeez, that music). Supplements are kinda thin: a featurette called "Raising a Sitcom Family," another called "Sue's Best Shots," some deleted scenes and a gag reel.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When The Middle works, it's almost always due to the valiant performance of Patricia Heaton. Her turn as the overworked, overstressed, underpaid and underappreciated mother is a frantic thing of beauty; a believable and precisely-timed piece of work that often pulls the show from the realm of silliness into the real world. It's in her character that The Middle captures its potential: a portrait of the strain the current state of the world is putting on ordinary working-class parents. Considering that far too many television characters seem to live laughably comfortable lives free of significant financial worries, it's a nice change of pace to see someone who genuinely does have to be concerned about getting the electric bill paid and feeding the kids. If only the show played as quiet counterpoint to Heaton rather than attempting to match the impressive frenzy she inevitably reaches in many episodes, The Middle might have been a minor masterpiece.
There's potential for The Middle to get better, but this first season is somewhat frustrating.
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