Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Among ABC's Wednesday comedies, there's definitely something intriguing going on in "The Middle"


by Ken

If you haven't seen The Middle, I don't know whether anything comes across with this clip, as the Heck family, always running to stay in place, races to make the morning's trash pickup, which budget cuts have reduced to once every two weeks. Naturally, from this point, anytime anyone asks Brick about his mother throwing a beer bottle at him, he replies truthfully that he's not supposed to talk about it.

Or this clip, where it's established pretty definitively that Brick, um, isn't like other little boys.

Or this clip (which isn't really a clip, but a stitching-together of widely spaced bits of scenes into a tidy mini-drama -- why should we expect an officially posted ABC clip to represent the show faithfully?), when everything goes wrong for the Hecks on Thanksgiving. All poor Brick wants is to visit the corn maze, one of those things the family always used to do, until they got sick of them -- before Brick was part of the family. ("The forgotten third child," Frankie notes in her voiceover.) Axl, being Axl, rubs it in with his tale of peeing in the Nile, until . . . well, you'll see.

Out of kind of nowhere, ABC came up with a Wednesday-night comedy lineup this season, and the shows aren't necessarily the sort of thing you would expect from Disney folk. You get the feeling that somebody in the programming department has heard that a lot of those viewers the TV networks are hemorrhaging have been drifting off to something new called "cable," where apparently they have edgier, sexier shows like something called Sex Under the Cities.

I'm not sure why, but I set my DVR to record three of the four (sorry, but I don't know a blessed thing about the fourth, Hank, which seems to have disappeared already anyway): the much-talked-about Modern Family (with the current super-jumbo-size Ed O'Neill, who doesn't seem to fit inside his skin anymore, as Jay, the patriarch of a family that includes his new young Colombia-bombshell wife and her son as well as his own daughter's and gay son's families) and Courtney Cox's Cougar Town (which really isn't what it sounds like but manages to cause as much discomfort as if it were for everyone, including viewers) and the awfully-difficult-to-describe The Middle.

Judging by comments I've seen online, I'm not the only one who's "discovered" The Middle, created and produced by Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline -- though of course for even the worst piece of trash put on the air you'll find a coterie of diehard fans who swear it's the greatest tbing on the air. It seems at first as if the show is just another sendup of those schematically dysfunctional Middle American families, where you can slap a label on each of the characters and it sort of seems like you've described the show. You haven't, but it isn't all that easy to explain what's left out of your description, the thing that makes you -- or me, anyway -- care about the Hecks and root for them and hope against hope and experience that somehow this week things will work out for them a little better than a draw.

The Hecks: Mike, Frances (Frankie), Sue, Brick, and Axl

Generally speaking, it's in the "real family" genre -- out of Roseanne, of course. The friend who helped turn me on to Roseanne said of it that it was the first time he recalled seeing a TV family that looked like his, and Roseanne was indeed the rare sitcom -- or TV series of any sort -- that was cast with a thumb of the nose at the idea of prettiness. (Obviously Malcolm in the Middle is also in the mix with The Middle, and I see commenters who can't get past that, but you really have to -- The Middle isn't Malcolm.)

Not much effort is made to prettify the Hecks either, and it may be just incidental if the frequent sight of thick-skulled Axl in just his boxers makes inroads into the demographics of blushing teen females and twink-loving gay males of all ages. Patricia Heaton as Frankie, notably more vulnerable than she was on Everybody Loves Raymond, and Neil Flynn as Mike, liberated from the terminal annoyingness of his evil janitor on Scrubs, as the parents really show the signs of their ongoing struggle against all of life's obstacles. Both they and the kids (Charlie McDermott as Axl, Eden Sher as the perennially shrieking Sue, and Atticus Shaffer as Brick) really get you on their side. Although you know they'll get through in the end, somehow, the margin is going to be hair-raisingly close.

Won't that damned show ever die? How many final episodes is it going to go through? Last night there it was back again! (Even more incredibly, I recorded it!) I gather that many of the (nominal) grown-ups are gone, perhaps because they've gotten other work -- like Flynn, and Christa Miller, now Courtney Cox's best friend on Cougar Town.

Certainly Frankie gets no relief at work. She stands squarely at the bottom in seniority and sales among the staff of Ehlert Motors, the last car dealership left in Orson, Indiana. As I've said before, while it may well be just me, no matter what he does, everything Brian Doyle Murray says and does cracks me up, even if he's playing the most utterly appalling character. And I've never seen him have this much opportunity to display his hilarious-appalling craft.

Like on the Thanksgiving episode, when Mr. Ehlert delivered his bombshell: Because sales were so poor, he was switching to a 365-day schedule, just like that diner out on route whatever, meaning that the staff would have to work on Thanksgiving. When Frankie insisted, "Mr. Ehlert, that is just wrong," he rasped back: "Well, so's taking the country away from a bunch of Indians. But aren'tcha glad we did?"

Shortly thereafter, this scene played out in his office:
FRANKIE [entering timidly]: Mr. Ehlert . . .

MR. EHLERT: What now? Tampon machine empty?

FRANKIE: No, actually, sir, I was wondering if I could possibly in any way have Thanksgiving off to spend with my family?

MR. EHLERT [smiling -- uh-oh!]: Okay, we're gonna play a little game called "I Be You, You Be Me." [Whining in his croak.] "Mr. Ehlert, I know I'm the newest employee, with the worst sales record, and even though I whine about equality for women in the workplace, can I have Thanksgiving off so I can hug my family all day long, even though two minutes ago you said I had to work?"

FRANKIE [straining at hopefulness]: Yes?

MR. EHLERT [nodding, back to normal voice, except almost croak-free]: Okay, I'm me again. NO!!!

[As Mike Heck pointed out, "Who the hell is going to buy a car on Thanksgiving?" Eventually Mr. Ehlert allowed Frankie to work an evening shift, informing her that she was now working Christmas Day. Later, when she had to ask to change back to a daytime shift, that cost her Easter. ]

The remarkable accomplishment here is making this guy funny. It can't just be the character's obliviousness to how appalling he is. The world is filled with people like that, and hardly any of them are even the least bit amusing.

This was one of the things that fascinated me about Seinfeld. You could gather together all sorts of facts about Kenny Kramer, the real-life inspiration for the TV Kramer, and they might make it seems as if poor Kenny was having his life ripped off shamelessly. What that failed to account for, though, was the central, overriding fact: Where the real-life Kramer gave every evidence of being anywhere from a monstrous irritant to an out-and-out nightmare for the people who knew him, the TV Kramer was hilarious. That for me was a measure of the genius of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. Of actor Michael Richards too, of course, but think: In contrast with Brian Doyle Murray, have you seen him do anything else anywhere near as funny as Kramer?

I can't put my finger on much more about what makes The Middle so appealing, except perhaps to suggest that its creators really understood the tone they were going after and actually got it. Now that I've caught up on my stored episodes of Cougar Town and Modern Family, I find the comparison instructive.

The tone of Cougar Town, where Courntey Cox's character refuses to accept that she has passed into her forties as, post-divorce, she tries to raise her adolescent son, is all over the place, and I wonder whether the creators themselves know what they were after. Or perhaps they were scuttled by network geniuses forcing them to pander to their perception, right or wrong, of dumbed-down audience tastes. This is a shame, because there's so much good stuff going on here, even in the Cox character's pathetic desperation to maintain her looks and her youth, apparently en route to never grasping that they're really not an essential part of all those folksy homespun virtues she clings to.

You get the feeling that ABC thinks it can sell salaciousness, thereby thumbing its nose at an awful lot of good work by the writers and actors. It's almost worse if the show succeeds ratings-wise, because it will be for the wrong reasons, increasing the pressure to downplay its good qualities and focus on the bad.

And speaking of people not grasping basic truths, you might think that the whole point of Modern Family is to show us an entire set of characters who go beyond incomplete self-knowledge and knowledge about the people close to them to complete lack of such knowledge. At any rate, you might think that was the point if you could think of any way that might give the show a point. Again I have to wonder how much network meddling got in the way of a program concept that might have been developed into something genuinely interesting and funny.

Maybe the idea is that somehow the show can rise above the massive pile-on of character clich├ęs and cartoonish stereotypes and become . . . well, I have no idea what it might become. All that said, though, I notice that I haven't reprogrammed the DVR to stop recording new episodes. Is it possible that there really is something there?

On the Thanksgiving episode of The Middle, who should turn up but John Cullum, giving a hilariously crotchety performance as Mike's dad, Big Mike, who drives everyone crazy with his rugged determination not to be "a bother"? (By contrast, when Shelley Long turned up on Modern Family as the family patriarch Jay's first wife, it felt like, "Ohmygod, who else could it have been? That's the one thing this show was missing.")

There's a new episode of The Middle scheduled tonight (at 8:30 ET/PT), but online fans of the show are worrying about ABC's decision to remove full online episodes of the show from the website. I've suggested that both Modern Family and Cougar Town were potentially viable projects that were sabotaged in varying degree by network executives who think TV viewers are even stupider than they themselves are. I suspect that The Middle escaped because it seemed so bland -- your average network suit probably wouldn't have a clue as to what's going on in a show like this.

In fairness, it can't be easy to run a TV network with your head wedged securely up your butt.



At 5:04 PM, Anonymous Lee said...


I love your reviews...After all I got hooked on Hung after reading your review here. I just saw Jane Adams in Little Children (movie) small part but as usual she was fab.

My tastes tend to character driven shows. With great character actors. I was never a Married with children fan But I LOVED Ed O'Neil and Katy Segall..And speaking of Katy Seagall here she is as a back up singer for Bette Midler

I just Verizoned (I have fios tv with DVR)the Middle

At 8:03 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Lee! I've had worlds or fun with our interactions over these TV offerings. The neat thing, from where I view, is that there really IS stuff on the air that both stimulates and pleases.


At 4:45 AM, Anonymous Lee said...


Do you watch Mad Men? I tend to stay away from trendy, but it's really compelling.
I'm in Philadelphia so Comcast is in my backyard. So I have been following what they are trying to do with the purchase of NBC. Charge for content, and cut off any free streaming on the internet. Like what happened in the recording industry.And maybe publishing. Consumers want choices.
I don't want Cinemax for another 10 bucks a month ( currently a FIOS promo) because the movies are the same as HBO. But if I could download Weeds on I-tunes? or documentaries on Sundance? I'd spend the money...

At 8:18 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I've sort of wondered about Mad Men but haven't ever watched it. I'll have to give it a shot.

The Comcast deal for control of NBC fills me with concern too. One might think that anyone who wants control of NBC right now, given the mess it's in, is welcome to it, but this kind of consolidation of the industry sure doesn't bode well.



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