Sitcom families tend towards extremes, and so do their homes. On one end are the well-off, reasonably functional families with impossibly-clean homes – did you ever wonder how the Huxtables’ kitchen and living room were so clean, with that many kids, two working parents, and no mention of a housekeeper? On the other end are the Conners, the Bundys, and the Simpsons – where much of the humor is derived from the family’s dysfunction. So it’s refreshing when a show like ABC’s The Middle comes along, where the family seems much more real because it’s in between the extremes, and where the family’s home seems much more real because it looks like that family actually lives there.
The Heck family of The Middle live in a constant state of barely-controlled chaos – if you’re a parent, that probably sounds familiar. The family of five – parents Mike and Frankie, and kids Axl, Sue, and Brick – isn’t exactly poor, but certainly doesn’t have a lot of money left over after paying basic expenses. They’re definitely not entirely functional, but they all clearly love each other – even Axl, the stereotypically usually-rude teenager, comes through when it counts for the sister he claims to hate.
On the trip to Los Angeles I took a few weeks ago, the other bloggers and I were treated to a visit to the set of the Heck house from the show. It was disturbingly familiar – set director Julie Fanton told us that they really want viewers to see the mess, and that she does a lot of shopping at Target and Kohl’s, so I’d guess pretty much any American middle-class family will see something there that reminds them of their own home. From the random-seeming stuff left on the coffee table – a die that looked like it came from a Monopoly set, for example – to the laundry hanging off the tops of the washer and dryer, to the unopened mail sitting on the kitchen table with cups sitting on top of them, it was really easy to believe that a family actually lived there.
I was still busy looking around the house when Neil Flynn, who plays Mike Heck, and Charlie McDermott, who plays Axl, walked through the door. They spent a good bit of time chatting with us bloggers and taking pictures with us – both as a group and individually. I particularly enjoyed chatting with Flynn, as one of the main reasons I started watching The Middle when it premiered in fall of 2009 was that I had really enjoyed watching him as The Janitor on Scrubs. Flynn was very much like Mike Heck – nice, if not particularly talkative. McDermott seemed like a very nice guy (I was surprised to learn by looking him up afterwards that he’s nearly 24 years old), if a bit reserved – not at all like his character on the show.
The terrific Jack McBrayer, formerly of 30 Rock and a terrific voice actor, and now on The Middle as Frankie’s boss Dr. Ted Goodwin, showed up very briefly as well, which was fun. (I had actually met McBrayer a few years ago at a Phineas and Ferb-related event – he does the voice of Irving on that show – but it was very cool to see him again.)
Atticus Shaffer, who plays the extremely quirky Brick (and who looks younger than his 15 years), made an appearance after that, chatting for a few minutes and taking pictures with the group. He talked about watching The Walking Dead and playing video games – in other words, pretty normal teenager stuff. He seemed like a really nice guy, and much more grounded in reality than his character.
We also were treated to a preview screening of tonight’s new episode of The Middle (titled “The Walk”), in which Sue’s prom is fast approaching and she doesn’t yet have a date, while Frankie and Mike discover that they are much more interesting when talking with other people. I think this plot is something anyone who’s been in a long-term committed relationship can identify with – at a certain point, you just know each other so well it’s not always easy to come up with new topics of conversation.
The Middle airs Wednesdays at 8:00pm ET/PT on ABC. It’s now getting close to the end of its fifth season, and still going strong, even if it doesn’t tend to get a lot of press. I consider it one of the most underrated comedies on TV, and I highly recommend you start watching tonight if you don’t already watch it.