Monday, October 09, 2017

Oct. 8, 2017, column:
Downhome stories don't mean sitcom is unsophisticated
(If you click on the link above, ignore the newspaper's headline. It doesn't reflect what the column says. The headline you see here is closer. I don't write the newspaper headlines.)
By Mike Haynes
            One of the TV comedies that Kathy and I faithfully record is in its ninth and last season.
            The producers of “The Middle” have decided to stop while it’s still hale and hearty. It will be missed – not only because, as one fan said, it’s “finally a show I can watch with my family,” but because despite its small-town, folksy theme, its writing and cast are up there in quality with those of supposedly more sophisticated shows.
            “The Middle” chronicles the foibles of the Heck family in fictional Orson, Indiana – in the
The main characters in "The Middle" are the Heck
family, clockwise from center: Frankie,  Mike,
Sue, Axl and Brick. 
middle of the country geographically and culturally, thus its title.
            The Heck clan consists of Mike (Neil Flynn, formerly of “Scrubs”) and Frankie (Patricia Heaton, formerly of “Everybody Loves Raymond”), the parents who often are inept but keep family values in their sights; the snarky son, Axl (Charlie McDermott), who gets by on his charm and athletic ability; the daughter, Sue (Eden Sher), who is the definition of anonymous loser but has a sweet smile through every failure; and the bookworm, Brick (Atticus Shaffer), whose many tics include repeating words in whispers. (Whispers.)
            The sitcom probably hasn’t broken any new ground, but it certainly reflects the traditional values of many Americans, including religious values. The Hecks attend church (most of the time), they feel guilty about not always volunteering for community projects, and Sue finds inspiration in her youth minster, Rev. Tim Tom (Paul Hipp), who dispenses advice to young people with his guitar and spontaneous lyrics.
            “Jesus was a teenager, too,” Rev. Tim Tom sings. “Beneath the long hair and pimples, King of the Jews. A lonely teenage savior no one could understand. Awkward on the outside, but inside a wise young man. Yeah, Jesus was a teenager, too.”
That example may not be entirely scriptural, but it’s obvious someone involved in the show understands church life. One who does is Heaton, a Cleveland native whose Frankie character isn’t quite as organized or sensible as her Debra Barone in “Raymond.”
            Heaton, who has won three Emmys, made headlines in 2003 when she walked out of the American Music Awards without giving her scheduled live introduction to a video package. She was fed up by what she called “an onslaught of lewd jokes and off-color remarks” by performers on stage.
            She has spoken often about her faith and told Christianity Today magazine that her Hollywood success is a result of God opening doors. In 2014, she was an executive producer and star of “Moms’ Night Out,” a movie with a strong Christian message.
             My wife and I do like another show, also in its ninth season, that has been more of a pop culture darling – I think because it emphasizes diversity and social issues. “Modern Family,” set in suburban L.A., is one of the most intelligently funny sitcoms on the air and features a talented cast, hilarious situations and great physical comedy. It has won more awards than “The Middle.”
            At first glance, many probably see the two comedies as polar opposites, like they’re the sitcom counterparts to the mod “Laugh-In” and the folksy “Heehaw” of the 1960s and 1970s. If they dismiss “The Middle” as lightweight cornpone, though, they’re wrong.
            The humor in both shows comes from mostly plausible situations and realistic conversations, not from a series of one-liners followed by a laugh-track.
            I suspect “The Middle” initially appeals to people with more conservative lifestyles and to middle class folks; to others, those can be negatives. But people who live between the coasts identify with a family that mishandles money, whose kids worry not about getting into a prestigious college but into any college and whose daughter tries out for every high school group and always gets rejected.
            Lots of middle Americans also get it when Brick goes to church camp or when the Hecks would rather get to the all-you-can-eat buffet than endure a counseling session with a new pastor. “The Middle” isn’t a show about religion, but it treats belief as a genuine part of life that occasionally crops up in the plot.
The Hecks come across as a family that quarrels but sticks together. Consider this exchange:
            Mike: “They’re good kids. If this is the worst of it, we’ll be fine.” Frankie: “You’re right. We’re lucky.” Mike: “Very lucky.” Frankie: “Of course, we could be luckier.” Mike “Don’t I know it.”
            I can see Kathy and I buying the complete series on DVD – but like the Hecks would, only after it drops to half-price. (Half-price.)
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            Mike Haynes taught journalism at Amarillo College from 1991 to 2016. He can be reached at the Amarillo Globe-News or Go to for other recent columns.