Last week, you may have been too busy getting your comedy fix from The Big Bang Theory, The Office or Jersey Shore to notice a returning series that’s back on TV. If you are currently a fan of Modern Family — which, after last week’s episode, I am now ready to call the best sitcom on television — you may be avoiding The Middle because it is its less sexy equivalent.
The mom’s older, the kids aren’t as cool and we’re comparing Los Angeles, California to Orson, Ind. (it isn’t even a real town!). Also, college kids who watch Modern Family may think that they are getting their fair share of the sappy qualities of a family sitcom, and compensate for this elsewhere by listening to Sue Sylvester’s zings, Snooki’s witty aphorisms or Barney Stinson’s lamentations, in song form, of the end of summer signifying the end of women in sundresses.
Last week’s premiere episode of Modern Family by no means ranked too high on the “sweet” factor, but if you didn’t feel any emotional sensation when the family walked together, after a day in which Phil Dunphy’s 1983 station wagon fell down the side of a cliff, and the kids made fun of their mom’s crying, “What’s the plan Phil?” when he inexplicably jumped on top of the car, you may have no soul. I know one girl who felt the need to call her mother and thank her for raising her — much to the astonishment of her mom.
Of course it’s due to the brilliance of Modern Family that the show doesn’t overwhelm us with these moments of family sweetness. (This is not Full House.) The show always satirizes the “cheesiness,” of the family sitcom: the eye rolls and the talking behind other family members’ backs — courtesy of the show’s documentary style. Let’s face it: These are sometimes catty, self-involved family members (said Cameron about working with his very un-mechanical partner, Mitchell: “If an accident does happen, I hope he kills me. I don’t think I would make a very inspiring disabled person”). So, the touching moments at the end of the episode are all the more surprising when it comes from a family in which the father told the son, “Not all of your mother’s parts may work like they used to.” Or the youngest daughter told her mother, regarding her spacey brother Luke, “I’m not taking care of him when you guys die.”
On the same network, and on the same night, we see a family who resembles the Dunphys. Minus the exterior shots of beautiful California homes. And interior ones as well. These Hecks on The Middle just do it with less panache — and don’t expect the iPad to play a starring role in any of the episodes. The family in The Middle, as its title suggests, are of middle class, and it is evident, but not overt, that they are struggling to get by on a daily basis. Life is not as sweet for the Hecks as it is for the Dunphys, despite their similarities (read: utterly clueless children).
Patricia Heaton, once the sultry Debra Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond, a Long Island housewife who sparred with her domineering mother-in-law and less than sensitive husband, perfectly adapts herself to her new role as a wife and Midwestern suburban mother of three on The Middle. Heaton seems to be purposefully de-glamorized in the role to demonstrate that life in the middle class is more difficult and less comfortable for some. This is not a portrait we often see on television. And Heaton’s Frankie Heck adds a voiceover commentary each episode, and many comments of hers reveal some enlightening insights from her perspective.
Including this realization: “Real Americans are raised on instant gratification and the optimism that if they mess up things will somehow all work out. That’s what makes America great! How sad to be you in your dark little no TV world.”
In one moment, she remarked about one son, “If only he had like a car or a TV or a cell phone ... something good we could take away from him.” This son also broke the above ground pool last week.
The show is still a sweet one, while pointing out the difficulties of getting by in an economic recession. The youngest son on The Middle, Brick, is quirky and is less socially developed than his peers. He also has an odd habit of repeating many words he says at the end of each sentence by whispering them. When Frankie realizes her mistake in buying Brick a new backpack and disposing of the old one (he had an attachment to it), she runs to the garbage truck screaming, “Wait, my son’s best friend is in there!”
These two sitcoms share the sentimentality, the values of family and the right edge of satire to balance the light material. Modern Family may be more intriguing because it is more attractive stylistically, and let’s face it: everything is more, well … modern on the show. We enjoy the episodes when they vacation to Hawaii, purchase the new iPad and host elaborate birthday parties in their expensive and expansive homes. Just don’t forget that The Middle has vacations too, except they include road trips from Indiana to Chicago for their son’s regional spelling bee while they are cramped in uncomfortable cots in a small motel room. These are two very distinct lifestyles, but the same witty and incisive humor is present in both shows. The Middle is one below-ground pool from being one modern family.