Fans rightfully love Community and GLEE. But often overlooked in the crop of good new TV is ABC's The Middle, a surprisingly dark family sitcom about life in the heartland. Even more interesting than the show itself is the reaction to it. Or lack thereof. Especially compared to the acclaim heaped on Modern Family, The Middle's Wednesday night time slot-mate. The consensus, in places like Salon and the New York Times, is that Modern Family is fresh and daring. The Middle, when mentioned at all, is generally seen as a standard, if well-executed sitcom.
At first glance, that seems true. Only one of Modern Family's three main couples form a conventional family—Claire and Phil Dunphy, played by Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell. Newlyweds Jay and Gloria (Ed O'Neill and Sophia Vergara), both have kids from a previous marriage. The third storyline follows a gay couple (Mitchell and Cameron, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet) raising an adopted Vietnamese baby girl.
The family on The Middle, in contrast, is as nuclear as they come. Mike and Frankie Heck, played by Neil Flynn and Patricia Heaton, are uncompromisingly ordinary. Neither has been married before. There are no step-children or half-siblings, no May/December marriages, gay adoption or any other lifestyle out of the mainstream.
But The Middle is unique in its own way. First, unlike other highly-praised new shows—not to mention practically every other show on network television—The Middle is almost sexless. GLEE's teen cast is all eye candy. Community's Alison Brie and Gillian Jacobs are stunning. Modern Family's moms are MILF beauty queens. On The Middle, Patricia Heaton is an attractive woman, but her Frankie is deliberately dowdy. No bare skin, no heels, nothing sheer or tight. The show's only other female character, is a puberty-tortured daughter (Sue Heck, played by Eden Sher)—a painfully gawky, braces-wearing bundle of teen angst.
But what's most unusual about The Middle, at least compared to, oh, almost every other sitcom in the last 20 years, is that the father figure isn't a buffoon. Unconventional as Modern Family's relationships may be, the patriarchs are a lot like every other harried, henpecked husband on TV—goofy dads making messes that wise wives clean up. Modern Family's Jay may be well-meaning, but he's bumbling and out of touch. Phil Dunphy is the show's main comic punching bag—and so inept at times it's hard to understand how he ever got a woman like Claire.
Neil Flynn's Mike Heck is a more nuanced father. Flynn, who mastered aloof menace on Scrubs, has remained aloof but replaced menace with bemusement and a deadpan brutal honesty that inevitably steal scenes. He is neither domineering like an old-school 50's dad, nor a subject for ridicule like Ray Romano or—dare we say it, Al Bundy. Mike loves his kids, but is no Cliff Huxtable and stays out of inter-family squabbles if he can. Mostly, that's because Mike Heck is tired from working all day at a rock quarry.
Therein lies the main difference between Modern Family and The Middle. Everyone on Modern Family seems quite comfortable, even if Mitchell did just quit his job.
In contrast, absolutely nothing about The Middle is upscale. The Hecks struggle to make ends meet, with both parents working. They drink beer, not wine. Their home décor is unironically shabby. Their clothes, especially Sue's, are comically dated.
Maybe most telling, and most unusual for a sitcom, is how the Hecks spend their free time. On Modern Family, couples see live concerts or sneak off for a romantic weekend at a luxury hotel. Precocious pre-teen Alex Dunphy plays cello and lacrosse, while even more precocious Manny tries fencing and writes Byronic love poems. People on The Middle spend their time in less photogenic, less expensive, and far more common pursuits. Namely, they watch lots of TV. The Middle, along with The Simpsons, All in Family, and Roseanne, is that relative rarity in family sitcoms—a show that acknowledges the absolutely central role television plays in American family life. Modern Family, in some ways, shows us how we like to see ourselves. The Middle shows us who we are.