In fall 2009, barely a year into the Great Recession, two new family sitcoms aired back-to-back on Wednesdays: “The Middle” and “Modern Family.”
Filmed in a quasi-mockumentary style, “Modern Family” followed three affluent, interrelated families in suburban Los Angeles, including a gay couple with an adopted daughter from Vietnam. Praised for its diversity, it was anointed the best new sitcom on television, became a ratings smash for ABC and has gotten 77 Emmy nominations.
At least superficially, “The Middle” was less groundbreaking. Created by DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler, it centered on the Hecks, an intentionally unremarkable lower-middle-class family living in the small town of Orson, Indiana, proud home of the world’s largest polyurethane cow.
Dad Mike (Neil Flynn) is a taciturn quarry manager who later launches a diaper business. Mom Frankie (Patricia Heaton) sells cars — or tries to — before studying to become a dental hygienist. They have three kids who aren’t particularly bright, cool or attractive, epitomized by middle child Sue (the exceptional Eden Sher), whose most distinctive trait is her insistence on never giving up, despite being pretty bad at most things she tries.
The series revolves around the Hecks’ near-constant efforts to fix various broken appliances and put (sometimes recently expired) food on the table. It may not have shifted public opinion on same-sex marriage, but in its unassuming way, “The Middle” has been every bit as revelatory as “Modern Family.” Over eight seasons, it has portrayed the economic anxieties of working families with a candor rarely glimpsed on American broadcast television, which has aspiration encoded in its DNA.
Though several of ABC’s family sitcoms deal with class more fleetingly, “The Middle” is arguably the only long-running comedy on broadcast television that puts the subject front and center. That it also happens to be set in “one of those places you fly over on your way from somewhere to somewhere else,” as Frankie says in the pilot’s opening narration, rather than a cosmopolitan city or well-heeled suburb, makes it a double rarity.
And though “The Middle” is a pleasantly apolitical show, it happens to portray the kind of working-class, Rust Belt voters who in real life helped propel Donald Trump to victory in November. (It also stars Heaton, one of Hollywood’s more prominent conservatives.)
If, as conventional wisdom dictates, the Washington establishment has ignored this demographic for too long, then so has Hollywood — especially television, which has made enormous strides in representations of race and sexuality, but still portrays bourgeois, upper-middle-class coastal dwellers as the default norm.
Heline and Heisler began developing the idea for “The Middle” about a decade ago, around the time they were writing “Lipstick Jungle,” a “Sex and the City”-esque dramedy about high-powered New York City women.
As native Midwesterners turned Angelenos, Heline and Heisler longed to do a show about the world in which they grew up, where “when something goes wrong, your neighbor brings you a casserole,” Heline recalled in an interview.
After a number of delays, “The Middle” made it to air at a time when virtually everyone in America was feeling the pinch financially. “I think in some ways it helped our show,” Heline said, “because it felt more relevant.”
In the show’s early days, ABC would occasionally give notes along the lines of “try not to make it too depressing,” but Heline and Heisler, who grew up in the Midwest in circumstances similar to the Hecks’, were determined to treat these people with honor.
Refreshingly, “The Middle” neither venerates the Hecks as “real Americans,” nor ridicules them as flyover rubes.
“The Middle” even looks different from most sitcoms. Instead of tasteful Pottery Barn throw pillows and gleaming stainless-steel kitchens, the Hecks’ house is furnished haphazardly, cluttered with neglected piles of mail and laundry. Marie Kondo would not approve.
While no one would ever mistake “The Middle” for John Steinbeck, its willingness to acknowledge the constant precariousness of the Hecks’ finances makes it quietly revolutionary.
In a standout Season 2 episode, “The Big Chill,” Mike gives Frankie the silent treatment after she accidentally spends $200 on a tube of eye cream and eats up their household budget.
“I’m not mad that you made a mistake. I’m mad because we can’t afford to make a mistake,” Mike eventually explains to his wife. “You think I like it ... that at this point in our lives, we have to have four jobs just to stay poor?”
Now in its eighth season, a time when many long-running sitcoms resort to Cousin Oliver-esque gimmicks in a desperate bid to keep things fresh, “The Middle” continues to find new ways for the Hecks to squeak by.
In a recent episode, Sue discovers she isn’t enrolled at college because her family failed to file her financial aid paperwork in time. Mike sells his diaper business to pay her tuition.
Heline and Heisler cut their teeth on “Roseanne,” TV’s last great blue-collar hit. The experience taught them that authenticity could be funny. “When we created ‘The Middle,’ that’s what we wanted to go back to,” Heline said. “We felt like the networks had abandoned that.”
With a few exceptions — notably, the work of producer Norman Lear in the 1970s — American TV has always been squeamish about acknowledging class because it “goes against the notion of the American dream,” says Anthony Harkins, a Western Kentucky University professor whose research focuses on pop culture depictions of Middle America. “It doesn’t put you in a buying mood.”
The booming ’80s ushered in an obsession with yuppies and one-percenters, in shows such as “Dynasty,” “Thirtysomething” and “Diff’rent Strokes.” “The Cosby Show” broke new racial barriers, but money was rarely a concern for the Huxtables.
“The Middle” has never been a Nielsen blockbuster, but it has been a steady performer for ABC. It now runs almost even with “Modern Family” in the ratings and is regularly cited as one of TV’s most underrated shows.
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