How ‘The Middle’ Represents an ‘Underserved’ Part of America but Still Resonates ‘Coast-to-Coast’

When “The Middle” premiered in 2009, ABC was taking a chance on a brand new comedy block for its Wednesday night primetime lineup. Premiering in the 8 o’clock hour was “Hank” starring Kelsey Grammer and Swoosie Kurtz, followed by “The Middle,” which boasted comedy returns from Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn. The 9 o’clock hour launched “Modern Family” and then “Cougar Town.” At the time, Heaton remembers, it was that latter show that got much of the attention and advertising budget. But now it is “The Middle” that is hitting its 200th episode milestone.

“We’ve just been the little engine that could,” Heaton says. “We just kept chugging along, and then they started using us to launch new shows, and it became this great thing.”

Creators and executive producers DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler developed the show during the Alphabet’s 2006-07 season based on some of their own experiences.

“ABC had gotten away from family comedy, but they were so good at doing them. We really felt it was time for a family comedy,” Heline says.

What Warner Bros. Television Group president Peter Roth most remembers from the pitch of the show was how “deeply personal” it was for Heline and Heisler. “Both of them are from the Midwest, and the stories that have been dramatized over the years are from their unique backgrounds and the histories of their own families,” he says. “They represent a portion of the country that I think is terribly underserved, so for me conceptually and in terms of the execution, ‘The Middle’ will always have a very, very special place in the hearts of all of us at Warner Bros.”

Though ABC initially passed on picking it up, Heline and Heisler redeveloped the show, lightening the tone a bit so it would be less “bleak” and less of the “indie film” vibe they say the original had.

They recast it as well, and ABC picked it up for the 2009-10 season. Atticus
Shaffer, who plays the youngest Heck child, Brick, is the only cast member who carried over from the first version of the show to the long-running series it has become.

Heisler says that what became key to the show was the “chemistry of the cast,” coupled with a warm color palette to capture the love of the family and make the audience feel like “even though they didn’t have money, the Hecks were lucky to have each other.”

It proved to be a winning combination. “The Middle” got off to a good start in 2009 with a series premiere that saw more than 8.7 million viewers tune in. It steadily grew in the subsequent seasons, peaking in season three with more than 9.7 million viewers tuning in for the premiere.

Neil Flynn and Patricia Heaton played parents Mike and Frankie Heck for nine seasons on ABC.
Courtesy of ABC

The show began airing in syndication in 2013, and then ABC moved the series to Tuesday nights in 2016 to allow its eighth season to lead a whole new night of comedy.

“At the heart of the show, each and every episode, it is about relationships, it is about love, and it is about what family means to each other,” ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey said at the show’s 200th episode celebration. “You created a show that was supposed to be about a family in the middle, and it resonated from coast to coast.”

Heaton feels the resonation comes because the show is grounded in “everyday family life” and explores situations in a way that invites families to watch the show together “without parents worrying they’ll have to explain controversial topics to their children later.

“Network shows put more restrictions on writers so you can’t do anything too shocking,” Heaton says. “You have to work a little harder for the joke — you have to work a little harder for everything, actually. And I think that makes the writing better because if you have a somewhat sophisticated palate as they do on ‘The Middle,’ you have to really craft the jokes, and they do it in such a way that it’s funny if you know the characters, as opposed to just doing punchline jokes all of the time.”

The writers often sprinkled in time-specific pop culture references, such as Frankie talking about her favorite shows, fellow ABC programs including “The Bachelor” and “Castle.” And when it came to touching on topical issues, for example a local mall closing, they did so to further flesh out “the fabric of their lives.”

Heisler says this was done to give the show a timeless appeal: “The colors and the way the show feels is because of the memories of DeAnn and I growing up in the ’70s, but it is kind of universal in that it didn’t turn out to be something glued to one specific time,” she says. “And I hope it makes it a show that lasts beyond now. I like to think that it will be perpetually relevant.”

Over the years Heaton has observed that relevance increase as discussion around the show broadened out from critical acclaim and audience acknowledgement to also include praise from others in the industry.

“You created a show that was supposed to be about a family in the middle, and it resonated from coast to coast.”
Channing Dungey

“When other writers say, ‘I love your show’ and ‘my family watches your show,’ that’s a tribute to our writers,” Heaton says. “They started with very full characters who were very distinct from each other, and that’s why as the show continues it actually gets richer. And what the writers are really good at doing is making you laugh, and then when you’re really vulnerable because you’re laughing, they pull on your heartstrings.”

In crafting the 200th episode, it was important for Heisler and Heline to follow that emotional path they carved over the nine seasons as well as to honor those who have been with them on this journey before they say good-bye with their series finale, which is slated for 2018.

The episode will see the Hecks in a sentimental place when their hometown of Orson makes a list of the top 200 cities in Indiana.

“How they feel about their town is how we feel about this town that we have, which is the show and our crew. We wanted to thank people and express the love that we have in that moment,” Heisler says. “It’s our home, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

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