While cutting-edge shows grab all the attention, “The Middle” avoids sharp objects, instead celebrating the flaws, the mediocrity and the bad choices of its characters with a big dose of laughs.
The series, airing its 100th episode Oct. 23, is ABC’s stealth hit, logging increases in viewers and young adults so far this season and delivering solid ratings since 2009.
“You have to love the Heck family, warts and all,” says Peter Roth, president and chief content officer of Warner Bros. Television Group, which produces the sitcom. “They are one of the most three-dimensional and authentic families on television.”
That’s something the show’s creators, Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, were definitely targeting when they pitched the show to Warner Bros.
“When we were developing it, there weren’t many family comedies on the air, and those that were on were really upscale,” says Heisler. “The show came from an observational place and wanting to tap into our roots.”
They had a deal with Warner Bros. TV. “They said, ‘What do you want to write about?’ And we said, ‘Tired moms. We’re both moms, we’re both tired and we’re both from the Midwest.’ It was as simple as that,” she says.
For Heisler and Heline — who finish each other’s sentences, laugh a lot and are quick to give credit to the show’s cast and scribes — writing from what they knew made sense. Both had worked on ABC’s groundbreaking “Roseanne,” another working-class comedy decidedly light on saccharine and heavy on reality, which is an influence on “The Middle.”
A pilot was shot but not picked up. Then WB, Heisler and Heline went forward again, this time with Patricia Heaton (Frankie Heck) leading the family that includes Neil Flynn (Mike, the husband), Charlie McDermott (college boy Axl), Eden Sher (teenager Sue) and Atticus Shaffer (junior high schooler Brick).
“The combination of trying hard and laziness — Patty does it really well,” says Heisler.
The stories mostly come from the real lives of the writers and actors on the show, “as opposed to writers coming up with a stock sitcom situation you can get something generic,” says Heaton, who also notes that Frankie, as well as the other characters, are constantly evolving.
“What I’ve seen with Frankie is that in the beginning, she’s well-meaning but messing things up.” Heaton says. “Now, she is choosing when she’s making bad choices.
“She gets jealous of Mike because their son just texts him and not her. There’s little things that she will do — little underhanded things, which I like. She has her failings and that makes her human.”
Heaton sees the show’s success in its authenticity: “There’s an underlying foundation of gratitude and acknowledgement of the blessings that you have.”
Flynn’s take on Mike is a perfect foil to Frankie. “Mike is a realist,” Flynn says. “Emotions don’t cloud his view of the world. It is what it is.”
And then there’s the fact that the kids are refreshingly non-smartass and normal, as McDermott notes about Axl’s defining characteristic: “his obliviously unapologetic self-obsession.” Sue has become a fan favorite, and Sher recognizes the character’s appeal.
“What makes Sue tick is the idea that literally anything is possible,” Sher says. “Sue wakes up in the morning and thinks today is going to be the day she spots a real-life unicorn hiding in the bushes. And that is what keeps her going. And her defining characteristic is her above-high-C-still-not-sure-how-my-throat-produces-the-sound squeal.”
Says Shaffer about his role: “Brick marches to the beat of his own drummer. What makes Brick tick is how he notices things or does things that most people may not … like the need to read anything around him that is in print, appreciating fonts, enjoying saying three-syllable words, or feeling soothed by rubbing ketchup packets.
Heline notes that because of the strength of the cast, each character can hold his or her own storyline for an episode. “The kids are growing up, and it gives you a whole new batch of stories,” she says.
The pair agree: As long as their kids keep doing annoying things, they’ll have stories forever.