The last nine years have been one heck of a ride for “The Middle” cast and executive producers.
Series creators DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler don’t even want audiences to pardon the pun when they turn on ABC to watch the middle-America family comedy one last time on May 22 and see that the series finale title is simply that — “A Heck of a Ride.”
“One thing that’s very important to us is to think about our fans and to think about us and think about an ending that’s appropriate to the show we’ve always been,” Heisler tells Variety. “Personally, I don’t think the point of a finale is to shock [the audience]. I think that you really want to honor the show and give people an [episode] that is closer to a typical one, while being exciting, than something that veers off in another direction.”
“The Middle” was renewed for a ninth season in January 2017, and just a few months later in August, the season was announced to be its last. Heline and Heisler focused on crafting a final season that allowed for the return of beloved characters like patriarch Mike’s brother Rusty (Norm MacDonald) and neighbors the Glossners (including matriarch Rita, played by Brooke Shields).
In November, ABC extended the final season order by two more episodes. “To have the extra two was a great gift,” Heline says. “We knew where our endgame was, and when we did get the additional two, it was enough time to really plan it, but there were certain things that may have gotten stretched out.”
Heline and Heisler share that they had plans for how the series would end for a while, but one of the things that came up later, when they were breaking the specific episode, was who would say the final words and what they would be. Without giving those details away, they tease that the scene is reminiscent of the last scene in a pilot so that the show can come full-circle in a way.
The series finale will not only include a goodbye to the Hecks but also to some key non-familial figures in their lives, as well as offer one last reference to years-long bits like the “blue bag, Axl and Sue arguing over him freezing her head when she dies and Brick’s whisper,” reveals series star Patricia Heaton.
“The way they ended it, this was the most genius way to end this series,” Heaton says.
But the process of seeing the end coming has been “the slowest ripping of a Band-Aid” for the creators, as well as the cast.
“When I feel this emotional tidal wave coming, I steal myself to not let myself get overcome by it. But the first time I felt the little crack in the dam was [during the table read] when Jen Ray who plays Nancy Donahue says, ‘We’ll be friends forever,’” Heaton says. “You’re hearing the actors say the words, and I was feeling very much the same way Frankie was feeling in that moment. It’s all one.”
Heaton and her on-screen husband, Neil Flynn, both experienced long-running shows say their goodbyes before. Heaton starred on family sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” for nine seasons before that came to an end in 2005 — notably one week after they were supposed to wrap because Heaton had lost her voice.
“I can’t believe that I have gotten to be a part of another wonderful show,” Heaton says. “‘Raymond’ really set the bar for sitcoms, and I think ‘The Middle’ set the bar for single cams on a network.”
Flynn was the janitor on “Scrubs” for eight seasons before the show retooled for its own final year. “This is literally about a family,” Flynn notes of his time on “The Middle.” “It was very important to me to be [on ‘Scrubs’], but I had a bigger hand in this and certainly spent more time here. I don’t do goodbye very well, so I’ll just go along with any activities that seem to be taking place. I’ll just try to appreciate what’s going on and try not to cry.”
The Heck children have grown up over the course of nine seasons — and so have the actors who embody them, Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher and Atticus Shaffer — so it is only fitting that the final episode of the show deal with some big life changes for them.
“I feel fortunate that it feels like my character gets to be the driving force of the finale. It’s pretty cool. I’m really happy with where he ends up,” McDermott says.
McDermott notes that through the years, there would be moments in the script where he would “almost want to stop” Axl from acting in the immature way he did. But in some ways, too, Axl’s early struggles were reminiscent of his own.
“One of the biggest adjustments for me was that I really had to be word perfect. Literally for the first two seasons, and I don’t know if it came off that way, but I felt very confused and I struggled with it a lot,” McDermott says. “But it’s been a really good tool now because it basically forced me to work in a different way. Before if I wanted to nuance things I’d change the lines, but I wasn’t able to do that here, so I had to figure out how to nuance things in a word perfect way. I really worked a new muscle that I never would have worked otherwise.”
The youngest on the show, Shaffer was only eight years old when he first booked the original version of “The Middle” pilot. His time on the show, which he calls a “complete honor and joy,” has inspired him to take his career in the direction of writing and directing in addition to acting.
“As I got older on the show, it seemed like they started to do more things in terms of giving different options,” Shaffer says. “And the director of [the finale], Lee Shallat Chemel, she was involved in that quite a bit — encouraging me and validating that whether or not they get picked I was making good choices. That gave me a lot more confidence.”
Confidence was also a key takeaway from “The Middle” experience for Sher, too.
“I feel like playing Sue has allowed me to be,” Sher says. “Playing Sue has allowed me to realize I’m good at something. The qualities that were Sue qualities that were also Eden qualities were encouraged and showed me I’m good on my own and I’m OK just being me.”
“The Middle” is ending at a time in television when revivals and reboots are the latest in development trends — specifically when “Roseanne,” a show similar in setting if not completely in tone, has returned to ABC’s lineup. While Heaton has been very vocal about wanting to “check in” with the Hecks during holidays or family vacations in years to come, Heline and Heisler didn’t want to get too far ahead of things.
“It was important for us to give closure in some respects,” Heline says of the series-ender. “We wanted it to be satisfying in respect to the story, but we also wanted it to feel like the Hecks are going to live their lives. Because it is a family show, I think it is always something you could revisit.”