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Before 'Roseanne's' revival, 'The Middle' carried the torch for America's heartland

Before 'Roseanne's' revival, 'The Middle' carried the torch for America's heartland
Patrica Heaton plays Indiana wife and mother Frankie Heck in ABC's "The Middle," winding up its nine-season run. (ABC / Michael Ansell)

After nine seasons, the saga of the Hecks of Orson, Ind., comes to an end Tuesday night. Like the Hecks themselves, "The Middle," the ABC sitcom that contains them, has kept chugging along, doing its less-than-glamorous, seemingly old-fashioned thing for a reliable 6 million to 8 million viewers a week, year after year. That is not to say it hasn't had its credentialed critical boosters, as well, or that it isn't just a little bit radical, in its way. But it has never exactly been a trending topic.

I watch TV professionally, but also recreationally, as time permits — and time does not permit much recreational TV watching. When it comes to the pleasure television, it is not so much the shows you pick as the ones that pick you, the places you return to week after week because they have in some sense got your number; they reliably improve your night, they are good company. I reviewed "The Middle," when it premiered in 2009, and went on to watch possibly every episode thereafter, even though, professionally speaking, I didn't have to. I am a "The Middle" person. I laugh, I cry.

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Set in the middle of the country, or near it, with characters on an economic middle rung, or just below it — the other "middle" is middle age — the series stars Patricia Heaton, who had spent an earlier nine years married to Ray Romano on "Everybody Loves Raymond," as Frankie Heck, wife, mother, daughter, dental assistant.

Premiering in September 2009, when the shocks of the Great Recession were still reverberating and the subprime housing crisis was still having its way with the economy, "The Middle" is the sort of show that were it to debut in 2018, would be taken as a network responding to the Trump election. (The series had in fact been in development since 2006.)

Indeed, this is not, and was not then, a milieu favored by the producers of television comedy, who as a rule prefer shows about well-off people in nice houses. "Roseanne," for which "The Middle" creators Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline wrote, seems to have been at least a partial inspiration — if the colorful afghan on the Heck couch, seemingly an homage to that on the Conner's, is any indication — and it had been off the air for nearly a decade.

But as a comedy of making do with less, it is more lighthearted and less naturalistic than "Roseanne." The Hecks have no politics; their condition is existential. They have a modicum of religion, which is to say, an occasional episode will send them briefly to church. Generally speaking, they are good people, and somewhat less-than-solid citizens. Their concerns are usually immediate; when plans are made, they tend to go wrong. It is an improvisational, last-minute — sometimes past the last minute — corner-cutting life.

"I told you, you can't put wet things in the dryer anymore," Frankie reminds her family in the series' opening episode, setting a theme and a tone.

What has made the Hecks such good company for so long? They are vivid, individual characters, who started out a little strange from the start, but who have only ripened and deepend with time, as the actors have come to wear their parts like a second skin, transmitting by subtle indication what once would have had to be explained.

Frankie is an excitable dreamer, husband Mike (Neil Flynn) contained and practical. Elder son Axl (Charlie McDermott) is charming and what might be called "book dumb," with his own set of facts about the world. (It makes sense that he has wound up in sales.) Daughter in the middle Sue (Eden Sher) is a walking gasp of excitement, often disappointed, endlessly hopeful; Brick (Atticus Shaffer) is a "clinically quirky" bookworm Frankie named Brick because "I read kids with interesting names grow up to be interesting people." (Frankie has frequently acted on things she has read.) Frankie dotes on Axl, worries about Sue and generally forgets about Brick, who has learned to fend for himself. Mike craves peace.

The homiletic resolutions of "Father Knows Best"and "Leave It to Beaver" notwithstanding, family sitcoms have more often than not promoted the oddballs they seem to mock. "The Addams Family" is different in degree but not in kind from, say, "Ozzie and Harriet": They live by their own rules, though at times Frankie would painfully feel the distance between her family and a "normal" one and would encourage or bully them toward some imagined ideal. This was usually given up as too hard, misguided or impossible.

Atticus Shaffer, from left, Eden Sher and Charlie McDermott as Brick, Sue and Axl Heck in the one-hour series finale of ABC's "The Middle."
Atticus Shaffer, from left, Eden Sher and Charlie McDermott as Brick, Sue and Axl Heck in the one-hour series finale of ABC's "The Middle." (Michael Ansell / ABC)

Nevertheless, over the course of the series, Axl has managed to graduate from high school and college. Sue is in college, still working a fast food job over the summer; Brick, whom we met as a second grader, is a high school sophomore. Frankie sold cars to begin with — "If I'm going to sneak out an hour early, I can't be more than an hour late" summed up her work ethic. Now, she is a dental assistant who has, she almost reluctantly admits, acquired actual practical knowledge. And Mike has moved up a notch at the quarry, into management. They are, by any decent reckoning, a success story.

And unlike "Married With Children," which presented family life as a zero sum game, it is not cynical. The characters get their little victories, even if the lesson is just one of acceptance, of other people, of one's own circumstances and nature. The Hecks are forever coming to understand, and admit, what they mean to one another. As episodic television, there is a big reset button at the beginning of nearly every episode, where the old emotional order is reasserted. But it also seems that this is how the world really works — we are continually forgetting and remembering to pay attention, to care.

I will miss "The Middle." That Axl is considering taking a job in Denver, leaving Frankie grieving in anticipation, is a nicely analogous to the show's own leave-taking. Yet this seems like a good time, in their fictional progress, to bid the Hecks adieu. We face the finale with questions that will be answered or left open (but given the nature of the series, most likely will be answered). Will Axl take that Denver job? Will Sue declare her love for the boy next door (Beau Wirick)? As interesting as "Brick Heck: The College Years" might have been in a season 12, we can leave it to our imagination — or petition for a spinoff.

I wish them luck wherever TV characters go when they are done with us.

'The Middle'

Where: ABC

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When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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