ABC’s The Middle is ending its run with season 9 this year, and while my initial reaction was undeniable shock and disappointment, something kept me from being really sad. It began in 2009 — right next to ABC’s juggernaut Modern Family — but it never got the acclaim its neighbor did, and for a year I’ve been struggling with a post comparing the two.
But there is no comparison. The Middle is a show that’s done pretty much everything right, and knowledge of it’s final season feels more like a graduation than a going away.
Part of the key to The Middle’s success is that its child characters — Axl, Sue and Brick — didn’t just get older , they grew. They changed. Sometimes in big ways, sometimes in subtle ways, but always in ways that felt true to life.
That relatability makes The Middle stand out. In a landscape of well-to-do family, friends and coworkers, it stands on the shoulders of Roseanne to present a working class Midwestern family that may not have a lot and sometimes drives each other crazy, but they’re always there for each other as they try to get by.
While most of the show’s forward motion comes from the path of the kids as they travel to and through high school and college, Neil Flynn and Patricia Heaton’s Mike and Frankie Heck really glue it all together as the parents trying to manage a house that sometimes is literally falling down around them while adapting to life as their kids begin to leave the nest. Flynn especially excels as the stoic dad with just the right amount of sarcasm to be funny but not mean. And those moments where we see the softer sides of Mike — whether it’s through a glance at Frankie or a moment with Axl, Sue or Brick — really play a big role in making The Middle not just a funny show but a comfortable one, too. It’s the fuzzy pajamas of prime time.
But it’s not just the Hecks that make The Middle. Though it struggled some in its first season, as the series went on, it found its footing with a stable of endearing side characters that rarely overstayed their welcome. Sue’s flamboyant friend Brad was always a treat, and his coming out episode — years in the making — was one of the sweeter, most understated moments I’ve seen. It’s always great to see Sean Donahue of The ‘Perfect’ Donahues Across The Street and Brick’s guidance counselor (played by the ever funny Dave Foley). And then there’s my personal (and surprising) favorite, the acoustic guitar-playing Reverend Tim Tom who’s appearances are rare, but he has a song for everything and good advice for everybody without ever being judgmental — even when Brick announces his lack of faith, much to Sue’s horror.
That’s not to say The Middle never stumbled. It has its annoying moments, and everybody has quirks that are sometimes pushed a little too far, but that’s true every show. Who hasn’t tired of Cam and Mitch’s bickering on Modern Family or Barney’s womanizing on How I Met Your Mother or Monica’s Type A micromanagement, Ross’s jealousy or Phoebe and Joey’s flakiness on Friends? (I love Friends, but sometimes…) And when all is said and done, what The Middle gets right far outweighs what it gets wrong.
So now, with a season to say goodbye and wrap up loose ends, it feels less like The Middle is ending and more like it’s growing up and adding the last pictures to the back page of a full family photo album.
The Middle premieres its final season Tuesday, Oct. 3, at 8/7c on ABC.
Leisure Time is on Twitter! Follow @theLTtweet for post updates and smaller thoughts.