Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for May 20 through 26 is “A Heck of a Ride,” the two-part series finale of ABC’s The Middle.
For most of its nine-season run, I’ve argued — sometimes at length — that ABC’s The Middle was one of TV’s most underrated, most unsung treats.
It spent much of its run airing on the same night as Modern Family, which was a much bigger hit both in the ratings and with critics and awards voters (at least for its first handful of seasons), and The Middle’s quiet consistency often seemed to pale in comparison, even if the show was just as adventurous in its own unobtrusive way.
That it spent its last few episodes following up a heavily hyped revival of Roseanne — the show for which its creators, Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, had written in the past — only added insult to injury. While Roseanne was greeted by praise talking about how brave it was to tackle the struggles of working-class white families in so-called “flyover states,” The Middle had been doing just that, out of the spotlight, for nine whole years.
The Middle’s beautifully developed characters, finely tuned storytelling sense, and avoidance of easy gimmicks meant it sometimes wasn’t the easiest show to break out into a piece about how darn good it was. So consider this a mea culpa — it is, I should admit, the first time I’ve ever written about the show at length for Vox (though I covered it several times at my old job at the A.V. Club) — but also a fond farewell to a terrific little show. In the end, even I underrated The Middle just a little bit.
The Middle’s characters are so well defined that it can overcome essentially any bad storyline
I had drifted away from The Middle over the past several seasons, always happy to catch an episode here and there but less likely to make it a priority once the show decamped from its old, Modern Family-adjacent Wednesday home for Tuesdays.
I caught up with a good portion of the ninth and final season over the past few weeks, however, and while the show wasn’t at the level of the best seasons of its run (roughly the third through fifth, with honorable mentions to the second and sixth), it was still telling small-scale, thoughtful stories about what it means to live with not quite enough money in the United States.
At times, this final season became too distracted by the romantic travails of its breakout character, Sue Heck (Eden Sher), the eternally earnest, sweetly dorky middle child of the series’ central Heck family. Sue began the series as a potential outcast, but her endless font of optimism and essential kindness meant that as the series wore on, she found her people, making very good friends and even supporting one of them when he came out of the closet (in a storyline about what it means to be a gay man in a town that might not seem to be the most open or accepting that’s as good as any in TV history). That her final season arc ended up being about what boy she might kiss was a letdown.
But The Middle overcame this bad storyline, like it has so many others, by refocusing on its central five characters. The Heck family members are so perfectly realized — and have been for so much of the show’s run — that any time the series hits a rough patch in its storytelling, it can return to basics and make a string of good-to-great episodes. There’s a good reason so many of the show’s most memorable episodes (and a good portion of its series finale) involve those five characters trapped in a car, driving somewhere, together but constantly at cross-purposes.
The action of the finale also finds a sneaky way to acknowledge the larger world the series has built up around the small fictional town of Orson, Indiana, while keeping its focus squarely on the Hecks. Oldest son Axl (Charlie McDermott), a sweet-natured dolt, has taken a job in Denver. He believes it starts June 25, but his failure to understand that 5/25 means May 25 means the family has to scramble to get him there — necessitating one last long car trip.
Meanwhile, his parents, Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and Mike (Neil Flynn), struggle to put a cap on their long years with Axl living under their roof, while both Sue and youngest son Brick (Atticus Shaffer), whose unusual behavior and eccentricities have driven much of the series without the show mocking him for his atypicality, look for a fond farewell from their brother — in very different ways.
This is all, of course, standard stuff for a sitcom finale, right down to the quick epilogue that leaps forward several years to assure you everybody turned out just fine. But because the show has lavished such loving care on its characters, it feels ever more imperative to know that, yeah, the Hecks are gonna be okay.
The Middle is a lovely series about parenting when you’re not sure you can guarantee your kids a brighter future
The Middle is not a political series in the sense that Roseanne is. This isn’t to say that it failed to cover political and social issues, but rather to say that it’s not as loud and angry as nu-Roseanne can be. The Hecks don’t have a ton of realistic options for escaping their class or social status, and while the show never dwelt on this point, it was always cognizant that the best possible future for Axl involved getting a solid job at a massive sporting goods chain (as he does in the finale).
This is why it was so important the series feature such consummate pros as Heaton and Flynn in the roles of the Heck parents. The show was ostensibly centered on Frankie, who contributes narration to pull the various storylines together every week, and both Frankie and Mike had their share of storylines each season. But the older the kids got, and the more the show discovered how strong its three younger actors were, the more the series became about being Sue or Axl or Brick — stuck in a place you might not escape, with a future too dim to see properly. But it also smartly became a series about parenting in that situation, and how passing on values that are important to you can become a bulwark against hopelessness.
In its own way, The Middle was one of TV’s most conservative shows, and I use that word in the traditional sense, not in the Trump-supporting Roseanne or Fox News sense. It was never an overtly political show, and the few times it tackled topics that could be labeled as “lukewarm button,” it came down on the side of acceptance and progressivism (as with Sue’s gay friend). But it strongly believed there was real worth in the sorts of family values that have been wrung out and turned into buzzwords.
Frankie and Mike really believe in the idea of small-town virtues, the thought that if you try to put your family first and then take care of your friends and your community, you might make something better than what you started out with. And that “better” might take the form of a more loving, more accepting world, not the form of economic accomplishment or class mobility (though at least one Heck child seems to achieve material success).
It’s also a series that argued that having a spouse you loved and kids you cherished is one of the primary reasons to be alive, and not an endless burden, as too many other family sitcoms do. In that light, that Sue’s final storyline involved her romantic travails made a little more sense — as did the idea that Axl’s life came to be defined less by his workaday job and more by the fact that he had three sons exactly like him.
The Middle debuted a little over a year after Sarah Palin’s famous “We grow good people in our small towns” speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, a statement she seemed to spend the rest of that presidential campaign trying to disprove. And too many TV small towns are filled with kooks and oddballs and weirdos, when they’re not full of angry, shouting mobs. The Middle could have its share of that, but it also did, earnestly, believe that the American small town ideal could still exist, if we worked for it. I’m only realizing how much I’ll miss that rosy optimism now that it’s gone.
The Middle’s final handful of episodes are available on Hulu, and the show is in syndicated reruns across the programming grid.