By DAVID BAUDER
BURBANK, Calif. — On ABC’s Wednesday night schedule, the Emmy Award-winning comedy “Modern Family” is like that couple with the perfect kids, immaculate lawn and house bigger than they really need.
“The Middle” is more like Mike and Frankie Heck, who have quirky kids and a patched-up dishwasher that sounds like a jet coming in for a landing every time it is turned on. “If you Google underappreciated, it comes up `The Middle,'” said DeAnn Heline, one of the co-creators.
“We were wondering, when are we going to get appreciated?” she said.
Start right now. Viewership is higher than ever before in its third season and, more importantly, people are starting to recognize the subversive charm of a show that represents that swath of America between the two coasts.
Heline and co-producer Eileen Heisler have arguably been working toward “The Middle” for their lives and career, in a partnership that began when Heisler moved into Heline’s dorm room at Indiana University in the mid-1980s. Their joint writing and production credits include “Roseanne,” “Murphy Brown” and “How I Met Your Mother.”
Each grew up in the Midwest (Heisler near Chicago, Heline near Cincinnati) and were feeling a little homesick as they kicked around ideas for a new series.
“We looked at each other, at the lines on our faces, and said, ‘Well, we’re tired and we’re moms and we miss the Midwest,'” said Heisler. “It was write what you know. It might have been laziness on our part.”
There was some conviction there, too. They felt TV has plenty of shows with rich people or friends living in fancy apartments. What was missing was the voices of shows like “Roseanne” and “Home Improvement,” of families who struggle but stick together.
“There’s more humor to be found there and sometimes it’s more noble,” Heisler said. “It means more when you can’t afford something and your kid wants something. There’s drama there and there’s comedy there.”
Neil Flynn, the janitor from “Scrubs” who plays the Heck family patriarch, said “The Middle reminds him of “Roseanne” 20 years later with nicer people.”
The nation’s economy worsened at the time the creators were putting the comedy together, and made it more relevant.
When Frankie mused one day about moving into a nice apartment complex, Mike said “that’s not how you leave your home in America. You get behind on all of your bills and the sheriff comes and puts all of your things on the front lawn. That’s how you leave your house in America.”
“We all hoped the show would have a realism that would allow you to go to some dark places,” Heisler said. “Not all the time, but sometimes. The worse problems they have, the funnier it is when they overcome them. Stuff is coming down the conveyor belt and they deal with it. They didn’t make a big plan.”
The Heck family lives in a fictional town in Indiana. Dad Mike manages a quarry and mom Frankie tries to sell cars. Flynn was comfortable casting; he grew up in Illinois and feels like he knows his character well.
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Patricia Heaton was more of a challenge. After several years playing Ray Romano‘s wife in “Everybody Loves Raymond,” another “mom” character didn’t top her wish list.
“Then I read the script,” she said. “It was so completely different from ‘Raymond.’ It was from the mother’s point of view. It involved the kids, which ‘Raymond’ did not. And it went out in the world; ‘Raymond’ was very insular. It felt like a completely different show. I also had four kids to put through college.”
Much of the richness of “The Middle” comes through the children, who are each finely-etched characters.
The youngest son Brick is an odd little kid who immerses himself in books. Heisler said he’s modeled after her own son, so much so that actor Atticus Shaffer felt strangely like he was looking into a mirror when Justin showed up on the set one day.
Middle daughter Sue (Eden Sher) has a mouth full of braces and is a bit geeky but she never loses her optimism about life even as it repeatedly beats her down. Oldest son Axl (Charlie McDermott) is no scholar, but he’s a high school BMOC cringing that Sue is now a “frosh” who calls out to him in the school hallways.
It was important to the creators to have a realistic view of family life, with parents occasionally driven to their wits’ end by their children. One show had Frankie escaping in her car for precisely that reason.
“Their take on family is a little bit subversive,” Heaton said. “They’ve done a very delicate tightrope walk of being a wholesome family show that has a bit of an edge to it. I don’t know of anybody else that’s really done that. It’s either one or the other.”
That makes “The Middle” a show that can sneak up on you. The promos might make you think it’s a typical family sitcom. You have to watch to realize there’s much more going on.
Not a lot of people did at first, in part because “Modern Family” cast such a large shadow on the Wednesday lineup that it could block out the sun.
“It’s never bothered me to be under the radar,” Flynn said. “It’s subject to less criticism and zero backlash. If there’s a little more awareness and appreciation for it, I’m all for it.”
The producers also consider themselves fortunate to be supported by two different regimes now at ABC entertainment. That’s rarer than you think, unless a show is an obvious hit. Sometimes a network entertainment president sours on a show simply because a predecessor made it.
“It always felt like this thing that they were rooting for, and they understood the show we were making, and allowed us to make the show we were making,” Heline said. “It’s rare to be in the third season and say the show is better than we had hoped to make. But we are making the show we always intended to make.”
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