Saying goodbye to 'The Middle,' a rare Middle Class comedy (and we know what that means)

Anyone who has been alive and watching American television in recent months (or reading mainstream media sources that provide entertainment news), knows that Roseanne Barr has made a spectacular return to the air, with the rebirth of the classic "Roseanne" sitcom.

Whether this is a spectacularly good thing or a spectacularly bad thing depends on how you view the fact that Barr has included some material in the show linked to her belief that Donald Trump is not the Antichrist.

However, some journalists and critics who have attempted to view this phenomenon with a wee bit of objectivity have observed that "Roseanne," the show, is once again offering glimpses of ordinary, Middle and even lower Middle Class American life -- a topic usually ignored by elite Hollywood.

Now, the season finale of "Roseanne" took place about the same time as the farewell episode of "The Middle" after nine years as a successful series that was rarely noticed by critics -- as opposed to millions of American viewers. Variety noticed the timing of these events.

Also, a fine review/essay by Robert Lloyd in The Los Angeles Times dug deep enough to notice that these two shows shared cultural DNA. The headline: "Before 'Roseanne's' revival, 'The Middle' carried the torch for America's heartland." Here is a chunk of that piece:

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.)

The "middle" also refers, of course, to the middle of this nation, as well as the Middle Class.

When you start talking about "Middle-Class values" this is often code language for You Know What. See if you can spot the GetReligion angle in this next passage.

"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.

This classic "late for church" scene includes some spot-on details suggesting that someone in this episode's creative process actually knew a little bit about Sunday life in a jam-packed America megachurch.

 

So why bring this up?

Simply stated, I wonder why "The Middle" didn't get more hard-news attention through the years, other than stories about its edgy decision to include a character who is clearly somewhere on the autism spectrum.

For starters, the actress at the middle of the show has been known to make news, and not just with awards. Heaton is an outspoken Catholic (watch this hilarious "Catholic throw down" with Stephen Colbert) who also speaks Evangelicalese and is a frequent voice for, and honorary chairperson of, Feminists For Life. Right. There's only one of her in La-La Land.

Heaton has also been known to point out trends in Hollywood, patterns that she has observed during her not-so-typical Emmy Award level career. For example:

In “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Middle,” for instance, Heaton pointed out that the families attend church -- but that the themes don’t hit viewers over the head with the message.
“It’s unusual that really two shows I have been on have had that in common, ‘Raymond’ and ‘The Middle’ -- both families were churchgoers, and they never made a big deal about it,” she said. “It was just part of the fabric of their lives which is true for many many families in the United States, but it is never portrayed.”

So is there news here? Perhaps a follow-up story worthy of attention from journalists?

I don't know, although I think this CBN.com feature about the end of "The Middle" is, well, not your normal piece about a Hollywood star and her use of a chunk of time off after nine intense years of sitcom shooting.

... Instead of taking a little time off, Heaton headed to Uganda to meet with refugees on behalf of World Vision USA. Before leaving the US, Heaton had posted a picture of 14-year-old Victor, a Sudanese refugee, and asked her followers for prayers. Heaton met up with Victor and shared some of those prayers in person. ... 
According to World Vision, Victor fled war-torn South Sudan with his siblings. After getting separated from his parents, World Vision assisted the youth in finding a foster family in Uganda.  
Heaton was joined by Jen Ray, fellow actress on The Middle, and the two did a little cooking for the Imvepi refugee camp.

A nice story?

Well, it certainly isn't a cynical story.

Along that line, let's give Lloyd a cheer for noting that this sincere tone, linked in part to the show's star, played a major role in its success -- even if it never connected with the Intelligencia on the power coasts, far from the American middle (lower case).

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.

It's not too late to binge watch the show a bit, and perhaps check into Heaton's future plans.

FIRST IMAGE: Patricia Heaton on a WorldVision aid tour.

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