October 03, 2009

TV: The Middle (ABC, Wed 8:30)

"The middle" is that part of America sometimes called "fly-over country," the part that often feels ignored by the big-city dwellers on the coasts. In this case, to be specific, it's Orson, Indiana, home of the Heck family.

As a sitcom title, The Middle is also inescapably reminiscent of Malcolm in the Middle, which this show resembles in broad outline -- harried mother, father laid-back almost to the point of oblivion, three oddball kids.

Mom in this case is Frankie (Patricia Heaton, pounding the Midwestern accent just a bit too hard), struggling to balance raising those three kids with her job at Orson's only remaining car dealership. Husband Mike (Neil Flynn, clearly relishing the chance to play someone a bit closer to normal than Scrubs' Janitor) means well, but has a gift for saying precisely the wrong thing in remarkably charming fashion.

Two of the kids are relatively standard issue sitcom kids -- sullen son Axl (Charlie McDermott) and misfit daughter Sue (Eden Sher), who's on the verge of setting a school record for most failed attempts to make an extracurricular team.

But then there's Brick (Atticus Shaffer), whose teachers can't make up their minds whether he's just quirky or "clinically quirky." Given to whispering random words to himself for no apparent reason, and not caring at all (or even aware of, really) what people think of his odd behavior, he's a fabulous character, and if The Middle does well enough to stick around, Shaffer will be one of the breakout stars of the new season. (The show's Malcolm overtones are only furthered by Shaffer's resemblance to Erik Per Sullivan, who played eccentric youngest child Dewey on that show.)

I never much cared for Heaton during her days on Everybody Loves Raymond, but she's very good here, and my earlier lack of enthusiasm may well have had more to do with my distaste for that show than for her in particular. The Middle is well written and the cast is likable. It may not be breaking any new sitcom ground, but I'll take solid professional work over the sort of laziness you see on shows like Brothers any day.

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