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Monday, November 17, 2014

'The Middle' S5 DVD: A Kinder Gentler 'Roseanne'

Product Details
The current ABC sitcom "The Middle" migrating from Warner Home Video to Warner Archive for the DVD release of the 2013-2014 fifth season is very apt considering the high esteem with which Archive holds traditional television series and films. "Middle" is the genuine family comedy of the 21st century in that it depicts a middle-class family living in middle America with a generally average number of kids with overall typical personalities of offspring for their ages.

The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, of the network promo. for "Middle" S5 is a Cliff Notes version of the relatable family interaction that provides much of the humor in the series. As these glimpses show, the audience can see themselves and those with whom they are bound for life in the characters.

The Heck family of Indiana around which "Middle" centers also falls nicely in the middle of classic TV broods. Unlike Dan and Roseanne Conner of the highly obnoxious '90s sitcom "Roseanne," Frankie (a.k.a. Frances) and Mike Heck are college educated and have what passes for steady and decent employment in the current economy. Newly slightly upwardly mobile Frankie is a dental hygienist, and Mike manages a quarry.

Patricia Heaton of "Everybody Loves Raymond" brings her tradition of eye-rolling exasperated mom and wife to the role of Frankie; Neil Flynn of "Scrubs" plays Mike as much nicer than Flynn's janitor persona from the earlier series but retains an element of the antisocial quality of that character.

The moments in the sun that this pair share in the fifth season include a hilarious weekend at a house with technology that they cannot operate and hosting a dinner party that turns into a typical suburban neighborhood event.

Unlike more affluent television families of the past and the Hecks' Wednesday night neighbors the Dunphy/Pritchett clans of "Modern Family," the Hecks are like many households in finding providing their family even moderate "extras" financially challenging in this era of moderate dystopia.

One example from an earlier season with which a large percentage of viewers can identify has Frankie scrambling to earn money after inadvertently spending $200 on eye cream and having Mike only get upset because the family used to handle such unexpected expenses more easily.

The story described above also provides good context for contrasting "The Middle" with "Roseanne." The titular character in the latter likely either would have shrilly raised a scene regarding the audacity of charging $200 for a couple of ounces of eye cream until the clerk refunded her money or would have successfully replaced the "good stuff" with a dirt-cheap substitute and had a huge belly laugh regarding pulling one over on the over-priced store and the rich jerks who shop there.

The Hecks also take a more humane approach than the Conners to raising their weird youngest son, quirky middle child, and popular but not-so-motivated oldest. Frankie and Mike parent with as much love and understanding as their financial, physical, and mental resources allow.

Fan favorite Axl Heck provides the majority of the "funny because its true" style of humor in the fifth season; this relates to everyone's favorite boxer-clad teen boy going from BMOC high school football star to lowly college freshman.

The college fun commences with the hilarious season premiere centered around the family bringing Axl to college at the start of the academic(?) year. Anyone who has endured this ritual can relate to a frantic trip to a clone of  Bed, Bath, and Beyond for dorm supplies; anyone who has taken a family road trip can relate both to the comical squabbling among the kids and very amusing diversions that turn a 45-minute journey into a more than three-hour tour.

Other college-oriented rites of passage in which Axl amusingly engages includes contending with a highly incompatible roommate, hosting high-school buddies for a weekend on campus, taking a last-minute road trip, burning through his meal plan long before the end of the school year, facing an academic crisis, and trying to figure out where he and his high school girlfriend do (or should) stand.

Wonderfully awkward (now high school junior) Sue Heck continues showing her perpetual peppiness regarding trying out for a plethora of extra-curricular activities despite an unbroken record of either not making the cut regarding such hobbies or failing (hilariously) miserably at those that accept her.

The writers add an awesome new dimension to Sue in having her become a little more assertive following freedom in largely having tormenter Axl out of the house. Although sitting in her older brother's chair at the kitchen table is purely symbolic, fans should be glad to see Sue take a typical move for her in taking a stand in the form of taking a seat.

The most amusing Sue storyline has her very surprisingly making a team under circumstances that are even more hilarious than those under which she shines during a game. This one has her literally repeatedly falling down only to bounce up with as much enthusiasm as ever.

Sue additionally shines both in an especially good episode centered around her efforts to get a prom date and the three-part season ending episode. The latter has Sue make an impassioned speech about her unwavering determination despite a lifetime of failures; this very funny message is that knowing that the odds are against her does not phase her.

For his part, very weird Brick Heck experiences growing pains associated with transitioning from elementary school to middle school. His related adventures include severe paranoia regarding using the school bathroom, misunderstanding the concept of having multiple teachers, and a particularly amusing storyline regarding his emerging body odors.

The best Brick episode arguably is one in which he tries to arrange for Mike to apologize to a female classmate of Brick whom Mike chastises for behavior that does not warrant a rebuke. Much of the humor in this one relates to Brick not understanding how the public perceives encounters such as a grown man meeting a pre-teen girl in a park and giving her gifts.

The aforementioned season finale wraps up with the family doing a good job with the arguably jump-the-shark plot of a trip to a Disney Park. In true "Middle" style, nothing goes right even when things seem to be back on track (and despite exceptional efforts of Disney staffers to provide the family a good experience).

All of this amusement and regular hilarity leads to the conclusion (which may have been a tag line for the series at some point) that the Hecks are like your family, only funnier. You may not quote lines from the show or entirely see you or relatives in the characters but will relate to this group and the wacky situations in which they become embroiled.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "The Middle" is welcome to email me. You can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.