“The Middle”: A Sitcom Dad Actually Gets it Right

Sue and Mike Heck, on "The Middle" (photo: ABC TV)

So, I was going to write about homework this week, but that will have to wait, because an extraordinary thing happened last night, sometime between 8:00pm and 8:30pm, while I was watching the ABC-TV sitcom, “The Middle.” I say extraordinary because this involved a TV dad, who was not Bill Cosby or Bill Bixby (is anyone old enough to remember “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father”? No? Yes? God, I loved him. He reminded me of my dad). This involved a TV dad who … wait for it … did the right thing. He stood up. He not only did a sweet thing for his geeky teen daughter, but he went the extra step and said the right thing to a mean girl’s dad.

Sitcom dads don’t do this, as we all know. They’re usually kind of useless. Unless they’re Bill Cosby. And Bill Bixby doesn’t even count because “Courtship” was not a sitcom.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“The Middle,” for those of you who don’t watch it, stars Patricia Heaton (formerly Debra Romano on “Everybody Loves Raymond”) and Neil Flynn (formerly The Janitor on “Scrubs”) as Frankie and Mike Heck, working class, always-behind-the-eight-ball, fast-food eating parents of three kids. There’s a lot to like about “The Middle.” If you watch the ABC promo videos you’ll hear stuff about it being “real.” It’s about a “real Midwestern family,” which to my sensitive East Coast urban-ish ears sounds like that sort of “Real America” jargon the right wingers bat around at election time (I’m talking to you, Sarah Palin!). Because the “real” part of the Heck family has nothing to do with the fact that they live in Indiana, and everything to do with the fact that they actually say real things about raising kids, and do real things that raising kids drives you to do (like throwing bags of frozen brownies at them as they race for the bus, because your effort to get organized on school mornings lasted all of one week).

There was the time, last season, when Frankie locked herself in a dingy bathroom at the car dealership where she works, to escape for 15 minutes the constant call of her boss, her colleagues, and her family via cellphone (The police, when they came to inform her of some mayhem she missed: “You shut your phone? You’re the mom! You can’t shut your phone.”). There was the time, just a few weeks ago, when Mike said about his oldest, Axl, a hormone-ravaged highschooler who wears boxer shorts around the house and drinks OJ out of the container (I’m paraphrasing): “I think he might be an idiot.” It was funny, and cringe-y, but mostly funny. I mean, come on, let’s be honest: who hasn’t thought that their kids just might be a little… not so terrific? You know, kind of idiotic?

Anyway, last night. Part of the plot involved Sue, the Heck’s middle-school-age daughter (played by Eden Sher), an character you can’t help but love for how clueless (yet smart) and hopeless (yet hopeful) she is. She’s every middle-school mess you ever felt like, braces and stringy hair and all. I love her. In this episode, Sue is befriended by a cool/mean girl, Shannon. Mike drives Sue, Shannon and Sue’s other geeky friend to the movies, and ends up staying with them, a few rows back, because he doesn’t trust them to be alone with boys. At one point, when Sue goes to the restroom to get Twizzlers out of her braces (love her), Shannon confides to the other geeky friend that she’ll be invited to a Saturday sleepover. But not Sue.

Mike, outraged and upset, rails about the unfairness to his wife, who tells him (I’m paraphrasing), “you didn’t know girls were this mean? Why do you think we eat so much chocolate?” There’s nothing, she tells him, that he can do.

But there is something he can do. He can make up for the party Sue doesn’t even know she’s not invited to by offering to watch one of the Twilight movies with her on a Saturday night. That would be sitcom-perfect — you can hear the “awwww…”, right? Except it doesn’t end there. Shannon calls — the audacity of meanness! — to ask Sue if she can borrow a sleeping bag, supposedly for a last-minute family camping trip.

This is where it gets good. Mike offers to drive the sleeping bag over to Shannon’s, and confronts her dad at the door. This is what would happen in most sitcoms, and most of us would be fine with it: Mike would say, “gee, that was mean. My daughter’s home thinking this is her friend, and Shannon’s not her friend at all.” And the other dad would be all, “yeah, girls, what can you do, right?” Maybe the two would have a beer or something. And the nice part, the Bill Cosby part, would be Mike going home and watching Twilight and never telling Sue that she’s been dissed by her so-called friend.

Here’s what did happen. When the two dads get into it, the other father does indeed say (I’m paraphrasing!), “Listen, I can’t tell my daughter what to do! That’s not my job.” But Mike says, after a pause and with a twist of his lips, “You know, yes, it is. It is our job.”

Ya see? It is our job. The girl was being a snob and mean, and even if Mike went back and never said a thing to Sue (he didn’t, they just talked about Twilight — “so… he’s the one with the abs?”), he said what he needed to say to Mr. Shannon’s Dad: When are kids are headed down a path that’s going to make them mean, and a bully, and a braggart — and they sure as hell might; sometimes they’re idiots, right? — you say something. Because that’s our job.