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"The Middle" Season 1 DVD Review

The Middle: The Complete First Season DVD cover art - buy from Amazon.com The Middle: Season One (2009-10)
Show & DVD Details

Creators/Writers: Eileen Heisler, DeAnn Heline / Writers: Rob Ulin, Jana Hunter, Mitch Hunter, Vijal Patel, Roy Brown, Bruce Rasmussen, Alex Reid, Russ Woody / Directors: Lee Shallat Chemel, Ken Whittingham, Wendy Stanzler, Michael Spiller, Alex Reid, Barnet Kellman, Jamie Babbit, Chris Koch, Julie Anne Robinson, Gail Mancuso, Reginald Hudlin, Elliot Hegarty

Regular Cast: Patricia Heaton (Frankie Heck), Neil Flynn (Mike Heck), Charlie McDermott (Axl Heck), Eden Sher (Sue Heck), Atticus Shaffer (Brick Heck), Chris Kattan (Bob Weaver)

Recurring Characters: Brian Doyle-Murray (Mr. Don Ehlert), Peter Breitmayer (Pete Miller), J. Brock Ciarlelli (Brad Bottig), Jeanette Miller (Aunt Edie), Frances Bay (Aunt Ginny), Alexa Vega (Morgan Edwards), Beau Wirick (Sean Donahue), Blaine Saunders (Carly), Jen Ray (Nancy Donahue), Krista Braun (Mrs. Tompkins), John Gammon (Darrin), Robert Clendenin (voice on P.A. - uncredited), Andrew J. Fishman (Zack), Will Matthews (Mr. Seifried)

Notable Guest Stars: Amy Farrington (Gail), Patricia Belcher (Mrs. Rettig), Lexi Jourden (Olivia), Mel Rodriguez (Mr. Perez), Rachael Marie (Sophie), Derek Waters (Owen Ehlert), Vicki Lewis (Carol Barry), John Cullum (Big Mike Heck), Mandy Musgrave (Kate), Brooke Shields (Rita Glossner), Gabriel Basso (Rodney Glossner), David Chandler (Derrick Glossner), Joel McCrary (Doug Morton), Rachel Quaintance (Barb), Steve Byrne (Charles F. Barnes), Suzy Nakamura (Beth), Amy Sedaris (Abby Michaels), Michael Kostroff (Steve), Mason Cook (Corey), Marsha Mason (Pat Spence), Paul Hipp (Reverend Timothy "TimTom" Thomas), Audrey Wasilewski (Jody), Betty White (Mrs. Nethercott), Andy Milder (Principal Sholin)

Running Time: 518 Minutes (24 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen / Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround (Portuguese)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Chinese
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Captioned or Subtitled
DVD Release Date: August 31, 2010; Suggested Retail Price: $44.98
Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s); Clear Keepcase in Cardboard Box
Season 1 Airdates: September 30, 2009 - May 19, 2010

Buy from Amazon.com

Quick, think of a major female movie star over the age of 50. Now, think of one who isn't Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren. Not so easy, huh? The film industry has limited opportunities for women of a certain age, most of them playing the parent to a star fifteen years their junior.
So it's no surprise that 52-year-old Patricia Heaton, famous as the matriarch of "Everybody Loves Raymond", would stick to small screen comedy rather than attempt a return to movie acting.

Heaton sat out the first two seasons after "Raymond" finished its 9-year, 210-episode run. Her follow-up sitcom, Fox's "Back to You", teamed her with Kelsey Grammer and some of the minds behind his hit "Frasier." "Back to You" was cancelled after just one strike-shortened season and while exploring the possibility of resurrecting it at CBS, both stars and the show's creators went off and signed onto family comedies to debut on ABC in the fall of 2009. Grammer's "Hank" lasted a mere five episodes. "Modern Family", conceived and produced by Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, has been heralded as one of the smartest and funniest shows on the air (claims that Sunday's Emmy victory crystallized). Registering much closer to "Modern" than "Hank" in that wide gap between those receptions was Heaton's "The Middle", which was quickly given a full first season order and by January renewed for a second season.

"The Middle" stars sitcom veterans Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn as Frankie and Mike Heck, an average American married couple who are old pros at parent-teacher conferences. Already bummed by the loss of power and a freezer-emptying dinner, the three Heck children (Sue, Brick, and Axl) do not take kindly to their parents' plan to drop cable.

"The Middle" centers on Frances "Frankie" Heck (Heaton), a middle-aged, middle class, Middle American mother of three. Juggling those kids with a job as a car saleswoman, Frankie has her hands full in flyover country, specifically rural Indiana. Her husband, straight-shooting Mike ("Scrubs" janitor Neil Flynn), helps when he can, but he is busy as a quarry supervisor. And the kids are a handful...

Eldest son Axl (Charlie McDermott) is in jaded teen mode; he is unenthused, unmotivated, and often undressed. Overlooked middle child Sue (Eden Sher) is a notorious underachiever who has tried and failed at nearly every extracurricular activity, but persists with a braced smile. The youngest, quirky 8-year-old Brick (Atticus Shaffer) is a self-whispering social outcast and a voracious bookworm.

Some viewers have cited things like the Hecks are a positive depiction of a healthy family or that they are fundamentally good people. To be sure, those are both nice qualities, but as a television comedy, the more important thing is, are they entertaining? The answer to that is a resounding "yes."

Teenaged eldest son Axl (Charlie McDermott) is not a big fan of wearing clothes at home or really anything. Frankie (Patricia Heaton) gives bookworm son Brick (Atticus Shaffer) a socialization hand by playing his turn for him in a playdate Chutes & Ladders game.

The premise of "The Middle" sounds iffy. A family sitcom with all-American sensibilities and a mother as the focal character? For me, that conjures an atrocious image of an open-ended comedy version of The Blind Side. Fortunately, the show is nothing like that. For starters, it's necessary to discuss the technical aspects of the series. "The Middle" takes the modern approach that every network but CBS now favors for sitcoms: a single camera and no laugh track.

It avoids the effective but slightly tiring device of reality TV-like direct camera addresses that, under the guise of mockumentary, shows like "The Office", "Modern Family", and "Parks & Recreation" employ.
"The Middle" adds to the sophistication of the sitcom in other ways. Many of the biggest laughs are provided by flashbacks and repetition/comparison montage moments created by the show's excellent editing. In addition, nearly every episode opens with a bit of stock footage to subtly put the show into a greater historical context of small town American families.

That is all the context that really matters because "The Middle" forgoes a broad gimmick in favor of just a good-humored approach to nuclear family life. Does it make a difference that the Hecks' fictional hometown of Orson is found in central Indiana? Occasionally, as in the opening title shot's vacant cornfield surrounded county road, a setting memorably employed in the pilot. But, the family's location largely exists to identify them not as backwards or removed but as decent, average people, ones who won't be getting stuck on a subway or casually encountering a celebrity anytime soon.

Avoiding obscurity in favor of an "and" credit, Chris Kattan plays Bob Weaver, Frankie's friendly, perky, lonely car dealership co-worker. While not part of the credited principal cast, Brian Doyle-Murray appears in half of Season 1's episodes as the gruff Mr. Ehlert, Frankie's boss.

"The Middle" is a crowd pleaser that is refreshing and appealing to its core. The casting and characterizations are enough to hope the series endures. The staff concocts enough strong, organic storylines to carry them through a debut season with very little evidence of weakness or fatigue. Heaton (who also ably narrates) and Flynn both regularly entertain, without us connecting them to their long-running past TV roles.
Each is comfortable with the parental material, which largely steers clear of jokes for more satisfying and nuanced humor of interaction. The fine deliveries of the two actors elevate already sound writing.

The Heck children are accessible and fun; their personalities are familiar but not overly familiar. There is no sense of retread to them. Also, rare are the instances when kids talk with words blatantly chosen by adult writers. Most of the time, the show knows better than to settle for such lazy, false vocabulary bending. As the oddball youngest boy Brick, Atticus Shaffer is highly amusing and the show uses him accordingly, giving him more B storylines than his siblings. It's the kind of performance that almost certainly doesn't lend itself to a career (though family film offers are sure to come), but boy what a hoot Shaffer is here. And McDermott and Sher can't be taken for granted, for ensuring their teen roles that could (and, at times, do) annoy have enough depth and relatability to endear.

Rounding out the principal cast are Chris Kattan (who it's nice to see employed again) as Frankie's sympathetic co-worker, a recurring Brian Doyle-Murray as her sexist crotchety old boss, and an unseen, uncredited Bob Clendenin who is as funny as a disembodied voice can be in his PA system messages to Frankie.

It's a bit tough to find an appropriate comparison for those unfamiliar with "The Middle." I guess the most obvious choice is the one that includes its title: "Malcolm in the Middle." It's a little less zany than that but "The Middle" strikes a similar tone while dealing with similar subject matter. Another show I was less likely reminded of was "Home Improvement"; clearly, "The Middle" puts a modern spin on the now archaic design of brightly-lit three-walled sets and warmed-up studio audiences. Also, things are more subtle, less broad and rigidly structured here, not to mention that the mother is the lead and the father is not a dunce. Still, the humorous but heartfelt approach to family life renders this a mature, dissident descendant in a likable long tradition.

Produced by Warner Bros. Television despite airing on ABC, "The Middle" gets a little bit of a head start on the now customary September TV-on-DVD blitz. Warner releases Season 1 exclusively to DVD today, three weeks before the show's second season begins airing as the opening act of ABC's formidable sophomore sitcom-loaded Wednesday night lineup.

Synopses follow. I've designated my ten favorite episodes of the season with a star ().

The sight of Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton) in a superhero costume isn't where you'd expect this series to begin, but the pilot explains how this desperate, stranded scene comes about. Sue (Eden Sher) takes rejection in stride selling meats and cheeses door-to-door in hopes of qualifying for a school trip to the state capital.

Disc 1

1. Pilot (23:26) (Originally aired September 30, 2009)
Juggling work and family is a challenge for Frankie. Sue makes a big impression in her show choir debut.

2. The Cheerleader (21:37) (Originally aired October 7, 2009)
Between a broken drying machine, Frankie's dry spell at work, and past purchases whose payments are now due, financial troubles accumulate for the Hecks.

3. The Floating Anniversary (21:34) (Originally aired October 14, 2009)
Frankie and Mike's plan to celebrate their anniversary by buying carpet remnant in French Hick is delayed by her great-aunts' emphysemic dog and other concerns.

4. The Trip (21:32) (Originally aired October 21, 2009)
Frankie urges Sue to fight for the Indianapolis school trip place she's apparently earned by selling meats and cheeses.

In his basketball debut, Brick steps off the court to tell his father about something altogether unrelated. With a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream before them, Frankie and Mike coach Brick on how to respond to the forthcoming social worker. After a scary separation, Axl and Brick reunite in their Thanksgiving Day corn maze walk.

5. The Block Party (20:47) (Originally aired October 28, 2009)
Mike tries to encourage socializing from Brick, who joins the basketball team. Frankie is upset that Axel bucks tradition by not giving her his old football jersey.

6. The Front Door (21:38) (Originally aired November 4, 2009)
Mike's parenting of Axl leaves the family without a front door for days. Sue frets over her school photo and multiple retakes.

7. The Scratch (21:35) (Originally aired November 18, 2009)
When harried garbage collection results in Brick getting scratched by a tossed beer bottle, the Hecks have to be evaluated by a social worker (guest Vicki Lewis).

8. Thanksgiving (21:35) (Originally aired November 25, 2009)
Having to work puts a hitch in Frankie's big family Thanksgiving plans.

With the tree up and decorated, a calm Mike checks one more item off his Christmas task list, to Frankie's irking. Brooke Shields guest stars as a less than classy woman whose dog and four sons are terrorizing the neighborhood.

Disc 2

9. Siblings (21:35) (Originally aired December 2, 2009)
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When family table dining doesn't bring the kids together, Frankie and Mike try playing football against them. Mike has trouble firing increasingly senile Aunt Edie (Jeanette Miller) as quarry bookkeeper.

10. Christmas (21:34) (Originally aired December 9, 2009)
With Frankie busy preparing for her midnight mass choir solo, Mike handles all the Christmas preparations and does so in stride. Brick is bummed by the holiday season.

11. The Jeans (21:33) (Originally aired January 6, 2010)
Between Sue's pricey new jeans, Axl's cheap fixer-upper car, and Brick's dog-sitting for the aunts, the Heck kids and parents have their hands full.

12. The Neighbor (21:36) (Originally aired January 6, 2010)
Frankie tries to reason with the tough mother (Brooke Shields) of four neighborhood bullies.

Brick may not have put much work into it, but Frankie is still upset to see his school historian campaign poster defaced. Mike and Bob spend a night working together on deliveries for the Little Betty snack company in "The Yelling." Brick's spelling bee success is cause for a Heck family road trip. *whisper* Road trip.

13. The Interview (21:35) (Originally aired January 13, 2010)
Mike's dinosaur bone find gets the quarry shut down for months, leading him to look for a new job. Frankie helps Brick run for school historian.

14. The Yelling (21:37) (Originally aired February 3, 2010)
Frankie tries to cut back at her yelling by not worrying so much about the kids.

15. Valentine's Day (21:36) (Originally aired February 10, 2010)
Frankie and Mike relish having Valentine's Day to themselves, but it doesn't last.

16. The Bee (21:36) (Originally aired March 3, 2010)
The Hecks combine Brick's big regional spelling bee in Chicago with a belated celebration of Sue's birthday, making for one chaotic and disharmonious road trip.

Frankie meets Morgan Edwards (Alexa Vega), head cheerleader, snack bar supervisor, and her son's secret girlfriend of six weeks. With his quarry's temporary closing rendering him den mother, Mike reluctantly advises Sue's effeminate boyfriend Brad (J. Brock Ciarlelli) in "The Fun House."

Disc 3

17. The Break Up (21:36) (Originally aired March 10, 2010)
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Axl wrestles with showing emotion over his increasingly serious relationship with his girlfriend (Alexa Vega). A scary zombie movie puts Sue and Brick on edge.

18. The Fun House (21:35) (Originally aired March 24, 2010)
Mr. Ehlert brings in a motivational consultant (Amy Sedaris) to improve the sellers. Mike plays den mother when a pool table and food turns the Hecks' home into the neighborhood's hip, happening teen hangout.

19. The Final Four (21:36) (Originally aired March 31, 2010)
Mike would rather go to the Final Four than to Frankie's great-uncle's funeral. Brick has Sue RSVP and un-RSVP him to a party he doesn't want to attend.

20. TV or Not TV (20:45) (Originally aired April 14, 2010)
To cut back on spending, the family gets rid of cable, with Frankie and Mike struggling to adjust to a TV-free existence. Brick's social skills group is forced to go outside for recess.

Between a messy breakfast in bed and this undesired Inflatable Foot Bath gift, Frankie doesn't have the greatest of Mother's Days. Living up to his surname, Paul Hipp gives an hilarious guest turn as super cool youth group leader Reverend TimTom. At the height of popularity, Betty White guest stars as school librarian Mrs. Nethercott, seen here recommending a Betsy-Tacy book with a smile. With the delinquent Brick, she gets tough.

21. Worry Duty (21:03) (Originally aired April 28, 2010)
Frankie is upset that Axl has reunited with manipulative head cheerleader Morgan. A newly-hatched chick imprints on Brick.

22. Mother's Day (21:36) (Originally aired May 5, 2010)
Sue's stressful Mother's Day experience is contrasted with Mike's relaxing Father's Day from the year before.

23. Signals (21:36) (Originally aired May 12, 2010)
Mike and Brick try to listen and socialize at the Hecks' annual spring barbecue. Instantly inspired by her church youth group, Sue is devastated to learn that its guitar-strumming leader (Paul Hipp) is moving on.

24. Average Rules (21:35) (Originally aired May 19, 2010)
The end of the school year has Frankie and Mike feeling bad about their parenting skills over Axl's unexpectedly sky high aptitude test results, Sue's absence from yet another yearbook, and the 31 missing library books standing in the way of Brick advancing to third grade. Betty White guest stars as Brick's school librarian.

Frankie (Patricia Heaton) tries to motivate Brick athletically with a kicks for candy program. A tiny bit of stock footage near the beginning of each episode helps set the tone. These old-timey Valentine's Day observers lay the groundwork for the third of the season's four holiday shows.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Like just about every other show on television today, "The Middle" comes to DVD with 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen picture and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The video is disconcertingly grainy on the pilot and early episodes. Somehow, it improves over the set and is pretty great by season's end. Even at its worst, the transfer is clean, warm, and colorful. The sound mix is also satisfactory. Surround channels are used somewhat sparingly, mostly on the instrumental score the show is full of. Dialogue feels a little thin at times. But the recordings are crisp and clean, requiring little consultation of the provided subtitles. Speaking of which, Portuguese, Thai, and Chinese subtitles complement the more commonplace English SDH, French, and Spanish offerings. That suggests Warner foreseeing global appeal to this unabashedly American production.

Guest starring as a motivational consultant who's only posing as a drunk potential customer, Amy Sedaris has her refreshing head out the car window green screen drive preserved as a deleted scene. Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline (the Blackie and Blondie of the show's production company) discuss co-creating and casting the series in the Disc 3 featurette "Raising a Sitcom Family."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Warner's premiere DVD release of "The Middle" goes light on the bonus features.

Deleted scenes are presented alongside the episodes they were intended for. There aren't very many: a grand total of twelve emanate from six episodes (all but two are from Disc 3 episodes).
There is just 6 minutes and 10 seconds worth of footage and that's including title screens and copyright notices. Presumably, we're spared bits less worthy of preservation (oddly, many of the season's strongest episodes don't have any cuts attached to them). Still, these scenes offer enough amusement to sustain the minimal time required to watch them.

The few remaining extras all appear on Disc 3.

"Raising a Sitcom Family" (12:50) gathers comments from creators Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline about their intentions for the series and their casting process. Amidst plenty of clips and a tiny bit of B-roll, actors also weigh in on their characters and co-stars. The last moments discuss each Heck family member's wardrobe. This all-purpose featurette covers the whole season, right up to the final scene of the finale, so it's best to watch after everything else. Seen then, it's a good but glossy overview of the show.

Actress Eden Sher recalls an embarrassing school photo from real life in the short and lacking "Sue's Best Shots." A joking Patricia Heaton chides a child actor for blocking her surgically-enhanced face in the gag reel. A bare minimum of creativity goes into the DVD's simple, static menu screens, like this Disc 2 episode page placing Neil Flynn in front of the cover's county road illustration backdrop.

"Sue's Best Shots" (1:20) has cast members describing and attempting to recreate their embarrassing school photos. Seeing the real things would have made this super short piece infinitely more interesting.

Finally, gag reel "The Middle Mishaps" (2:10) is a little underwhelming with its bleeped profanity, montage of Brick whispers, and routine missed marks.

The DVD's menus, static and silent like all of Warner's DVD menus these days, simply recycle the package's gray on white Middle America illustrations with color actor stills in front of them.

Season 1 of "The Middle" is packaged in what is increasingly becoming the standard for TV DVDs. The three discs are snugly held in a clear keepcase, whose interior displays a nice wide photo of the Heck family (plus Chris Kattan). That keepcase is housed in a cardboard box that boasts one fewer spine but two additional sides over the more conventional O-sleeve. Inside the keepcase is something that's become rare for all DVDs: a non-promotional insert. The 6-page booklet supplies episode titles, airdates, writers, directors, and synopses along with a principal cast list, extras information, and plenty of series photography.

The Hecks -- Axl (Charlie McDermott), Brick (Atticus Shaffer), Sue (Eden Sher), Mike (Neil Flynn), and Frankie (Patricia Heaton) -- try to look like the perfect family for a social worker visit.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

"The Middle" isn't complex or heady; it is just plain appealing. A family comedy that's largely fine for the whole family, this contemporarily-crafted series manages to have heart without sentimentality and to be genuinely funny without being very mean. Those are some mighty feats that are regularly pulled off in the show's consistently entertaining first season.

Though fine, the picture and sound on Warner's DVD could be a little stronger. And the light collection of extras is a minor letdown. Still, the set earns a recommendation on the basis of the show, which is enjoyable enough to catch it in its initial commercial airings. If you haven't seen "The Middle" and are skeptical you'd like it (as I was), watch an episode or two online (six are available at the moment) and see if you're not pleasantly surprised.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

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Reviewed August 31, 2010.



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