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"The Middle" Season 4 DVD Review

The Middle: Season 4 DVD cover art - buy from Amazon.com The Middle: Season Four (2012-13)
Show & DVD Details

Creators/Writers: Eileen Heisler, DeAnn Heline / Writers: Tim Hobert, Jana Hunter, Mitch Hunter, Roy Brown, David S. Rosenthal, Robin Shorr, Stacy Pulwer, Michael Saltzman / Directors: Lee Shallat Chemel, Phil Traill, Blake T. Evans, Elliot Hegarty, John Putch, Alex Hardcastle, Eileen Heisler

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

Recurring Characters: Brock Ciarlelli (Brad Bottig), John Gammon (Darrin), Beau Wirick (Sean Donahue), Galadriel Stineman (Cassidy Finch), Dave Foley (Dr. Fulton), Sam Lloyd (Mr. Mark Walker), Jen Ray (Nancy Donahue), Jerry Van Dyke (Tag Spence), Marsha Mason (Pat Spence), Paul Hipp (Reverend TimTom), Brittany Ross (Courtney), Natalie Lander (Debbie), Blaine Saunders (Carly), Jack McBrayer (Dr. Ted Goodwin), Jane Kaczmarek (Sandy Armwood), French Stewart (Principal Cameron), Bailey Buntain (Jenna Taylor), Jeanette Miller (Aunt Edie), Christopher Darga (Mr. Farrar), Katlin Mastandrea (Ashley), Jessica Marie Garcia (Becky), Grace Bannon (Ruth)

Notable Guest Stars: Chris Kattan (Bob Weaver), Peter Breitmayer (Pete Miller), Brian Doyle-Murray (Mr. Don Ehlert), Brooke Shields (Rita Glossner), Rick Harrison (Rick), Casey Sander (Jack Tracy), Norm Macdonald (Rusty Heck), Nancy Lenehan (Penny), John Cullum (Big Mike Heck), David Koechner (Jeff Webber), Gabrielle Carteris (Colleen Webber), Roger Rees (Mr. Glover), Troy Metcalf (Jim), Malcolm Foster Smith (Dave), Greg Cipes (Chuck), Moises Arias (voice of Matt), Carolyn Hennesy (Connie McDonald), Molly Shannon (Janet), Ryan Rottman (Cliff), Marion Ross (Ms. Dunlap)

Running Time: 513 Minutes (23 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen / Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Portuguese)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
DVD Release Date: February 25, 2014; Suggested Retail Price: $44.98
Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s); Black Keepcase in Cardboard Box
Season 4 Airdates: September 26, 2012 - May 22, 2013
Also available on Instant Video

Buy The Middle: Season 4 from Amazon.com: DVD Instant Video

I quite enjoyed "The Middle" when I reviewed its Season 1 DVD back in the summer of 2010. Not enough to become a regular viewer or to catch more than a couple of episodes since, having missed out on opportunities to review subsequent seasons, but I've been pleased to see it retain the popularity and ratings to endure. The series is now halfway through its fifth season.
Its 100th episode aired in October and by then, the show had already sold into syndication, airing on ABC Family, local network affiliates, and, starting this month, Hallmark Channel. I leapt at the chance to review Warner Bros.' Season 4 DVD, which was released to general retail at the end of February, half a year away from the seasonal TV on DVD blitz.

Reviewing Season 4 was like reconnecting with an old friend. Three and a half years have passed since I last watched the show, which is a lifetime for most sitcoms. I was thoroughly impressed and rather surprised to find "The Middle" has not lost a single step in that time. It hasn't grown stale or been dramatically retooled to remain fresh and relevant. Even the kids haven't drastically aged, as they tend to, and recurring characters you'd expect to be long retired are still hanging around. This is absolutely the same show I took to back in 2010 and I am pleased to shed the "lapsed" part of my lapsed fan status.

Realizing they can't do three children justice, Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and Mike Heck (Neil Flynn) decide to try parenting one kid at a time in "The Middle."

This ABC comedy depicts life for the Hecks, an Indiana family of five. They're certainly in Middle America
and barely clinging to middle class status, struggling to make ends meet despite the low costs of living in a flyover state. The series is narrated by Frances, "Frankie" for short (Patricia Heaton, "Everybody Loves Raymond"), the mother who struggles to keep the family together. Dad (Neil Flynn, "Scrubs") works hard and doesn't sweat the small stuff as much.

The three children differ in personality as only television families can. The eldest, Axl (Charlie McDermott), is a dumb jock and the star of Orson High School's football team. His prowess on the field has two local colleges recruiting him during this, his senior year. Middle child Sue (Eden Sher) is enthusiastic and generally in good spirits despite her lack of friends and acknowledgement. Youngest child Brick (Atticus Shaffer) is an eccentric bibliophile whose tics and on-spectrum mannerisms require some special care.

This is feel-good comedy that you don't have to be young or stupid to enjoy. The Hecks are an extremely likable and relatable clan whose inside jokes, petty disputes, and overriding love endear them to us. The rare TV show created and run by women (namely, former "How I Met Your Mother" producers Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline), "The Middle" is smart, funny, and widely appealing. The writing is clever and sweet even when the actors' deliveries fail to do it absolute justice. The contemporary setting isn't forced and the themes and subjects are rather timeless.

It almost goes without saying that unlike Heisler and Heline's previous gig, this is a single camera, laugh track-free comedy, the only kind widely tolerated outside of CBS these days. This even forgoes the direct camera addresses of the mockumentary format employed by the likes of "The Office" and "Modern Family." It reminds me of a more grounded, modern-day version of "The Adventures of Pete & Pete", which is high praise, as that 1990s Nickelodeon comedy is a show that I consider an all-time favorite. There's also some kinship with fellow Hoosier State sitcom "Parks and Recreation", the only network show that entertains me enough to stay up to date on.

Read on for my episode synopses and other standard review components applying to Warner's three-disc Season 4 DVD.

A newly unemployed Frankie (Patricia Heaton) enrolls in dental assistant school for her second act. Trashy neighbor Rita Glossner (Brooke Shields) returns, to upset Frankie's life with accusations of garden hose theft.

Disc 1

1. Last Whiff of Summer (Parts 1 & 2) (40:16) (Originally aired September 26, 2012)
In this double length season premiere, the Heck parents try to show their kids the fun of an old-fashioned summer by having them turn off their screens to enjoy a family outing to a drive-in movie, running through sprinklers, and a park picnic for fireworks. Meanwhile, picking favorites pulls the family apart.

2. The Second Act (21:37) (Originally aired October 3, 2012)
Frankie gets fired from the car dealership and goes back to school.
Sophomore Sue starts mentoring a freshman who she helps try to win homecoming.

3. Bunny Therapy (21:35) (Originally aired October 10, 2012)
Brick's new whooping tick has his school recommend a therapist (Dave Foley), though the family instead gets him a pet bunny that proves to be terrifying. Axl isn't sure which of two close friends he's dating. Sue becomes the school's mascot, the Thundering Hen himself.

4. The Hose (21:35) (Originally aired October 17, 2012)
Back in town, trashy neighbor Rita Glossner (Brooke Shields) accuses Frankie of stealing her hose. Brick takes sex ed. Sue learns her family is poor after seeing her father's paycheck.

Brick (Atticus Shaffer) and Sue (Eden Sher) try to crack a safe they purchased from a pawn shop. Frankie (Patricia Heaton) trots out some patriotism for the benefit of the two Marines with whom the Hecks are hosting for Thanksgiving dinner.

5. Halloween III: The Driving (21:12) (Originally aired October 24, 2012)
An overcautious Sue learns to drive. Axl prepares to vote for the first time. Brick's extreme Halloween candy binge has unexpected effects on his personality.

6. The Safe (21:34) (Originally aired November 7, 2012)
Frankie starts dental assistant school with a tough teacher (Jane Kaczmarek). Axl tries to improve his grades with a tutor, Cassidy (Galadriel Stineman). Sue and Brick get into buying at garage sales and selling to pawn shops.

7. Thanksgiving IV (21:39) (Originally aired November 14, 2012)
The Hecks host two Marines and Frankie's parents for Thanksgiving. Axl's foot is healed in time for the big championship game, before which Sue's mascot head is stolen. Brick reads all about the making of Love Story.

Brick (Atticus Shaffer) readily slips out of character as a Wise Man in a Christmas play. Sue (Eden Sher) scrambles to give her parents a 20th anniversary to remember with spaghetti.

Disc 2

8. Christmas Help (21:37) (Originally aired December 5, 2012)
Frankie works at a department store to get an employee discount on Christmas gifts. Brick plays a Wise Man in a Christmas play. Mike has to put up with furniture his brother stole, which Axl turns into a swinging garage pad.

9. Twenty Years (21:38) (Originally aired December 12, 2012)
Mike's rejection of Frankie's phone call spoils the mood around their 20th anniversary, an occasion for which Sue plans a surprise party. Axl and Brick wage war over a spoiled book.

10. Life Skills (21:36) (Originally aired January 9, 2013)
Sue and Axl are partners in a life skills class project. The school therapist (Foley) observes Brick and tries to help him make friends. A prolonged insurance claim process leaves Frankie enduring winter with a broken windshield.

11. One Kid at a Time (20:31) (Originally aired January 16, 2013)
Frankie and Mike try to get closer to their kids by taking them on one at a time.

Mike's (Neil Flynn) seemingly perfect friendship with a new neighbor (David Koechner) is short-lived after he discovers it's the product of his wife's plotting. Sue (Eden Sher) and Darrin (John Gammon) make an unlikely but genuine couple at their high school's Valentine's Day dance.

12. The Friend (21:37) (Originally aired January 23, 2013)
Frankie tries to start a friendship between Mike and a new neighbor (David Koechner). Brick gives Axl topics with which to engage his girlfriend in conversation. Sue's wrestlerettes take on the cheerleaders in a cheer-off.

13. The Smile (21:36) (Originally aired February 6, 2013)
Brick wears down his parents with requests for an iPad. After getting accepted into college, Axl plans a senior prank. Sue's science project about the contagiousness of smiles earns her ridicule.

14. Valentine's Day IV (21:36) (Originally aired February 13, 2013)
Frankie feels bad for throwing away all of Brick's art projects for her over the years. A missent text message has Mike's co-workers looking for emotional validation. Axl and friends break up couples for money.

15. Winners and Losers (21:11) (Originally aired February 20, 2013)
On Oscar weekend, Frankie has major concerns about Brick going on a school trip to Chicago. Sue's blossoming relationship with Darrin becomes public information.

The Heck kids break a window and lie about it in "Wheel of Pain." Sue (Eden Sher) takes up tennis, a game where her niceness puts her at a disadvantage in "The Bachelor."

Disc 3

16. Wheel of Pain (21:25) (Originally aired February 27, 2013)
The kids come up with a story to explain the window they broke, prompting Frankie and Mike to try to get the truth with the threat of extreme punishments.

17. The Name (21:38) (Originally aired March 27, 2013)
Sue tries to come up with a new middle name to correct an old birth certificate error. Axl's girlfriend's ex and Frankie's sister (Molly Shannon) visit, creating stress.

18. The Bachelor (21:36) (Originally aired April 3, 2013)
Sue stumbles her way onto the tennis team. Frankie can't get over the end of a season of "The Bachelor." Axl tries to make amends with and then get over Cassidy.

19. Dollar Days (21:36) (Originally aired April 10, 2013)
Recent tech school grad Frankie can't find a job. Mike supervises Brick's troop's backyard campout. Axl objects to Sue's input on his band, jeopardizing her relationship with Darrin.

Axl and Brick expect their movies starring adorable kittens and rabbits to go viral. Parental embarrassment is afoot for Axl (Charlie McDermott) at a friend's high school graduation party.

20. From Orson with Love (21:36) (Originally aired May 1, 2013)
Frankie tries to help Sue bolster her social networking credentials. Inspired by Tuesdays with Morrie, Frankie's dad (Jerry Van Dyke) decides to share his wisdom with Mike every week. Brick and Axl make movies with kittens and bunnies.

21. Hallelujah Hoedown (21:37) (Originally aired May 8, 2013)
Sue is depressed to keep failing her road test while all of her friends get their driving licenses. Frankie asks everyone for the same Mother's Day gift. Axl takes Cassidy to prom.

22. The Ditch (21:25) (Originally aired May 15, 2013)
For the first time in her life, Sue skips school. Frankie's lab coat helps her skip ahead a long line to pay her power bill, but that has repercussions. Brick concerns staff members with his plan to not attend middle school. Axl and Mike run into trouble on what is meant to be a father-son fishing trip.

23. The Graduation (21:37) (Originally aired May 22, 2013)
Frankie and Axl bicker as his high school graduation approaches. Sue bids farewell to those on her school bus. Brick remembers that as class historian, he has to make a photo montage for his class.

Axl (Charlie McDermott) and Sue (Eden Sher) are partners on a project in their shared life skills class. Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton) discovers that a cellophane windshield was better than no windshield at all.

VIDEO and AUDIO

As expected, DVD treats the show to fine 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen picture and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The picture doesn't pack the sharpness and detail of HD broadcasts and its limitations are a little more apparent than they should be. The surround sound mix is relatively unremarkable. Still, both suit the material fine. The DVD also includes four subtitle streams and a 2.0 Portuguese dub. And, though it probably goes without saying, the DVD does seem to clear what little licensed music there is, from Toto's "Rosanna" to R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts."

The unreplaced green screen of this deleted scene reveals that Sue's school bus scenes weren't really shot in a moving vehicle. The cast of "The Middle" cracks up during a blown take in the gag reel.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Keeping with tradition, the DVD includes two types of bonus features that should be of interest to most viewers.

Deleted scenes are presented on the disc of the episode they were intended for.

Fittingly, they can be viewed in a reel for that disc (where they run 2:33, 3:20, and 9:09) or simply by selecting the scissors icon accompanying applicable episode titles on the episode selection menu. The cut bits show us Sue's mentee's boyfriend, and more of the following: Frankie's dental assistant class, Sue's ex Brad, Axl and parents' paintball game, Frankie's Facebooking, Sue's attempts at school bus diplomacy, Sue playing hooky, and Cassidy dropping Axl hints about prom. This material is all worth seeing and wouldn't have harmed any episodes, if commercial airtime did not have to be upheld.

The other extra is a gag reel (3:05), found on Disc 3. These video shows us bloopers and cast fun (with profanity bleeped) from the filming of this season.

Like most new Warner DVDs, this one employs static, silent menus, the main one of which reformats the cover art to fill the 16:9 frame and the rest simple and plain enough to look like something you could make on your computer in a hurry without special authoring software.

A 4-page booklet with episode airdates, synopses, and writing/directing credits joins the three discs (one blue, one red, one green) in a black keepcase that slides into a sturdy, side-cut cardboard box.

An old-fashioned summer isn't really doing it for the Hecks in the Season 4 premiere "Last Whiff of Summer (Parts 1 & 2)."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I'm really happy to report that in its fourth season, "The Middle" remains as funny and enjoyable as it was at its start. Even the best shows start to run out of creativity after a few years, but this one hasn't yet come to that point.

Warner's DVD is a pretty standard but satisfying release that adds a worthwhile 18 minutes of bonus features to nearly nine hours of quality entertainment. While anyone with cable and a DVR should be able to catch these episodes pretty easily in syndication, this set offers a more ideal way to revisit them uncut and commercial/intrusive graphic-free.

Buy The Middle: Season 4 from Amazon.com: DVD / Instant Video

Buy from Amazon.com

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Reviewed March 11, 2014.



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