Ken Tucker
January 05, 2011 AT 12:00 PM EST

I love Modern Family — who doesn’t? I chuckle watching Cougar Town. But I think The Middle is the most underrated of the Wednesday-night sitcoms.

The Patricia Heaton-led show is a rock-solid sitcom, the saga of a family struggling to keep their heads above the choppy economic waters, but it has no time for self-pity, tears, or sappiness. Its title refers to the middle of the country, the middle-class, and the middling hopes and dreams of Heaton’s Heck family.

This week, the half hour was all about Heaton’s Frankie and Neil Flynn’s Mike taking back their lives from their demanding three children. “When did the kids become our bosses?” said the overworked, exhausted Frankie. “We’re always catering to them.”

What followed was a series of scenes that must have gladdened the hearts of millions of parents, and also provided laughs, as Frankie and Neil began letting the kids clean up after themselves and fetch their own materials for school projects, then went on a guilt-free date night (to see a “Little River Band cover band,” a good joke in which the band looked suspiciously like the Little River Band).

The Middle stands in the tradition of Roseanne, using realistic situations and exaggerating them for laughs, but rarely to the point of absurdity. In this, the show goes against the grain of the hippest current network sitcoms, Community and 30 Rock. Don’t get me wrong, I also like those two shows a lot, but it’s also very good to have a show such as The Middle to provide a distinctly sharp tang to prime time. All the performances are skillful, with Heaton and Flynn especially adept at conveying an affection — for each other, for their kids — undimmed by their weariness.

Oh, and P.S.: Gotta admit, every time I watch a few minutes of Better With You — after seeing The Middle or just before Modern Family starts — it gives me a smile. I’ll have to give that one another try — a closer study.

What do you think of The Middle?

Twitter: @kentucker

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