The Middle is the most underrated of ABC's Wednesday-night sitcoms, and the one that follows it, Better With You, is no slouch either. I'm not saying they're better than their nextdoor neighbor Modern Family (what network sitcom is?), and they don't have the drunken coolness of Cougar Town, but these two shows deserve some attention.
The Patricia Heaton-led Middle is a rock-solid show, the saga of a family struggling to keep their heads above the choppy economic waters, but it has no time for selfpity, 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. The Middle stands in the tradition of Roseanne, using realistic situations and exaggerating them for laughs, but rarely to the point of absurdity.
In a recent episode, for example, Heaton's Frankie bought a $20 container of face cream to look younger for hubby Mike (Scrubs' Neil Flynn, working his hangdog deadpan). Except it turned out Frankie had misread the price tag: The goop actually cost $200, and all-out panic ensued. ''Are we gonna lose the house?'' shrieked daughter Sue (plucky Eden Sher). It's on small but authentic-seeming crises like this that The Middle builds its sturdy comedy. All the performances are skillful, with Heaton and Flynn especially adept at conveying an affection for each other, for their kids (who also include Atticus Shaffer and Charlie McDermott) undimmed by their weariness.
Better With You has also become a reliable laugh-provider. It started out as an awkwardly structured look at three couples within one family, and felt stiff and self-conscious but it's loosened up a lot. Now there's an easy interplay among the parents (Kurt Fuller and That '70s Show's Debra Jo Rupp), their adult daughters (Jennifer Finnigan and Privileged's JoAnna Garcia), and the guys they're involved with (Josh Cooke and Jake Lacy).
The running joke is that Fuller and Rupp continue to treat their daughters as though they were children, while these two young women struggle with their relationships. The punchlines are sometimes sharp: In a scene in which Finnigan's Maddie, a lawyer, draws up a new will for her parents, she snaps, “Mom, you can't cut people out of the will just because they're Democrats.” In general, though, the scripts for this show aren't quite up to the abilities of the fine cast.
Both The Middle and Better With You remind us that beneath the chuckles, there are tensions and resentments that simmer among family members, and against the world in which they live. But they're sitcoms escape valves for those tensions, and welcome ones. The Middle: B+ Better With You:B