‘The Middle’ to finish plowing the heartland in its final season

A throwback to a simpler era of family sitcoms, “The Middle” on ABC plowed the heartland long before it was fashionable.

The family comedy about life in the middle of the country has toiled in the shadows of flashier shows set in big cities like “Modern Family.” But now, just as red states have gained cultural and political cache, the oh-so ordinary (and apolitical) Heck family of the fictional small town of Orson, Ind., is stepping off the stage.

ABC will air the ninth and final season of “The Middle,” beginning in October, giving viewers the opportunity to say a leisurely goodbye to Frankie, Mike, Sue, Axl and Brick Heck.

This weekend, at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills, the show’s creators and its five stars — Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn, Eden Sher, Charlie McDermott and Atticus Shaffer — reflected on the ingredients that made the show about life in a flyover state special.

“Even in the pilot, we talked about planes flying from one coast to another, and people looking down, and how you should really check it out,” said DeAnn Heline, one of the show’s two executive producers.

“People in the middle of the country have been touched by the honoring of their everyday life, and that’s what we hoped,” added Eileen Heisler, who created the show with Heline, her roommate at Indiana University.

Plans for the final season began last fall — before the November elections — because the producers wanted to carefully plot the final season and exit while the show was still loved by fans.

“We wait until it was a hot topic, then we leave,” Heisler said. Heline added: “We just felt like the timing was right.”

The sitcom went on the air at a time when major networks were struggling to replicate the success of “Friends” with shows about ultra-rich urban sophisticates, including “Cashmere Mafia,” “Lipstick Jungle” and “Dirty Sexy Money.” Those shows, some with unlikable lead characters, quickly burned out but “The Middle,” with its endearing family members, plugged along.

In the most recent season, the show averaged 7 million viewers an episode, according to Nielsen ratings. It was one of ABC’s top shows for attracting a multi-generational audience.

Flynn, who plays patriarch Mike, said the show benefited by going on the air in the wake of the Great Recession. “We were told it was good timing for us when we started,” he said.

He also noted that the cultural schism in America wasn’t necessarily about the middle of the country versus the coasts. “It’s really big city or not — that’s the difference,” Flynn said. Shaffer, who plays the youngest offspring Brick, noted that in real-life he is from the small town of Acton.

While it was “flattering” to suddenly be a zeitgeist show, “we’ve just been keeping our heads down and doing the show that we’ve always done,” Heline said.

“When Eileen and I first sat down to develop this show, we said ‘There are no shows set in the Midwest; There are no shows with a blue-collar family that is struggling,” Heline said.

“Those were things that we really wanted to bring to the show,” she said. “There wasn’t anything else like it on the air.”

 

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