The Middle – “The Floating Anniversary”

MiddleTitle

“The Floating Anniversary”

October 14th, 2009

I could take a gander at Cougar Town tonight, considering that I remain really perplexed at people who can’t seem to get beyond the show’s premise and Cox’s overacting to see a show that has a really strong emotional core, but since I didn’t get to cover The Middle’s pilot I figure I should discuss the show’s third episode. The show is not as inventive as Modern Family, or as diverse as Cougar Town (which I find more cohesive), but it is a solid family comedy that’s a bit reductive of Malcolm in the Middle but could have had a much worse fate.

What makes the show work is that it features good performances and has a surefire sitcom premise that is inarguably charming. I think the kids are decently engaging, Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn make believable parents, and perhaps more importantly the show has something to say about families dealing with an economic crisis. Where the show loses points in how it tends to stick to the same jokes, and how it relies too heavily on Patricia Heaton’s performance without letting the other parts of the show get their due.

“The Floating Anniversary” is perhaps the weakest episode yet, if only because it feels the least like an ensemble piece: while the pilot logically placed the emphasis on the biggest star who is at the heart of the show, I think the show needs to branch out beyond its stereotypes in order to really grab my attention.

The central thesis of this week’s episode is that the world cannot operate without Frankie. It’s a message that makes sense on some level, but it’s dangerously reductive: it implies that the actions of others are only important in terms of how they emerge from Frankie’s actions, how her decision to take 15 minutes to herself or proving too tired to pay attention to her daughter leads to complete catastrophe. It’s a very basic premise for a show, and the problem right now is that it’s holding back the other characters from really developing. The show hasn’t yet tried out any new combinations of characters, relying instead on Frankie’s individual relationships with them. When the show does give us new dynamics, like Chris Kattan and Axl or Mike and Sue, it makes me wish that we could get entire episodes that focus on different sets of characters.

It’s not that the show’s basic formula, of Frankie’s life turning into sheer chaos involving a dog in a wagon, a car accident, and a really embarassing message on the school’s P.A. system, is a problem: it’s a decent way to get character, and I like the idea that a carpet remnants trip would be a huge anniversary present for this family. The performances are charming, and the episode’s idea of being pulled in two directions by both younger and older generations, is solid.

But the characters really need to grow out of their current modes. Sue is a bit too witless when it comes to her athletic and romantic pursuits, and Axl needs to both put on pants and show some character traits beyond whining and opportunism. And Brick, who one could consider the “breakthrough” character from the pilot, has proven to be only a single joke, charming in his Dewey-like nature but not quite providing any comedy beyond his oddities. Even Flynn isn’t given much to do as Mike, and I’m waiting for the show to engage in new dimensions to these characters. Right now, everyone’s a co-worker, or a child, or a husband, to Heaton’s Frankie, and the show will need to emerge beyond this if I’m really going to get behind it.

Since there’s nothing else (right now) in the timeslot of interest, it’s a nice primer before Modern Family, but if something more interesting pops up in the timeslot I might let some episodes pile up and wait for word on how it works over time.

Cultural Observations

  • One plus of the show: a dialed down Chris Kattan. I always thought he was good on SNL but his over-the-top acting never managed well outside of sketch comedy (or when the film in question was an SNL skit turned into a film). Here, he’s playing it largely straight, and I’m happy to see him getting some work.
  • The introduction of the Aunts seemed somewhat quick and random, which is something the show needs to avoid: last week’s magical dryer implies that this is not an entirely realistic universe, but the more it seems like the show is pulling things out of thin air the less I find myself relating to the characters.
  • Anyone else watching? The ratings were solid enough for a full season, so some people clearly are.

3 Comments

Filed under The Middle

3 responses to “The Middle – “The Floating Anniversary”

  1. It has been a while since I saw the pilot, but I believe the aunts appeared there, at the party for Sue’s swing choir success.

  2. Zac

    I watch it and like it, but in my opinion its weaker than “Family” and “Cougar.” You’re right, its charming.

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