Sunday, July 18, 2010

TV: Middle?

We are not Patricia Heaton fans. In fact, she's our offline nemesis and we've never hesitated to celebrate her many troubled performances. For example, see "TV: Satan tires a sitcom." That said, when Heaton got all the blame for the failure of Back To You, we did feel the need to step in (see "E-mails and talking post") and clarify that it couldn't all be pinned on her. And that's really it, about four thousand online slams and one post noting that it wasn't all her fault. And to us that was more than fair.


But then, as noted in last month's "Odds & Ends Roundtable," an ABC friend passed along The Middle.

As a person, it didn't make us like Patrica Heaton anymore.

And if we wanted to be less than honest, we could simply recommend the show on the basis of Neil Flynn's strong performance as Hank. But the reality is that Frankie makes the show and she's played by Heaton so Patricia Heaton makes the show.

In The Middle, she's playing a working mother. She and Mike have three children who live at home. Axl is the oldest and he's played by Charlie McDermott and may be the most realistically dressed male teenager on TV. He's certainly one of the most real. Eden Sher plays middle child Sue and is a comedic delight, able to wring laughs out of quirky lines, dashed hopes and physical comedy, it would appear she has no limits. The third child is under 18 and our long standing policy is not to comment -- good or bad -- on child actors.

Frankie and Mike wish they could have the perfect family. But they don't and they themselves are far from perfect. Frankie long ago realized most days it's just about getting through the day. Heaton conveys that beautifully. This is richly, textured performance from her and we're honestly surprised and we firmly and loudly applaud her for what she's done and what she's doing.

Yes, there's good writing and that can't be stressed enough. This isn't a cookie-cutter sitcom. Meaning, you don't picture the writers sitting around wondering, "Can I work in a Twilight joke here? How about Lady Gaga?" It's not doing what Square Pegs did (and was attacked for) and what almost every sitcom since Friends has done (and been praised for) which is rely on pop cultural references to get the laughs that often haven't been earned. The jokes on The Middle stem from the characters and Sue's not going to say a line that Axl would or Mike one that Frankie would. The characters, on the page, are clearly written.

That's a rare thing and a gift to any actor. But that doesn't detract from or explain the layers Heaton has given Frankie. On the awful Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray tended to escape the kids and the 'joke' was what a nag Deborah was (Heaton played Deborah) and how bad of a cook she was and how bad she was at cleaning and blah, blah, blah. The scripts were lousy, true, but we weren't impressed with Heaton's performance.

She followed that with Back To You which we explained -- in our review, months before anyone was talking about -- was a set of non-stop conflict as she and co-star attempted to steer the comedy in two different directions. It didn't gel, it didn't work. And she was awful in it.

In The Middle, Heaton's an actress. And she's like a method actress. When Frankie's beyond exhausted, Heaton appears to be in every bone of her body. This is not a walk through, this is not a stand there and recite your lines, this is a full bodied performance that you rarely find on TV. We would honestly compare what Heaton has done the first season with some of Carol Burnett's great skits from her variety show. As deep as Carol went into Joan Crawford or Scarlet O'Hara, that's how deep Heaton's gone into Frankie.

This year's tighest Emmy race is the Best Actress Comedy category and Heaton isn't nominated. If she had been nominated, she would have been as worthy of the award as anyone else nominated. Like Heaton, Courtney Cox was overlooked. That's not out of dislike or disgust with the two women, that's just because that is the most competative category. Tina Fey is the dead horse that keeps getting nominated even though she's not an actress.

It's rather strange that Tina spouts dialogue in a quirky manner, never inhabits a character and yet repeatedly is nominated (and even won once) for 'playing' Liz. But it's rather strange that the forever low rated 30 Rock remains on the air (hopefully it leaves the air when Alec Baldwin leaves the cast).

We think it's also strange that Heaton's emerged as such a strong actress. But, unlike the overly praised 30 and Tina, we applaud Heaton's emergence.

In one episode, Frankie had the worst mother's day imaginable. So, with Sue tagging along, she headed for her own mother's where Frankie proceeded to act like a spoiled brat and treat her mother as poorly as her children had treated her. It was a difficult series of scenes and the first thing Heaton obviously did was toss aside any fears of how Frankie might be judged by the audience. Having decided not to cheat the scenes by acting cute, she was still left with the text (the only thing Tina Fey can handle) and the subtext (where real actresses excel). And if that doesn't seem challenging enough, might we add that she had to hold her own with the actress playing her mother? Four-time Academy Award nominee for Best Actress Marsha Mason. As well as with Sher who, again, is a comic wonder. There was so much going in the scenes at Frankie's mother's house and all three women were hitting on all the levels and creating something really amazing.

And that's a credit to Heaton who had to be the one holding the whole thing together. Mason could -- and did -- take some strong and powerful turns in the material because she played a new character the audience didn't know. Sher could do anything because that's Sue. But Heaton had to be Frankie, forever weighted to the ground, and still make it fresh and still make it wonderful. And she did it. She played lazy and loving and frustrating and impossible and childish and mature and did it fluidly and was 100% believable.

The only disappointment we had with The Middle was when we watched the episode Betty White guest-starred on and, then, the only problem was that it was the final episode of the season.

As noted at the beginning, we are not Patricia Heaton fans. But we can't deny powerful acting and she offered it in every episode of The Middle this year. We watched the pilot and thought, "Oh, she got lucky." Then we watched another episode and then another. By episode six, her performance was undeniable and we were just watching for pleasure (something we rarely have the time to do -- but that's how good the show is). Whether it was a showy moment like selling a car to a man who'd just wasted all of her time or a quieter one like escaping for 15 minutes at work into the bathroom, she nailed it all and did so over and over. We're sorry we weren't aware of her strong performance before the Emmy nominations went in. We're sorry most people weren't aware of her strong performance the Emmy nominations went in.

Patricia, we'll never be friends and grudges will forever exist on both sides. However, there's no denying that you gave one of the strongest performances in the fall 2009 to spring 2010 TV season. We applaud you for it and look forward to the start of next season's The Middle. Congratulations on all you've achieved with this role, you're a joy to watch in it.
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