Mini-Reading: Stuck in the Middle

The Middle, about to begin its fourth season on ABC, should be the new Roseanne. Based on the show’s premise, I think on some level it wants to be the new Roseanne. But it is not the new Roseanne.

Let’s start with what the shows have in common—the reasons I started watching The Middle and had such high hopes for it. Both are family sitcoms featuring a mom protagonist, her husband, and her three kids. Both take place in the Midwest. In both shows the adults of the families work jobs they only occasionally find fulfilling and perpetually worry about money. Both shows work within a pretty typical gender role setup: the dad’s income is the family’s primary one, and the mom is primarily responsible for housework and childcare despite also working outside the house. Both families (sort of) embrace the tacky and the trashy in their lives. And in both shows the mother says all sorts of snarky things to and about her kids and husband.

But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Starting with the snarky mom comments, a key difference is that while both moms bitch, Roseanne’s commentary on her life is sarcastic and edgy, and Frankie’s is sometimes like that, but more often worried or guilty. Furthermore, while Roseanne Conner tells everyone in her family exactly what she thinks of them early and often, Frankie Heck thinks such things in voiceover but rarely says them directly to the other characters. The TV audience knows how she feels, but her family often does not, contributing to a very different family dynamic in this show. When D.J. suggests to Roseanne that Dan outranks her, she responds, “Are you new?” But Frankie is not a Roseanne-style domestic goddess. (See the Middle episode “Taking Back the House” and ask yourself if Roseanne would ever have to attempt to take her house back from her kids, let alone fail at it.) Related is the issue of size. Roseanne is partly a goddess because she is larger than life. Dan is also fat, but Roseanne always holds her own. Frankie, on the other hand, is tiny. Mike towers over her and the difference in their heights is often played for laughs. Frankie’s size makes her cute, and on TV, cute moms are not fearsome moms.

Moving on to more thematic differences. In a wide variety of arenas, The Middle is the Mr. Hyde to Roseanne’s Dr. Jekyl, the Sarah Chalke to Roseanne’s Lecy Goranson. The best way to highlight the remarkable extent to which these shows are doppelgängers is through episode comparisons.

  • For their handling of real world televised events, see “The Royal Wedding” (in which Frankie loses her shit over the royal wedding) and “The Birds and the Frozen Bees” (in which Roseanne and Jackie have the O.J. Simpson trial on in the background while they carry on with their lives).
  •  For the mothers’ involvement in their kids’ sibling relationships, watch Frankie try to impress her neighbors in “Siblings” and Roseanne try to embarrass her kids in “Party Politics.”
  •  To see parent vs. teacher conflicts, watch “Back to School” and “Math Class,” in which Frankie turns into a pathetic, bullied sycophant (and briefly a belligerent drunk); and “Life and Stuff” and “Bird is the Word,” in which Roseanne tells obnoxious teachers to get bent.
  • For their handling of teen sexuality and romance, compare The Middle’s “Halloween II,” to Roseanne’s “Like a Virgin,” “A Bitter Pill to Swallow,” “The Dark Ages,” and “Good Girls Bad Girls.” (It’s really unfair to compare any other family sitcom’s handling of teen sexuality to Roseanne, though. No other show in this genre so consistently treats teenagers like real people rather than turning their sex lives into after school specials or using them only to create emotional conflict for the parents.)
  • And for an episode of The Middle that I think compares favorably to Roseanne, see “Average Rules” and “Aliens.” Both families are spectacularly mediocre and find moments of joy in that fact, celebrating Sue’s triumph in making the school’s no-cut track team and D. J.’s victory at the school spelling bee. (Brick also competes in a spelling bee in “The Bee,” but these two episodes are more thematically similar, I think, and are both season finales as well.)
  • Oh, and compare the Hecks eating fast food for dinner basically seven days a week to the Conners eating casseroles and, on special occasions, going to “Spaghetti Buckets” or “La Sizzler.”

On to the real crux of my critique, though: the class related differences between the two shows.

  • Compare “TV or Not TV” and “The Dark Ages” on having one’s electricity shut off. For Roseanne and Dan, this event is portrayed as barely out of the ordinary: the episode is really about strained relationships between Dan and Becky, and Roseanne and Darlene, and it just happens to take place in a house with no electricity. For Frankie and Mike this event is a warning that they need to spend their money differently, but after they don’t do that at all, everything works out fine anyway: they win $1000 at church bingo and the quarry where Mike worked reopens. Whew, too bad we didn’t have to learn anything there!
  • Compare “Super Sunday” and “The Interview” to “Let’s Call It Quits,” “Guilt by Disassociation,” “Chicken Hearts,” and “Vegas Interruptus” to look at the characters’ power in the workplace. In “Super Sunday” Frankie quits her job and is immediately wooed back with a raise. Roseanne is a world in which people need their jobs, desperately, and suffer consequences when they lose or quit them. Roseanne leads a dramatic factory walkout in “Let’s Call It Quits,” but we see her unable to get a new job in “Guilt by Disassociation.” In other episodes she’s forced to demean herself to keep jobs she hates (sometimes unsuccessfully), and although it’s funny it’s also not really funny at all. Every time Roseanne or Dan loses a job it’s bleak and scary and sad, and not something that gets resolved by the end of the half hour. In “The Interview” Mike loses his job, but by the end of the episode he feels better about it, and that’s all that matters.
  • Compare “The Neighbor” to “White Trash Christmas” and “Happy Trailers” on “trashiness.” In “The Neighbor” a trashy woman menaces and embarrasses Frankie’s neighborhood; in “White Trash Christmas” Roseanne is that neighbor. In “Happy Trailers” one of Becky’s new neighbors in the trailer park tells Roseanne not to feed the dog, and Roseanne responds, “If I get drunk enough, I’ll fight your dog.”
  • Compare “The Jeans” (The Middle) to “We’re in the Money” (Roseanne) on reckless spending. They’re really very similar episodes about spending money on things you can’t afford. The primary difference is that in “We’re in the Money” Roseanne and Dan buy personal things for themselves, and in “The Jeans” Frankie and Mike buy things they think will help their kids be more popular. A much better episode of The Middle on this same topic is “The Big Chill,” because toward the end Mike expresses his frustration that all it takes is a misspent $200 to require him and Frankie to take second jobs—here’s an opportunity for the show to be quite Roseanne-like. But Frankie cheers him up by reminding him how far they’ve come from when they first got married, and the episode ends in its usual happily-ever-after tone.

Maybe the two shows frequently confront the same situations but consistently handle them differently because The Middle is about a “middle-class” family while Roseanne is about a “working-class” family, but I think it’s really because The Middle is fundamentally conservative and accepting of the status quo while Roseanne is deeply critical of the capitalist mythos of “the American dream.” Dan starts a small business only to see it fail.  Becky is a model high school student who can’t afford to go to college. Roseanne later starts her own small business, discovering in the process that the government agency she goes to for help is actually set up to help banks and won’t support her venture because she is a bad risk. The Conners buy a house intending to flip it, only to have their business partner skip town leaving them holding the bag. Both Roseanne and Dan face repeated stretches of unemployment, and often the only thing that saves them from ruin or turns the lights back on is borrowing money from family. The Connors eventually strike it rich the only way most Americans ever could: by winning the lottery. And in the finale Roseanne reveals that that never actually happened—it was part of a fictional story she wrote about how she wished her life had gone.

In contrast, The Middle allows the Hecks to question whether they should have a mortgage they can barely afford, complain about how hard they work for not enough money, and even face a few moments of economic crisis, but their problems are always resolved fairly quickly, and every episode ends on a note of sunny optimism as if to say “it’s normal to doubt the system, but those feelings will pass.” It’s not that I want The Middleto be less funny, or less light-hearted, or even less optimistic. But if you’re writing a TV show about a working/middle class family living through a recession you are saying something about the current political-economic system. I wish The Middle was saying something better.