Showrunners: DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler
Main Cast: Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn, Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher, Atticus Shaffer
Notable Guest Stars: Daniela Bobadilla, Casey Burke, Jen Ray, Beau Wirick, Brock Ciarlelli, Alphonso McAuley, Sean O’Bryan, Pat Finn, Jackson White, Paul Hipp, Lisa Rinna, Gregory Harrison, French Stewart, Marsha Mason, Brian Doyle-Murray, John Cullum, Norm Macdonald, Corbin Bleu, Brooke Shields, Dave Foley, Jack McBrayer, Katlin Mastandrea
Episode Running Time: 22 Minutes
The Middle is my favorite comfort food show of the past ten years, and possibly of all time. That term may imply lack of ambition, but it nonetheless takes serious skill to be consistently satisfying in the way The Middle has been for nearly a decade. It may not be a treatise on the human condition in the way that a Lost or a Mad Men is, and it may not tackle social issues head-on the way that other sitcoms like black-ish or One Day at a Time do, but it is not as if it ignores any of that. It recognizes the bigger world all around it, but it is focused on drawing meaning from its one particular family and its one particular community. Life goes on all the over the place, while the townfolk of Orson carry in their own own particular pocket. Ergo, the appropriate snugness of the show’s title.
This final season has been the most comfort food-style of The Middle’s run ‒ more than we needed to sustain ourselves, but not so much as to become overstuffed. It could have ended a few years ago and gone out on the highest of high notes. The Season 6 finale was the most valedictory, with a triumphant high school graduation for Sue, the series’ heart and soul. But life continues to go on with its usual rhythms after our big celebrations, and so it goes for the Heck family. With Axl now out of school and Sue a few years into college, their foibles are perhaps less structured than they used to be (Brick’s misadventures have always been unmoored), so even into Season 9, The Middle rarely suffered diminishing returns or shamelessly repeated itself. It did not have to bring out the big spectacles to satisfy us, it just had to keep on being itself, and so that is what it did.
That is not to say that Season 9 was not completely devoid of a few celebrations. When The Middle finds something worth celebrating, it tends to make for some of the best episodes, even if the festivities may look a little silly to outsiders, or even a few insiders. Take for example the 200th episode, aptly titled “The 200th,” which aptly finds everyone in Orson putting together some festivities after finally being named one of the 200 Friendliest Places to Live … in Indiana. Everyone takes it all a bit too seriously, except for the notoriously unsentimental Mike, but he ultimately comes around in one of his rare but always welcome displays of emotion. He delivers a speech that could be a summary of the whole series, about how Orson is a town where people look out for each other, just like how this show has always looked out for its audience.
A major throughline for this season has been each of the Heck children’s romantic relationships. Axl remains happily coupled with Lexie, even though it has been never clear to me exactly where the attraction arose between them in the first place. (I always thought Devin Levin was a much more compatible match.) But now that they are officially together, it is clear that they like and respect each other, and they do in fat work well together, as she has plenty of patience to deal with his lesser qualities. The most fraught relationship is of course that between Sue and Sean, who keep getting crossed up in mixed signals, some that strain credulity a bit much. But ultimately, ridiculous plot twists can be forgiven if the couple itself is worth rooting for, and this is a fine pairing. A mix of neighbor/brother’s best friend/globetrotting doctor is an ideal mix for Sue’s strains of devotion to home and silver-lining-focused ambition. Interestingly enough, Brick has been in the longest active relationship of all of his siblings, and we can only hope that as he continues to mature, he unforgettably realizes what a rare breed he has found in Cindy and does not break up with her again for no good reason.
This is all tied up with how Frankie and Mike have to deal with an imminent empty nest, which they never expected would come so soon. For how could Axl ever give up the amenities of his parents looking after him, how would Sue ever want to move away from home, and Brick, well, can you imagine Brick on his own? So sure, there will not be a complete empty nest anytime soon, but miracle of miracles, Axl has actually gained some life skills the past few years. While the Heck kids have already reached most of the clearly demarcated life checkpoints in previous seasons, new jobs and new homes are perpetually looming, less-than-predictable possibilities in young adulthood. And so a road trip out to Denver to send Axl off on a new journey thousands of miles away proves to be the perfectly bittersweet series finale setup. But if this show wants to remain forever comforting, the ending cannot be too sad. And so we are treated to a flash-forward that assures us that everyone remains close to Orson in the not-too-distant future. It’s almost a little too perfect, but come on, it’s family, and sometimes your family lets you be a little perfect.
Best Episodes: “The 200th,” “Great Heckspecktations,” “Split Decision,” “A Heck of a Ride”
How Does It Compare to Previous Seasons? This is not the best season (that is probably Season 6, capped off by Sue’s high school graduation), nor is it the biggest, but appropriately enough for a show that has always consistently and rewardingly tracked its characters’ maturation, it is the most mature.
The Middle is Recommended If You Like: Roseanne but want something a little sweeter, Fresh Off the Boat, The Goldbergs, Speechless
Where to Watch: Streaming options are unfortunately a little limited. The last five episodes are currently available on Hulu, while individual episodes and seasons are available for purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube. And DVD’s still exist!
Grade: 4 out of 5 Family Car Trips
For more of our full season TV reviews, click here!