This year marks the final season of what might be the most underappreciated sitcom on TV, ABC’s “The Middle.” It’s a single-camera show about an Indiana family—the title refers to its character’s Middle-American, middle-class existence—and unlike the edgy comedies and tear-jerker dramas that dominate awards time, its humor is unapologetically middlebrow. But “The Middle” is charming, appealing and funny, in no small part because it has another distinction: It’s one of a precious few shows on TV today that focuses, consistently and honestly, on economic anxiety.
If there were ever a time to double down on stories of the American middle-class struggle, this is it. We’re in the midst of a new Gilded Age, with soaring inequality and stagnant wages—the phenomena that helped make Donald Trump president. We’re also enjoying a golden age of TV, with more networks and platforms creating more scripted shows than ever. Plenty of smart, acclaimed series have tackled complex social themes with sophistication and sensitivity—think “The Wire” for the urban drug war, “Mad Men” for gender, “Atlanta,” “Black-ish” and “Insecure” for race, “Master of None” for the Muslim-American experience. Even “Game of Thrones” teaches real-world lessons about politics and power. At its best, television holds up a mirror to society and helps us better understand who we are. So the dearth of shows that focus on financial insecurity feels especially glaring.
That’s especially true given the power of the medium, with its intimacy and it’s leisurely, unfolding storylines, to re-shape perceptions of our culture. Socially conscious television producers have long used their scripts to powerful effect. Norman Lear explored America’s racial and social turmoil in “All in the Family,” which set up Archie Bunker, in his armchair throne, as a ‘70s-era avatar of the MAGA spirit. A few years later, Lear produced “Good Times,” the first sitcom that featured an African-American family. It was set in a Chicago housing project, and its theme song was a tart, ironic ode to economic struggle: “Temporary layoffs (Good Times!) Easy credit rip-offs (Good Times!)” In 1998, well before gay marriage became the norm, “Will and Grace” used comedy to pave the way for acceptance.
But Will and Grace were a corporate lawyer and an interior decorator, highlighting this dissonance: Often, on TV, social issues get a full exploration while economic issues are brushed aside. For every Al Bundy selling shoes or Roseanne Conner on a factory line, there have been dozens of shows that peddle material aspiration and the pleasures of real estate porn. This is the cultural soup we grow up in: As a kid in the ‘80s, I spent too many evenings glued to “Diff’rent Strokes,” the cross-racial adoption fantasy that plunked two boys from Harlem on Park Avenue, and “Silver Spoons,” about a father and son who traversed their family mansion on a life-sized toy train. Little had changed by the aughts, when my daughter was binge-watching Disney Channel sitcoms set in penthouses and on yachts—along with a show called “Good Luck, Charlie,” about an exterminator, a nurse and their family, who lived in Denver in a house that seemed only a wee bit smaller than Buckingham Palace.
Compare that to the Heck family home in “The Middle:” a small, cluttered ranch with an overflowing junk drawer and a kitchen stocked with expired food from a store called the Frugal Hoosier. The husband, Mike, is a supervisor at a quarry. The wife, Frankie, works as a dental assistant; in earlier seasons, she sold cars, with limited success. Their kids exemplify the pressures and triumphs of middle class childhood: the academically-underachieving football star; the striving, gawky daughter who will never make the cheerleading squad; the bookworm who occupies a definitive place on the spectrum. Even when the show flirted with upward mobility—Mike and his brother launched a line of sports-themed diapers, giving babies the chance to poop on a rival team’s logo—the dream didn’t last. Before long, Mike sold his stake in the company to pay for his daughter’s state college tuition. The show is never overtly political, but its star, Patricia Heaton—one of the few outspoken conservatives in Hollywood—has said she’s disappointed that the show won’t be able to explore the economic dynamics of Trump’s America.
She’s right that it’s a missed opportunity: A year after Trump’s election, elites are still struggling to understand the class tensions and coastal-vs.-heartland dynamics that shook up the political landscape. By the numbers, the American imbalance is stark: According to the Economic Policy Institute, the hourly wages of high-wage workers rose 41 percent in the 34-year period between 1979 and 2013; the hourly wages of middle-wage workers grew 6 percent in that time frame, and the wages of low-wage workers fell 5 percent. J.D. Vance’s’s career-making 2016 book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” explores the cultural and social consequences of that stagnation and decline, and spends a good amount of time exploring sociological research. Perhaps the coastal, Ivy League set wouldn’t need these kinds of families explained to them through an academic lens if our culture were more interested in their stories.
Of course, there are exceptions, and calculated reasons why some shows bless their characters with material wealth. The absence of economic worry—particularly when it upends stereotypes—can send a powerful message, too. A few years after “Good Times” aired, in the midst of Reagan-era messages about welfare queens, “The Cosby Show” gave us the palatial living room in the Huxtables’ Brooklyn Heights brownstone. Now, ABC’s “Black-ish” explores both poles of economic life with the story of Dre, an ad executive from the ‘hood who now struggles to impart his boyhood identity to his economically privileged kids. One 2015 episode, powered by a product-placement deal, focused on Dre’s desire to give his daughter a Buick Enclave. On the other hand, the show is as woke as they come—the current season launched with a dreamlike, “Hamilton”-esque telling of the history slavery and emancipation. (Plus, as proof of concept, Trump once tweeted that the title was racist.)
But for many series, material comfort isn’t essential to the characters’ lives; it’s incidental. Yes, Showtime’s “Shameless” romanticizes the Gallaghers’on-the-edge existence, and CBS’s “Mom” gets the set design exactly right. But like the twentysomething characters in “Friends,” who rented suspiciously spacious New York real estate on entry-level salaries, many television denizens enjoy interiors straight out of Houzz, regardless of their presumed income levels. In “Kevin Can Wait,” Kevin James’ retired Long Island cop has a beautiful kitchen. OK. But how many shows could, presumably, tell the same stories regardless of their characters’ economic status? Would ABC’s “Modern Family” play any differently without the conspicuous consumption? Could Amazon Prime’s “Transparent” be told without the glorious real estate? Could it even be told better?
And why doesn’t television better reflect our reality? It could be that TV producers and executives live in an affluent Hollywood bubble of their own, with the same narrow pool of kitchen contractors and narrow expectations for how the world actually looks. Or it could be that they imagine that economic stress would add an undue layer of complexity to high-concept stories about Other Things. Maybe they think no viewers want to wallow in a subject so prosaic and depressing. “The Middle,” beloved by some critics, never broke through to be an unqualified hit.
But as a viewer, there’s something deeply fulfilling about watching someone who’s going through struggles that are common and lifelike—maybe a little bit worse than lifelike, because this is TV, after all. “The Office” resonated because of the characters and relationships, but also because its Scranton office setting perfectly captured the claustrophobia of four workplace walls, and the cameraderie that necessarily forms among the cubicles. Greg Daniels,’ who created the American version of the series, also helmed the white-working-class cartoon “King of the Hill,” and has said he sent writers out to Texas with reporters’ notebooks to capture real stories and observations. The work paid off: The show was praised for fostering the kind of cross-cultural, cross-political understanding that’s increasingly hard to come by today.
That’s what “The Middle” offered since 2009, before its cancellation was announced last summer. The stories are sometimes extreme, but they’re still a glimpse of a reality that’s all too understood. Entire episodes are built around the ripple effects of not paying the cable bill, or the shock of realization when a daughter accidentally glimpses her father’s paycheck. The fact that the struggle is depicted on TV is, in some way, a sign of respect — particularly because each new economic crisis depicted, not as some cataclysmic event, but as a constant fact of life. Nothing is resolved so much as managed, with the knowledge that, whatever happens, family is paramount, the Hecks will stick together, and life will go on. That might be the kind of pat construct you find in a half-hour TV script, but it’s also the way the world works. It’s nice to see it on TV.