Credit: Michael Ansell/ABC

When it comes to blood lines ruling Fall TV, there’s one family that never seems to get any respect — The Hecks of ABC’s The Middle. (Pssst It’s the one about a middle class family that’s not Modern Family.)

Though the Hecks aren’t as glamorous as the Pritchetts, as bonkers as the Bluths, or as anguished as the Whites, The Middle is a workhorse of a sitcom — consistently funny, with a talented cast, and now in its fifth season.

Wednesday’s premiere centered on a familiar familial premise: sending your kid off to college. And its high points are found in the tiniest moments. Following last season’s finale, in which tensions were running high between mom Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and eldest son Axl (Charlie McDermott), Frankie is determined to make it a special day, bragging to anyone with a pulse that Axl is going to East Indiana State. Axl really couldn’t give a damn and just wants to be at a kegger already, telling his parents to skip showering and just go. Dad Mike (Neil Flynn) assures everyone that the campus is only 42 minutes away, telling Frankie, “We’re lucky he wasn’t smart enough to go farther.”

But everyone’s problems take hilarious precedence, making Axl’s car ride to college the longest trip ever. When seeing that Axl only packed an inflatable palm tree, a bag of sand, and Brick’s toothbrush, Frankie forces a detour to the nearest Bed, Bath, & Between to stock up on shower accessories. Sue (Eden Sher) forgets to send her application essay to be the Junior Peer Leadership Adviser so she makes the family run to the nearest Kinko’s to fax it over. Frankie gave Brick (Atticus Shaffer) a cellphone and he keeps dropping it or accidentally throwing it out the car window, so they’re constantly having to stop and search the highway weeds.

It’s a conceit The Middle does so well: taking one micro situation — driving to college — and blowing it up with a series of sibling hijinks and subtly silly situations. One of my favorite parts was the Kinko’s scene where the fax machine is cash-only and Axl is forced to use his dorm laundry quarters to send Sue’s essay. It’s all in vain because Sue got the Peer Leadership Adviser position by default; one applicant got pregnant and the other is severely depressed. Another is when they’re all in the car and on an accidental phone call with Grandpa, Axl finds out that his grandparents gave him money, but that his own parents spent it all. He decides to get back at them by eating everything in the family snack bag, smothering his mouth with potato chips. When digging through the weeds for his phone, Brick finds half a squirrel, but assures everyone, it’s the “top half!”

Sigh, Wednesday’s premiere had so many great subtle one liners that if you weren’t paying attention, you’d totally miss it. And that’s a recurring treat/trait of The Middle. The nonchalant humor is equivalent to the smart kid sitting in the corner of your World History class who’s super selective about when they speak, but when they do, it’s always something profound.

In the final scene, at his dorm, Frankie finally gets what she wanted all along: to make Axl’s first day of college special. Of course, it’s actually with his red-headed roommate Kenny, who refuses to stop playing a computer game and take off his headphones. (Axl dipped out to go to a party.) And it’s a really sweet scene, saved from being twee by the sheer fact that Frankie can only say what she wants to say to Axl, when he’s not actually present. She tells Kenny (who’s not even acknowledging her presence) lots of Stephen Covey-like advice, then yells at Kenny, then hugs him, and then gives him a final aphorism — “And you shouldn’t eat mayonnaise if it’s been sitting out for two hours!” What tops off the poignancy is that Mike still gets Frankie so well. “I know, it’s hard to say goodbye to Kenny.”

Funny lines of the night:

Axl to Frankie: “You didn’t super size the fries?!”

Frankie on their actual road trip time: “We completed the 42 minutes drive in 5 hours.”

Running gags: the death napkin, the college supply list, Brick constantly losing things, Bed, Bath & Between

Burning question: What will happen to the Heck household dynamic without the breadwinner Axl? Oh right, not much, since he’s only 42 minutes away.

What were your thoughts on the premiere? Are you excited for season 5? Let us know in the comments.

The Middle
  • TV Show