The Middle

Frankie Heck is not going to let the pinch steal Christmas.

The Middle's stretched-thin, harried mother (played by Patricia Heaton) has a scant $20 to spend on gifts for her three kids this year. Ever the problem solver, she cracks to her unflappable quarry-manager husband Mike (Neil Flynn): "I'll fake my own death!" This way, she says, when she appears very much alive on Christmas morning, her children will be so happy they won't care that there aren't any presents.

Too dark? Not at all, says Heaton, who won two Emmys for playing another beleaguered sitcom mom, Debra Barone, on Everybody Loves Raymond: "Our writers can take something like not having enough money for Christmas gifts and make it really funny — without anybody feeling bad about it."

These days, Americans (at least 99 percent of us) need a series that makes us feel less bad about being broke, in debt and just plain tired. And this story of a (barely) middle-class Indiana family that buys expired food at The Frugal Hoosier is it. Since The Middle's premiere a year after the 2008 financial crisis, the comedy has steadily increased viewership and now attracts nearly 9 million fans each week. "People like to see themselves reflected on screen," says Flynn. "Oftentimes we see shows about very successful doctors, lawyers, oil tycoons. But this is actually about regular people."

That's because creators Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, both married moms who grew up middle-class in the Midwest, get a lot of material from their own families. Brick (Atticus Shaffer) is based on Heisler's 13-year-old son, Justin, and some of the Axl (Charlie McDermott) dialogue is straight out of Heline's daughter's mouth. They even mine the cast's lives: A story line about a Japanese exchange student came from Ohio native Heaton, who has four teen sons, three still living at home.

It's these realistic situations — not to mention the show's quirky characters — that attract big-name guest stars: Betty White has appeared as the school librarian, Whoopi Goldberg as a guidance counselor, Brooke Shields as a trashy neighbor, Marsha Mason as Frankie's mom, Raymond star Ray Romano as an old pal of Mike's, and Malcolm in the Middle's Jane Kaczmarek as Frankie's teacher at dental-assistant school.

Yes, that's right. On top of everything else, Frankie is back in school after being laid off from her car-sales job. But no matter how busy she is, her motto remains: "You do for family."

For more with the cast of The Middle, pick up the Holiday Preview issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, November 29!

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