The Middle The Middle

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Question: I love that you constantly champion The Middle every time you mention Modern Family. Both shows are must-see TV in our house. Modern Family has great characters that make us laugh, and though most of the situations are unlikely to happen in real life, they pull it off and make it all seem almost normal. Lately, though, The Middle has been creeping into first place for the most laughs in one episode in our house. Unlike Modern Family, The Middle makes us laugh because we see ourselves in that family. I think every parent could relate to the episode where the parents try every trick in the book to get Brick to go over that bridge. We saw all the stages: the pleading, tough love, bribery, yelling, and finally just giving up to try again another day. What also makes the show so funny is the change-up of the typical sitcom family (the cool kid, dumb kid and kid that knows everything). In this family, Brick is the know-it-all, but he is so atypical in other ways that he doesn't fit that smart kid mold. Axl tries so desperately to be cool but can't pull it off and is just hilarious with his contempt for doing anything that requires effort that isn't a sport. As for Sue, has there ever been a girl like her on TV before? Just crazy in her enthusiasm for everything, and the running joke of cross country was one of the best parts of the season.

Neil Flynn reminds me so much of my husband with his laid-back attitude. He is the perfect foil for Patricia Heaton's Frankie, who can be manic at times, and he always brings her back to earth. In every episode I see myself and my family. The funniest episode of the season had to be when the parents went on strike and decided to stop letting the kids rule the house. Every parent watching related to that one. How can you not love a woman that quotes Oprah and People magazine? Frankie just nails it as the mom who really tries hard but can never quite catch up and run an organized house. I'm more of a Frankie than a Claire. Hopefully more people will take your suggestion and start watching The Middle. It's just as good as Modern Family and it would be even better if Reverend Tim Tom became a regular, his songs are just hilarious. Are there any new family shows coming this fall that are also worth checking out? — Carol

Matt Roush: To answer your actual question, you'd think the success of these shows would inspire more networks to return to their family-friendly roots, but for now, ABC is pretty much owning the genre — with two new family-ish sitcoms on the fall horizon. One, Suburgatory, is promising (city girl forced unhappily into suburban life, where her single dad is seen as a catch by the local cougars), and is the most tonally compatible bridge ABC has yet created between The Middle and Modern Family on Wednesdays. The other, Last Man Standing, is pretty much a retread of Tim Allen's Home Improvement shtick, albeit in a house full of girls, not guys. Nothing new or special, but I could see it clicking in a mainstream way (although airing opposite NCIS on Tuesdays won't help reach the masses). Regarding your love for The Middle: I share it and agree with all your points. As much as I adore Modern Family, it's a very heightened and idealized (economically, especially) look at family life, very Hollywood in its sensibilities. The Middle is much more relatable in its depiction of an ordinary mess of a family that doesn't have it all, or much of anything, and looks at just getting through the week as something of a triumph. I identify with that, and on a personal note, I savor its spot-on Indiana references (a trip to Brown County, for instance). The Middle deserves to emerge from Modern Family's shadow and be acknowledged as one of TV's best, truest and funniest comedies.

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Question: I know it is a long way off, but I would like to think that the people who plan the Oscars were watching the Tonys last Sunday night. I really enjoyed the Tonys and I have never seen a Broadway show. The reason why I enjoyed it so much was Neil Patrick Harris. That man really does know how to host. He makes a difficult job look easy and it's fun to watch. A good host makes a long awards show go by much quicker. I would love it if he was given the chance to be the ringmaster at the Oscars. I get that he is better known for his TV and theater work, but I really think that shouldn't matter. Last year's Oscars was painful to watch and I really don't want to go through something like that again. — Frances

Matt Roush: Let's hear it for showmanship! Neil Patrick Harris had and was a blast as the Tony host, helping make the show as entertaining as any awards ceremony could ever hope to be. But as much as I enjoy him, I still think he's a long shot for the Oscars gig, in part because he's so ubiquitous (another reason I admire him; the guy loves broadcasting, whether it's subbing for Regis, doing game shows, you name it, it's in his blood). The Oscars tend to try to go a little more outside the box — although that backfired when they went for the James Franco-Anne Hathaway pairing, where there was no chemistry and Franco's self-consciously post-modern/social media approach was a complete misfire. One of the best Tony moments was the Hugh Jackman-Harris "Anything You Can Do" duet, so whoever they get to host the Oscars next year, how cool would it be for there to be a reprise, giving Harris at least a cameo moment in the Oscar spotlight? I'd love to see him duet with the lovely and adorable and musically gifted Hathaway, who deserved better that being yoked to a disengaged jokester.

Question: As I was watching the Tony Awards (which I thought were superb and were really what an awards show should be), I noticed the recaps of the awards that were not given out during the broadcast show, and I was wondering why can't the Academy Awards do the same exact thing? As much as I love watching the Oscars, it drags on forever and they try to cram way too much in to a short amount of time. I know each person is thrilled to be nominated and wants their time in the spotlight if they win, but they are broadcasting the show to millions of people watching who don't really care that much about the smaller categories. Couldn't what the Tony Awards do for the lesser-known categories work just as well for the Oscars and actually make the show watchable? — Brooke

Matt Roush: This is a very touchy subject, what makes the broadcast and what doesn't. These are all collaborative art forms, and attention deserves to be paid. And yet, the goal should also be to put on the most enjoyable TV show possible. I like the Tony approach of presenting a number of awards before the TV show begins, then acknowledging the category and winner with an edited highlight. Given the ratings, the Tonys is still pretty lucky to have a loyal network partner like CBS, and it makes sense for there to be a renewed focus in recent years to put on an entertaining show, even at the expense of trumpeting some of the winners at length. The various theater guilds no doubt lack the leverage to demand airtime the way the craft unions do within the movie and TV academies as they plan the Oscars and the Emmys. The Grammys and the Tonys have the added benefit of rewarding artists who are all about live performance, which largely becomes the point of the show. With the Emmys and the Oscars, the focus is more on the awards, and that's a trickier thing to pull off.

Question: I saw The Glee Project for the first time on the Oxygen channel last Sunday. It was actually a great show and I could only imagine the following it would have if it were on Fox. The misfit kids were actually quite good and it was funny to see the Celtic Thunder kid Damian with his psycho eyebrows trying to belt out "Jessie's Girl." Why in the world is it on the Oxygen network? I didn't even have that channel until I upgraded TV service a couple of weeks ago. I bet plenty of people would enjoy watching. If it was offered to Fox, they might have passed up an opportunity. — Perry

Matt Roush: I like The Glee Project much more than I expected, and it got some strong critical notices (better than the show itself has lately), but looking at the surprisingly puny numbers for last week's premiere, you can't help wonder if the powers that be might be second-guessing their choice of outlet — although the Glee Project premiere was up against the Tonys (similar target audience) and other big competition on a tough night, and being cable, there are many other options to watch it through the week. I asked one of my in-the-know co-workers why this was airing on Oxygen — which is part of the NBC cable empire, which also makes it a head-scratcher — and was reminded that Oxygen has off-network rights to Glee and has already aired Glee marathons in the past. So as usual, it's about the money more than anything. (This also feels like a more natural fit on Bravo, doesn't it?) I'm hoping word of mouth raises The Glee Project's profile as it continues, because the premiere episode and the casting species were both very enjoyable, and as singing-performing competitions go, this has a terrific star-is-born hook.

Question: I'm a tried and true Glee fan, and I find myself defending it when others dislike everything from the songs to the subject matter. That being said, over the Memorial Day weekend, I watched the DVDs of season 1, and it was an absolute pleasure to be reminded of what we loved so much about this show. Season 1 has amazing covers and lots of them; it has Matthew Morrison front and center, singing, dancing, acting, doing what he does so well, and he was in the majority of the scenes; it has the Sue Sylvester quips and snips that were cutting and funny but not hateful or too mean to watch; we got to watch and listen and enjoy the feel-good chemistry of the immensely talented cast instead of being beat over the head with social issues that got tiresome and boring. And although I'm still a devoted fan who loved big chunks of it, season 2 had very little of season 1's overall, well, glee. In your opinion, was that just second-season growing pains, or did the writers lose sight of what their audience loved about this show to begin with? Do you think we can expect a new and improved Glee for Season 3, with more joy and less angst, more Morrison, more harmony in every sense of the word? — Karen

Matt Roush: Let's hope so. Glee has always been uneven, but the messiness that sometimes seemed like a virtue in the first year came off as more sloppy and self-indulgent and emotionally incoherent in the second. (While I mostly applaud the gay bullying storyline, I sometimes felt like it was happening on a different show.) There is always going to be melodrama and over-the-top shenanigans on this show, that seems clear, but I hope the creators will look back on year 2 as a cautionary experience and find a way to get Glee back to basics. (The worst-case scenario would be for it to go even further off the rails, as happened with Ryan Murphy's Nip/Tuck the longer it continued. Praying that won't happen here.)

Question: I do agree with you that Grey's Anatomy has passed its prime and I strongly disliked some of the storylines the show has offered. However, I was glad to see them shift away from all Meredith, all the time over the past few seasons. Had the shift not occurred, I would have left the show behind long ago. Meredith's perpetual depression, repetitive teen angst (even though she's near 40) and never being happy with a single thing in her life was exhausting to watch and becoming more drudgery than entertainment. I have not loved every storyline but am glad the show decided to give others a chance. It's been a welcome change to see characters that will occasionally smile, not go on about their mommy for several seasons and offer a break from Meredith's misery. Due to this, I would be willing to give a Grey's minus Meredith and/or Derek a chance and see how the other characters grow. It may be good and it may be awful, but I'd be willing to give it a fair chance. An example of why is Cristina Yang. She finally is having some scenes with characters other then Meredith, and it has been a wonderful change. The change in the dynamic when characters mix it up has been a pleasant change for this viewer.

Meredith may provide the VO's but she hasn't been crucial to other characters' stories since mid-season 2. Derek is almost invisible as he is barely even part of Meredith's story these days, never mind other characters. I don't consider Meredith the voice of Grey's anymore and I definitely do not see Derek as the heart. I would have agreed they were this to the show in seasons 1 & 2 but not since then. Everyone has differing opinions and I respect yours and those fans that believe that the show wouldn't be worth keeping if Ellen and Patrick were to leave. I realize you are firmly in the MerDer shipper camp (you are often quoted on message boards as the MerDer shipper critic), but I just wanted to offer another viewpoint. Not all Grey's fans watch for Meredith and Derek and those fans may be willing to give Grey's a chance if Ellen/Patrick depart. — Samantha

Matt Roush: I'll let you in on a secret — and I'm not trying to offend anyone here. But I can think of few things more insulting to a critic than to be regarded as a "shipper," which is an awfully limited way to approach any show, including those with decidedly soapy elements like Grey's. Even during its peak, I was at least as invested in Bailey and Cristina and George and Izzie (Denny's ghost aside) and the others — seeing Grey's as an entertaining ensemble piece, though as is often the case, not everyone gets stories of equal merit every season — as I was in the Meredith and Derek story. During the period when Meredith and McDreamy broke and made up with aggravating (and immature) frequency, I felt it was important to reflect the agitation among that couple's fan base, and I was glad when they finally reached a happy place, even if that meant their future conflicts would often be more professional than personal — and I'm OK with that, too, because I can enjoy Grey's as a medical drama as well as a tragicomic romantic saga. I have no doubt that ABC will try to keep this show going, even if it loses its core couple, and you're right that there's plenty of story to go around, although I'm nowhere near as dismissive of what Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey can still bring to the show when they're allowed. Grey's does have a distinctive voice, though, and what I'd really hate is to see it limp to the end as generically and forgettably as ER did.

Question: I am sad, although not surprised, that some of the old-guard shows like House may be ending soon, but what bothers me more is what will take their places? Are we in for shows like inane comedies and reality shows because they're cheap to produce? It would seem gone are the days of smart shows like The West Wing and brilliant writers like Aaron Sorkin. We aren't stupid, they don't need to dumb it down for us, we can handle brilliance! I guess the question is: Is it all about the buck? Do they even strive for brilliance anymore? Maybe that's why I'm watching a lot more cable shows than I ever have before. — Debbie

Matt Roush: Well, it's true that if you want to see the next Aaron Sorkin project, you're going to have to look to HBO for his inside-TV-news drama. But this is a rather despairing look at network TV, and seems ungenerous after the burst of quality from two seasons ago that gave us Modern Family, Glee, The Good Wife (which is pretty brilliant most weeks) and Community, to name a few standouts. With very few exceptions, last year was a step backward in terms of originality, and when you look at the overall network picture, it's true there is a lot of formula stuff — and reality isn't going anywhere, not just because it's cost-effective but because it's popular. (And not all of it is bad.) Still, any system that can keep Fringe on the air can't be an entire washout. And having sampled some of the more promising midseason shows for next year — Smash, Awake, Good Christian Belles, The River, each making me very eager to see the next episode (2012 can't come quickly enough) — I wouldn't give up hope just yet. At the same time, thanks be for FX, AMC and the others in cable land, for taking the swings network TV is no longer willing or can no longer afford to.

Question: The two readers' questions in last week's Ask Matt column about Army Wives starting early and Psych starting late were very interesting, and got me to thinking about something, based on my own TV preferences. I find I really enjoy the "summer fare," that is, almost anything on USA, TNT, A&E and SyFy. You implied that both Army Wives and Psych were strong enough to take on the normal fall/winter/spring lineup, and, as you said, the numbers bore that out. But I noted that Burn Notice, The Closer, Leverage and Royal Pains all took forays into their "off-seasons" last winter, albeit for some just an episode or two. Since I really enjoy all these shows, I watched them in favor of other (big four) network fare that I'm finding increasingly tiresome, such as House, Grey's Anatomy and Brothers & Sisters (which, I know, has been thankfully canceled). My point here is that I find the USA/TNT/A&E, etc. shows much more enjoyable, and I'd watch them any time of the year, in preference to the network stuff. So aren't the networks ignoring some of this more quality TV competition at their own peril with some of the junk they crank out? I'm obviously not alone in enjoying these shows, and while I'm not in the networks' cherished demographic, I think the bleeding of some of these shows into the fall and winter could spell trouble for them in the long run. It'll given them problems at my house, that's for sure. Is this wishful thinking, or have USA, et al, noticed the same trend enough to take action? It's great to have such good TV in the summer, but it'd be even better to have it pretty much year-round. — Kathy

Matt Roush: Year-round TV is everyone's goal, including those programming for cable, which is why you see more split seasons, especially on the more mainstream channels like USA, which divide many of their shows' runs between summer and winter arcs. (Makes it confusing for fans to know when a show's season has actually ended, but it also keeps a show from disappearing from view for as long a time.) The networks know this competition is out there, and not just during the summer. In some cases, the network's parent company is even competing against itself (think NBC vs. USA or Syfy shows). Incrementally, all of these options — including wildly popular swill like Jersey Shore, which sadly racks up bigger demographic numbers on Thursdays than its broadcast rivals — continue to chip away at network dominance on many nights. You'd think it would spur the networks to raise their game. In many cases, we're still waiting.

Question: In this day and age of DVR playback and time-shifted viewing, how important is it for a show to have a compatible lead-in? I think back to when AMC aired the slow, methodical pilot of Rubicon just seconds after the tense, ridiculously exciting season 3 finale of Breaking Bad. I tuned out of the Rubicon pilot halfway through and never returned, as my mind was still reeling from Walter White's misadventures. I'd imagine anyone tuning in to HBO's Sunday night lineup of Game of Thrones and Treme experiences similar tonal whiplash. Maybe the concept of a lead-in boosting a show's ratings is completely outdated, which would explain why a show like Fox's Breaking In couldn't find an audience after American Idol, and why Raising Hope sinks like a stone after Glee. Heck, even airing after the Super Bowl only inflates a show's numbers for one episode. Are lead-ins totally meaningless, or is this something that varies on a case-by-case basis? — Donnie

Matt Roush: Interesting that your examples come from the world of cable and pay cable, where this kind of scheduling isn't as critical to a show's success (and clearly with HBO, which has renewed Treme for a third season, ratings aren't the only barometer). Cable has the luxury of being able to run its episodes multiple times, sometimes on the same night as well as through the week, building a cumulative ratings number. With network TV, while DVR and online viewing has affected the way many of us watch our shows and program our own schedules, there still is some value seen in building nights with compatible shows and a sense of programming flow. So yes, it's a case-by-case and network-by-network situation. As to your examples: I wasn't a fan of Rubicon, and think it would have likely failed no matter how it was launched or what show it was alongside. Game of Thrones and Treme make a puzzling combo for sure, but I can't imagine it really matters to HBO, which with new initiatives like HBO GO is no longer nearly as bound to the date-and-time premieres of their shows as the ad-supported networks are.

Question: Can you tell me why they allow soap operas to use four-letter swear words in the afternoon? Women watching these soaps might have preschool kids around and hear them. My wife is watching General Hospital at 3 pm and the words are shocking, and Days of Our Lives is just as bad. I am 70 years old and not much shocks me, but this sure does. — Vincent

Matt Roush: I'm so not the authority on this. The only time I see these shows is when I have the TV on during the day as I work, and usually with the sound off. But from what I can see, language would seem to be hardly the only issue with these steamy soaps and their sexually driven storylines. The common-sense answer is to consider the environment in which these shows now air. The more sensational daytime talk shows for years have been a forum for explicit (and often bleep-heavy) discourse, and standards have relaxed (some would say fallen) nearly everywhere in the culture to the point where having characters say "gosh," "darn" and "shoot" risks having the shows seem dated and phony. I can't imagine the daytime soaps are using hard-R, FX-level language on these shows, but whatever they're saying, they're getting away with it because they risk seeming even more culturally irrelevant than they already are if they can't be seen as pushing the envelope once in a while.

Question: The last five years have seen the networks desert the serial format in daytime, first with the cancellation of Passions by NBC, followed by CBS canceling the P&G soaps, and finally ABC replacing All My Children and One Life to Live with reality programming. The serialized drama, however, has continued in prime time. However, many of these shows fail or lose audience over time because of the seasonal structure of prime time: 22-26 episodes ordered and aired over a 39-week period, with re-runs or pre-emption in the summer. Lost and 24 seemed to buck this trend by airing all of their episodes in a block. Here's my question: Why haven't the networks tried to merge the daytime serial format into prime time, producing a 52-week season with no reruns? I know the economics of production would have to change to make this feasible, but such an approach might work on several fronts: keeping the serialized shows in front of the audience to avoid ratings erosion, as well as competing better against scripted shows that cable is offering more and more during the summer. I am interested in your thoughts. — Andy

Matt Roush: Sounds kind of like a pipe dream to me. Mainly because of the economics involved. A more likely solution to this year-round quandary is for the networks to ramp up the sharing of time periods, so that shows will air their original runs straight through and then be spelled by another series, so there will be fewer repeats, especially of the more serialized shows (which you may have noticed are pretty much invisible in repeats this summer). Reviving the "wheel" concept with telenovela-style serials might be another way to go. But putting nightmarish memories of the prime-time Jay Leno Show experiment aside, it's hard to imagine a single scripted show going year-round without repeats in prime time and delivering the kind of production values (now I sound like a Super 8 character), writing and casting that viewers have come to expect of their night-time dramas.

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