Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn
While ABC's The Middle may not be the most popular, acclaimed or honored family comedy on TV, it is almost certainly the most relevant (and often the funniest). Especially in an election year when so much attention was focused on the financially strapped middle class, the travails of the down-but-not-out Hecks of Indiana resonate like no TV family since the Conners of Roseanne.
"Seriously, Mike, not our best year," declares put-upon mom Frankie (Patricia Heaton) to her husband (Neil Flynn) in tonight's Christmas episode (8/7c) as they contemplate the possibility of a tree with no presents underneath. "Did we have a best year?" Mike wonders with the dry, forlorn humor that distinguishes this underrated gem.
This may not be the Hecks' best year, but this is one of The Middle's best seasons, as a newly unemployed Frankie scrambles to find work and purpose — which this week includes taking a temp job at a department store to cash in on the employee discount (but there's a twist, because there's always a twist). Meanwhile, the kids have their own growing pains. Especially Axl (Charlie McDermott), whose hopes for a sports scholarship were nearly dashed when born-loser sister Poor Sue (the brilliant Eden Sher) ran over his foot while learning, frantically as usual, how to drive. Thankfully, Axl is back on his feet, and The Middle is on as solid footing as it's ever been.
A subplot involving Mike's cluelessly wayward brother Rusty (Norm Macdonald) is a bit forced, but only a Grinch could resist an episode that brings back roving Reverend TimTom (Paul Hipp), who casts weird little Brick (Atticus Shaffer) in the "J.C.'s Rockin' Birthday Jam" church pageant. Sue is on cookie/concessions duty, a task tackled with more gusto than common sense, and when she asks where Mom keeps the cookie cutters, why are we not surprised when Frankie answers: "The store." Nothing cookie-cutter about The Middle. It not only hits close to home, it feels like home.
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The holiday theme extends to The Neighbors (8:30/7:30c, not previewed) and a repeat of last year's "Express Christmas" episode of Modern Family (9/8c), ending with a new Suburgatory (9:31/8:31c) in which George (Jeremy Sisto) thinks he's doing the "super cool dad" thing by arranging for Tessa (Jane Levy) to spend Christmas in Manhattan with her formerly distant mom (Malin Akerman). Guess who gets unexpectedly homesick for the burbs? The comic high point involves the spoiled Dalia's (Carly Chaikin) only Christmas wish, to get her beloved nanny Carmen back, while the emotional peak arrives early, as hunky Ryan (Parker Young) learns he's adopted, prompting a meltdown that's the perfect union of anguish and over-the-top slapstick.
The title of this week's Suburgatory episode, "Krampus," refers to a German myth about an evil Santa-like creature who steals away all of the bad kids in his sack. Krampus would be right at home on FX's demented American Horror Story: Asylum (10/9c), which hits the sick jackpot by casting Deadwood's infamous Ian McShane as a murderous Mad Santa, first seen in a flashback killing spree in 1962 that lands him at Briarcliff. "That's what you get for letting Rudolph organize your calendar," he growls at a little girl who dares tell Santa that he's arrived a few nights early.
This is one of several shout-outs to the legendary Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special, which premiered in 1964, the same year the main action takes place — with the lunatics now literally running the asylum, most particularly the possessed Sister Mary Eunice (the marvelous Lily Rabe). "Here Comes Santa Claus" has temporarily replaced "Dominique" on the turntable, all the better to decorate the tree with ornaments more suited to The Munsters' parlor.
It's all very sadistically campy, especially once McShane's un-Saint-ly Nick escapes his shackles — "I pray we're not looking at a rampage," Mary Eunice twinkles evilly — and is enlisted to thwart Sister Jude's (Jessica Lange) desperate efforts to exorcise the devil within her protégée. As usual, American Horror Story is itself unshackled by subtlety, taste or narrative coherence, with lurid overkill sapping this blood-soaked material of its punch. (When one character observes, "I was hoping there'd be a glimmer of horror," I had to agree.) But if the otherwise saccharine nature of this holiday TV season has you seeking a twisted alternative, this might just be your cup of rotten-egg nog.
A COUNTRY CROSSROADS: As ABC's Nashville heads into its winter break, now confirmed to be staying put on Wednesdays in the new year (see ABC's just-announced midseason plans), the soapy seams are showing in the "winter finale" (10/9c), especially when the storyline deals with the dreary matter of the political scandal embroiling Teddy (Eric Close), the wooden dead weight dragging down his wife, country diva Rayna (Connie Britton, who looks as bored with all of this as we are). Will Rayna play the "good wife" when this mess goes public? I'm more intrigued by her career plans, which might involve going on tour with vixen rival Juliette (Hayden Panettiere). This opportunity is one of several potential musical game-changers floated in this episode, any of which could shake up the cast in the back half of the season, which wouldn't be such a bad thing. Biggest reveal for me: Not quite sure when it happened, but somehow Juliette has become the most compelling and sympathetic character on the show. And not just because she gets a big church solo, a scene that got me thinking — How long before they enlist Kristin Chenoweth to blow the rafters off this pop stand?
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