Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn 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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