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'The Middle' review: Series finale is a sentimental send-off for a TV treasure

Eden Sher, Neil Flynn, Patricia Heaton, Charlie McDermott

Eden Sher, Neil Flynn, Patricia Heaton, Charlie McDermott and Atticus Shaffer are the Hecks in "The Middle" on ABC. Credit: ABC/Michael Ansell

THE SERIES "The Middle"

WHEN | WHERE Series finale airs Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on ABC/7

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Axl (Charlie McDermott) informed his mom, Frankie (Patricia Heaton), last week that he had accepted the job in Denver, which means he's leaving home and Orson, Indiana, for perhaps the last time. She takes the news about as well as you might imagine. The family — dad Mike (Neil Flynn), brother Brick (Atticus Shaffer) and sister Sue (Eden Sher) — prepare for the family drive west. Spoiler alert: It will be an emotional one.   

MY SAY For nine seasons, "The Middle" mostly left it to fans to decide what the "middle" of the title referred to: The middle of the country? The middle class? The political middle? Perhaps the middle of the last century? (Because let's face it, "The Middle" was essentially a reboot of "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" or "My Three Sons.") 

 Another interpretation arrives in the series finale Tuesday while Brick, Axl and Sue are seated in the family car. No one's driving, they're just talking, when middle child Sue brightly says, "I get to be a big sister and a little sister. The middle is the safest place to be. You've got love on both sides of you."

Out of context this comes off like some Hallmark moment but in context it's perfect, and just about the truest, purest summation of what this gem was always all about. "The Middle" was certainly a show where the cold, harsh realities of the outside world found no purchase. It was TV-as-safe-haven, which was how people used to engage with TV (see: "Ozzie and Harriet"). Shows like this weren't reflections of viewers' lives, but what viewers wanted the reflections to be. "In a perfect world, families stay together," explained Sue in a recent episode. "In a real world, they leave and break your heart." At least until Tuesday night, "The Middle" has remained that perfect world.  

Week after week, season after season, "The Middle" revolved around life's lightest loads. Axl forgets to buy chips at the store. Brick is going to the prom. Sue has a crisis about a possible scholarship. (All from recent episodes.)

Mike — wise, wonderful Mike — always said exactly the right thing to resolve the logistical or emotional impasse.

"It's the end of an era," Frankie says mournfully Tuesday. "It'll never be the same way again."

Mike: "That's the way it's supposed to be."

 "The Middle" found pure gold in the deeply familiar. A few weeks ago, Brick disassembled a Val-U Pack, coupon by coupon. What other show on TV could make a running gag out of a Val-U Pack and also make it funny? 

But familiarity was always the secret in this sauce.  Fans saw themselves in the Hecks or in someone else like them — Axl as the rebel, or Sue as the cockeyed optimist. Brick's familiarity was perhaps most special, or as Mike put it to Frankie a few weeks ago: "If you could trade Brick for some other kid that never made us worry, would you? I wouldn't because then we wouldn't have the kid who made us rake up all the leaves in the yard and release them back into the wild."

Wonderful line, but also moving because how many other parents with their own Bricks have thought the same thing?  

And so, in the end, and in Tuesday's finale, we arrive at Sue's other observation. "The Middle" was especially about love — love for family, for neighbors, for friends, for routine, for simplicity, for the basics, for life itself. As sitcoms go, its heart was full of love. On Tuesday, fans' hearts will be full too. That's a guarantee.

BOTTOM LINE A sentimental send-off for a TV treasure.

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