I am a big fan of The Middle, which I think is an under-rated and under-appreciated part of ABC's Wednesday comedy line-up.
But as much as I enjoyed the episode that aired on October 1, I was also kind of down on it, because the main story-line deals with college admissions and financial aid in a way that perpetuates the worst kind of thinking, the kind of thinking that keeps people in the middle down rather than helping them up.
Basic premise of the show: working class family with two parents who work hard and never get ahead, with three kids to feed and a house and a mortgage and bills. The middle kid is Sue, who's surrounded by two brothers and who is a font of sometimes misplaced enthusiasm. She's tried out for every club or sport in the school, usually to very bad results, but she's slowly been getting her act a little more together, starting to find boys and a little more common sense and a little more assertiveness in the right places.
In this episode, Sue announces that she's retaken her ACTs, gotten a much better score, and can now set her sites on so many more schools that are so much better. Which sends her parents into a panic, because there's no money, so how can they afford to send her to any of these really nice schools, so they get second jobs because they're going to do everything they can to get their daughter into the good college she wants.
Funny? Yes. It's rare that the show isn't funny. The main story-line sees the mom working from home with one of those airline call center jobs that doesn't require being in the call center. But as she says, the job means working from her home, with all the distractions from her three kids, which goes rather poorly in ways that are quite richly humorous. The dad gets a scene of two wearing a uniform that's very fast food in a way we don't usually see the father. And the B and C storylines are as good as the main one. The son in his sophomore year at college decides to walk off with his share of the family's possessions to stock his first student housing apartment. The youngest sone finds all of the noisy toys his parents had taken from him 10 years ago hiding in the basement. Sue and a friend of hers work on a school play that's way funnier than Waiting for Godot.
But the basic premise is just wrong.
One of the biggest problems with disadvantage kids getting into good colleges is that they won't apply in the first place. They don't understand that the schools might offer financial aid, that they might be able to aim higher and afford it. And this episode totally buys into that idea. I guess in theory if both parents work dead-end jobs for 25 hours a week, that's 25x2 is 50 hours, and that could be $500 or $600 a year (or $400) and that's an extra $20K or $30K before taxes. And they've got three kids. Well, that's not going to cover rack rate at a college. It's a farce, but not the kind of farce that the show is thinking it is.
Why don't the writers and producers of The Middle find the humor in a show that models better behavior, where Sue and her parents decide that they're going to apply to the best schools possible and Sue is going to chase every scholarship she can possibly chase. Or they can go looking for schools that waive the application fee, or find out that they're poor but that they make $10.23 too much to qualify for the application fee waiver. Even if that goes as poorly as their efforts to have these dead-end second jobs, at least it's modeling a better idea. It's modeling for a parent that maybe they should encourage instead of discouraging if a child wants to aim high and pray for financial aid rather than aiming low because that's all the family can afford. Maybe it helps a child decide they can do Sue one better and succeed where she doesn't at getting a scholarship because it's Sue, the child who can't succeed at a tryout for anything and in the real world they're better.
I'm not asking The Middle not to be The Middle. I've been watching this family since June 2009 when I started laughing out loud in the middle of an airplane sampling an episode on the in-seat TV. I know these characters. I know there's plenty of humor that's just right for The Middle in the better version of this episode, and they don't need to turn The Middle into The Message in order to put a better message into the middle of their 22 minutes.
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.