is the most honest--and, for that reason, the funniest--sitcom about middle class family life since Roseanne
. Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton, Everybody Loves Raymond
) wearily runs a cluttered, chaotic household with her husband Mike (Neil Flynn, Scrubs
) and three unruly kids: sullen teen jock Axl (Charlie McDermott), hopeless klutz Sue (Eden Sher), and smart but socially awkward Brick (Atticus Shaffer). The plots revolve around the kind of mild crises that make domestic life so difficult: Frankie and Mike can't find time to be alone together; debts force difficult choices; the kids spend more time watching television than talking to each other. Again and again, Frankie longs to teach her kids good values but realizes she isn't living up to those values herself--and her reluctant efforts to muster virtue within herself can be achingly funny. Frankie is superbly well realized, a perfect match of writing and performer. Heaton portrays her contradictory impulses (virtue vs. convenience, open-heartedness vs. a hunger for just a little time alone) with wonderful subtlety; the wary look in her eyes flickers between sincerity and cynicism.
The supporting cast is every bit as strong. These kids actually look and act like kids, in all their obnoxious, oblivious, naive glory, not like glossy supermodels in training. Flynn pulls his own deft balancing act, making husband Mike blunt and a little insensitive without seeming like a jerk or a caricature. The show is still working out some kinks--Chris Kattan (Saturday Night Live) plays a hapless coworker of Frankie's; the character has possibilities and Kattan seems game for anything, but the writers don't quite know what to do with him yet. A host of guest stars--including Brooke Shields as a white trash neighbor and Betty White as an imperious librarian--fit nicely into the show's world, rather than sticking out like stunt casting. The Middle treats middle America with compassion, intelligence, and genuine appreciation. --Bret Fetzer