By Meredith O’Brien
I adored Malcolm in the Middle , the show about a wacky married couple with four boys (two juvenile delinquents, one genius and one innocent object of his brothers’ harassment). The mom, Lois, a clerk at a big box store, frequently screamed at the kids and threatened them into behaving, one time making them lie on the floor with their heads sticking under the sofa where various moldy food remnants and other nasty things thrived until they ‘fessed up to a wrongdoing. The father, Hal, was a bumbling idiot with a big heart and momentary flashes of brilliance. The family was messy – literally and figuratively – and represented blue collar families that were once only seen on a show like Roseanne. Now that Malcolm has been off the air for a while – three years to be exact – I’ve been in the market for a new Malcolm-like comedy, a smart satire dramatizing family life with a hint of a sharp edge.
My search is now over, thanks to two new half-hour sitcoms on ABC on Wednesday nights: Modern Family  and The Middle . If you want shows that make you feel good about how you parent, these two are for you as they showcase slightly off-kilter parents just trying to make it through their days with all the kids alive, housed, clothed, relatively educated and fed some manner of edible substance.
Modern Family has received heaps of critical buzz, and for good reason. After watching the first half dozen episodes, I’m hooked. Modern Family is like a big wheel whose center is one family and the spokes represent all its various off-shoots. Jay Pritchett -- the divorced father of two grown children, Mitchell Pritchett and Claire Dunphy – is at the center. Jay recently got married for a second time, to a woman named Gloria who’s the same age as Jay’s adult children. Gloria has a 10-year-old son Manny (a great young actor) from her first marriage. That makes Jay a stepfather to a child who’s as old as his grandchildren.
The spokes of the wheel are comprised of Jay’s offspring. There’s the hyper-self-conscious, preppy Mitchell and his outgoing partner Cameron who recently adopted a baby girl named Lily together. The two are just venturing into the whole parenting gig, while the no-nonsense Claire and her husband Phil are old hats with three children, including a teenaged daughter who’s just learning how to drive. Claire reminds me the most of Malcolm’s Lois because she’s willing to do whatever it takes to teach her kids a lesson. For example, when her youngest child Luke shot his sister with a BB gun -- even though he knew it was expressly forbidden to aim the gun at someone -- Claire told her husband Phil that he had to follow through with their original threat: If Luke shot someone with the BB gun, Phil would shoot Luke. After they shoehorned Luke’s shooting into the family’s jam-packed schedule – in between a birthday party and soccer games – Phil discovered he didn’t have the stomach to actually shoot Luke, and, while lecturing his son, accidentally shot his teenaged daughter’s boyfriend with a BB.
Grandfather Jay is struggling with parenting his stepson Manny -- whose own father is frequently AWOL (blowing off a promised trip to Disney Land) – and is always trying to toughen Manny up. Manny came home one day from a sleepover with a goatee drawn on his face in magic marker, drawn by the so-called “friends” after Manny fell asleep. Jay encouraged Manny not to be sad about being mocked and teased but to instead seek revenge, though he wasn’t very specific about the revenge part because Manny took the pep talk as a green light to set one of the marker-wielding kids’ bikes on fire.
Not receiving as much critical attention, but sincerely deserving of it is Patricia Heaton’s new show The Middle, which reminds me of Malcolm because the family of five struggles economically, lives in a very modest home and three of the kids are nutcases. Heaton’s character, Frankie Heck, is a harried working mom who’s trying really hard to be an effective car saleswoman, an involved parent and a loving wife to her husband, a quarry manager named Mike. She fails, comically, on all fronts. A few of her mishaps thus far: Frankie appeared at her son Brick’s grade school class dressed as Superwoman only to find out that she showed up on the wrong day because Brick has a tendency to eat his school papers and he had to guess at the date when his mom was supposed to show up. Under pressure from the owner of the car dealership where she works to sell more cars, Frankie’s success is consistently thwarted by her family’s constant interruptions as she’s summoned over the car lot loudspeaker to go attend to kid-related business. She even resorted to taking Brick, home sick from school and clad in his pajamas, to the car lot with her and stowing him in the back of a car so she wouldn’t have to take the day off from work.
The Heck family, like the Malcolm family, is constantly on financial precipice and, in its second episode, had to resort to doing their grocery shopping at place which specialized in expired food products. Frankie and Mike celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary with a trip to the carpet remnants store to replace their extremely soiled bedroom carpet (seriously, it was disgusting) followed by a night at a local motor lodge.
My favorite The Middle moment: Frankie -- feeling besieged by family responsibilities (from her children, husband and elderly aunts) and on the edge of sanity – was encouraged by a colleague to take a mere 15 minutes to herself in the middle of the work day. The glory of her 15-minute rejuvenating break included: Locking herself in the dingy, single-toilet women’s room at the car dealership, turning off her cell phone, painting her toenails and drying then under the hand dryer, reading a magazine and leaning back while sitting on the toilet with a maxi pad covering her eyes. Of course, during her 15 minutes of peace her entire world fell apart. She missed 14 calls and messages from her kids pleading with her to get home because mayhem had occurred. When she asked them why they didn’t call their father, her youngest replied, “Dad hates it when we call him at work.”
While one of my favorite TV families, the Malcolm family, is in re-run heaven on cable and DVDs, there are several new families – the Hecks, the Dunphys and the Pritchetts – who are keeping me laughing as they skewer modern, American parenting on a weekly basis.