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End of the line for 'The Middle'

Neil Flynn and Patricia Heaton star on the ABC television series "The Middle." The show is entering its final season.

ABC/TNS

By RICK BENTLEY | Tribune News Service | Published: October 2, 2017

LOS ANGELES -- "The Middle" has reached the end.

The ninth season of the ABC comedy about a middle class family living in the Middle America city of Orson, Ind. will be the last. Coming to such a decision was not easy for the cast and executive producers but they all finally agreed the time was right to stop production.

Executive producer Eileen Heisler explains, "We’d all talked together as creators and cast, and it was kind of feeling the moment when, for us, we felt like it was time and wanting to leave when people, hopefully, still want more of it rather than staying so long that people say, ’Why did they stay here so long?’"

Discussions about a finale season of the series starring Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn, Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher and Atticus Shaffer, started a year ago. Everyone agreed that it would be nice to have a season where they could wrap up all of the storylines for each member of the Heck family. The plan is to make sure all of the characters get their big episode and bring back some familiar faces -- such as Reverend Tim Tom -- for guest appearances.

The one thing that won’t change is that the show will still focus on the love and support the family shows for each other while facing the daily challenges of life. The legacy of "The Middle" has been that while it was designed to be a glimpse into the world of Middle America, the focus on family had an appeal from coast to coast. In many ways, "The Middle" is a TV comedy that exists somewhere between the generally optimistic "Everybody Loves Raymond" and the pessimistic views of "Roseanne."

"The Middle" is the second successful family comedy for Heaton after a long run on "Raymond." That’s given her a direct perspective on what it is about a TV show that makes it work and why many fail so quickly.

"I think the great shows are great because it comes from real experience. And I can tell you that some of the most outrageous episodes actually happened to the writers. And that’s true on ’The Middle’ and on ’Raymond,’" Heaton says. "We’ve been going through all these things together, all of us. And that’s what gives it authenticity. And then you just have super talented people.

"But I think authenticity would be the key."

Unlike other family comedies, "The Middle" never went for big stunt episodes like a trip to an exotic location (unless you consider Indianapolis an exotic location) or being involved with some type of celebrity event. For the Hecks, one of the biggest moments in their lives was getting to drive a float in the local parade.

Even the events in the lives of the three children followed rather mundane lines: proms, graduation, school work, dating and college. The Heck children going away to college did create some momentary fears of how to handle that without losing sight of the family structure that had been working so well.

Executive producer DeAnn Heline says: "To our own credit, we didn’t bring in the cute little moppet cousin visiting. And I think that it was challenging at first with the writing. How often can they come home? And maybe he has a winter break. Yeah, that’s why they are home. I think we’ve done a good balance of especially when Sue is gone also. They are off at school. They are coming back. Some episodes are just them at school, and some they are at home. But I think they are so compelling, and I think, like a family, the great thing is that it gives you new stories. So it really opened up a whole new world and lot of new characters coming in. I think it really was helpful in a way."

The closest the family got to a maverick was the character of Sue Heck as played by Eden Sher. It wasn’t that Sue had some special ability; to the contrary, she was middle of the road in most everything she tried. The key to Sue has always been that she embraced an unbridled enthusiasm rather than being the kind of snotty teen who pops up on so many comedies. At the same time, although Sue was a massive nerd, she was never made the brunt of jokes for being that way.

As the final season begins to roll out, there are a few tiny doubts about whether it was the right decision. Shaffer, who plays the quirky Brick, has always thought there was more comedy left in the series.

"I’ve always been the one that has said, ’Oh, no. I think we can keep going. I think there’s more stories to be told’ and whatever. So I absolutely respect the decision that was made, but there is a part of me that’s, like, ’Oh, come on, we can do one more’," Shaffer says. "It’s specifically for the reason that no matter what slant the country tends to go politically, our show is about family values and morals and us being together as a family and how do you navigate the craziness of life as a family and kind of not ’trading a virtue for a vice’ type of thing.

"That’s something that I’ve always felt is an important aspect of the show. And I know that that’s something that people will miss."

The final season premiere of "The Middle" airs Oct. 9 on AFN-Pulse.

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