BURBANK, Calif. (AP) — Something is wrong at the annual block party: Turnout is lighter than usual; hot dogs have no buns and there are no cups for the drinks. Worse yet, one family's house was foreclosed and they were forced to move out in the middle of the night, missing the party they had always attended.
"Are you serious?" Frankie Heck asks a neighbor in the fictional town of Orson, Ind., "because I only thought they were just visiting family."
"They are now," replies the neighbor.
On a recent overcast day at the Warner Bros. ranch, the real-estate crisis has crept its way from big coastal cities and into "The Middle," the ABC series that kicks off the network's Wednesday comedy block that includes the Emmy-winning "Modern Family."
"The Middle" portrays a modern family, too. And while hilarity also ensues, The Hecks don't live in Los Angeles-area mansions. This family is in a financial and physical mess.
Up close, you'll notice the Heck house looks even messier than it does on TV. There's stuff everywhere, and not even good stuff, such as an old-school tube TV set with its screen slightly punched in that's attached to two (!) VHS machines. There's a junk-covered dining-room table that clearly hasn't seen a meal since 1999 __ the date on a school test amid the piles of junk.
Last week's season premiere of "The Middle" marked the show's second largest overall audience to date, despite stiff competition from FOX's new "The X Factor" and CBS's reliable "Survivor." More than 9 million viewers tuned in to see the misadventures of car-saleswoman mom Frankie (Patricia Heaton), quarry manager dad Mike (Neil Flynn) and their three children: angry young Axl (Charlie McDermott), book-obsessed Brick (Atticus Shaffer) and the bumbling, stumbling middle child, Sue, portrayed by 19-year-old Eden Sher.
"I've always said to Eden that she's the first one on the show that's going to win an Emmy," Heaton said earlier this summer at another awards show. "I think she's so brave. You know, she gets out there. She lets them mess her up and look goofy and has to fall flat on her face, week in and week out __ wearing those braces and straight hair."
Sue Heck has so many embarrassing moments, they're certain to haunt her well into the retirement home. And yet she remains a cockeyed optimist. And even with a stellar ensemble cast, Sher can't help but steal virtually every scene.
"I do get slightly embarrassed, with, specifically, Patty's praise," Sher said recently about Heaton's comments, after shooting a scene. "I don't know why. Maybe just because I respect her so much."
The Los Angeles-born Sher first came to the attention of Jay Leno, who was so impressed with her responses in his man-on-the-street segments that he invited her to do one solo. Then came a commercial work, a failed series and, finally, "The Middle," in which perhaps the only thing funnier than her Sue Heck is one heck of a wardrobe __ unflattering explosions of pastels and ill-fitting ensembles that make the character come off even more awkward than she is.
"My favorite thing that Sue Heck has ever worn, was probably the crayon costume," Sher said. "I was expecting like (makes squeaking sounds) __ like a box, like a tubelike thing that says, 'Crayola' on the top, across the front, with like a big pointy hat. And it wasn't. They allowed me to be so cute. And I got to wear this little pencil dress and it was pink. And (feigns sobbing) my shoes were little hearts, and they were so cute! And so I got to keep the shoes."
Sher is not the usual teenager. Heaton said the young actress recently returned from India, where she spent six weeks teaching in a mountain village. "I mean, she's not your typical Hollywood kid," Heaton said.
"And then I just spent two weeks traveling," Sher added. "I totally trained it up and down the coast. Whoa!!! Those trains, man, those are nothing like anything in the states."
Now that she's back to work, Sher realizes the show's success can be fleeting. "The Middle" has been a promotional challenge in today's bleak economy: It's tough squeezing laughs out of the vacant houses and fleeing families that surround the Hecks.
"I think what the show is trying to say is, at the end of the day, when push comes to shove, all you can do is laugh at yourself," Sher said. "Laugh at everything."
ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co.; Fox is a unit of News Corp.; CBS is a subsidiary of CBS Corp.
- Patricia Heaton