Emmy Awards spotlight: ‘The Middle’ series finale blends humor and heart

“It’s the end of an era,” declares a teary-eyed Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton) near the end of the series finale of ABC sitcom “The Middle.” Indeed, the last episode of the long-running show, which aired on May 22, marks the departure of one of the network’s most consistently-excellent, flagship family comedies from the airwaves. Debuting in the same season as the network’s breakout, critical-darling “Modern Family,” “The Middle” always seemed overshadowed by its sitcom sibling in the clamor for awards recognition. With its pitch-perfect and satisfying final episode, though, “The Middle” should finally receive its due as a bona fide Emmy contender.

For nine seasons, “The Middle” chronicled the hilarious and always relatable foibles of the working-class Heck family, who live in the fictional town of Orson, Indiana.  Sitcom pros Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) and Neil Flynn (“Scrubs”) helmed the cast as Frankie and Mike, the overworked and underpaid parents of three kids: Axl (Charlie McDermott), Sue (Eden Sher), and Brick (Atticus Shaffer). In the final episode, Axl finally flies the coop for good, moving from hometown Orson to Denver, Colorado for a promising job opportunity, and the family takes one last memorable road trip to see him off.

Although the premise of the two-part series finale, titled “A Heck of a Ride,” sets the stage for a number of sad goodbyes between characters that echo the feelings of fans at home, the Hecks bid adieu in an hour of television wholly in-line with the preceding two hundred-plus episodes: heartfelt, hilarious, and understated, with plenty of call-backs for longtime fans of the show.

Each of the five main cast members have moments to shine in the final farewell. Heaton, who won two Emmy Awards for her performance on sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” showcases her range as Frankie (barely) hides her heartbreak at Axl’s impending move across the country behind a veneer of happiness and calm, hoping not to scare her eldest son off from ever visiting home again.

Sher, the true unsung hero of the series, not only displays her trademark, indefatigable optimism and charm throughout the episode, but also has an uncharacteristic fairy-tale moment, as Sue finally ends up in the arms of her long-time crush Sean Donahue (Beau Wirick).

Shaffer, too, gets to highlight both his lovable, idiosyncratic character traits and the rich emotional insight that the youngest Heck child has always demonstrated throughout the series. In one of the most memorable scenes of the hour-long last episode, the three Heck siblings share an emotional moment in the back seat of the family car on the eve of their road trip, in which Brick and Sue both express how much they’re going to miss Axl in their everyday lives and, in turn, Shaffer and Sher show how seamlessly they both handle comedy and drama.

The two performances that truly stand out in the conclusion of “The Middle,” though, belong to McDermott and Flynn. Of the three younger characters, Axl had the most opportunity to grow over the course of the series, from his start in high school, through his college years, to a (quickly-annulled) marriage, and his taste of real adulthood. McDermott brilliantly brings the weight of all of these life milestones to bear as Axl departs the Heck household. In an equally poignant moment, Axl can’t find the words to thank his father for the thoughtful going-away gift of his grandfather’s repaired watch, which Mike has had engraved with the latitude and longitude of the Heck’s home.

Though McDermott says so much with so little in the scene, Flynn ultimately steals the show, as he tended to do throughout the entire ninth and final season. While the penultimate episode of “The Middle,” “Split Decision,” might have featured some of Flynn’s all-time best work on the series, the finale provides him with ample opportunities to showcase his character’s signature often-unspoken emotional insight, which Flynn so beautifully veils and occasionally reveals from behind Mike’s all-flannel exterior. Should any of the main cast members land a surprise Emmy bid for the final season of “The Middle,” Flynn would seem far out front for his incredible work throughout the year and in the finale in particular.

Despite the understated, perhaps fittingly so, track record of “The Middle” at the Emmy Awards, with a single nomination in 2012 for Outstanding Makeup For a Single-Camera Series, academy members have one final chance to send “The Middle” into the television sunset with the lauding it deserves. Series co-creators Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline penned the two-part last episode and their brilliant script deserves serious consideration for an Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series bid. The episode, balanced not only in terms of structure and pace, but also humor and heart, succeeds at the rare feat of satisfyingly ending a long-running, beloved series. While the episode concludes with the Hecks driving to Denver, Heisler and Heline include a few short scenes set in the future to let the audience know what becomes of each member of the Heck family in a manner that never even threatens to teeter into excessive schmaltz.

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Since 2000, at least five series finale episodes of comedies have earned Writing nominations: “Goodnight, Seattle,” “Frasier” (2004); “The Finale,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” (2005); “Development Arrested,” “Arrested Development” (2006); “Finale,” “The Office” (2013); and “Last Lunch,” “30 Rock” (2013). Of course, all of those series not only had stronger track records with the Emmys, but had also previously won Best Comedy Series, too. Even so, the sentimentality of nominators toward a great final episode may help “The Middle” land its first, long-overdue, and unequivocally deserved major Emmy nomination.

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