From the Set: THE MIDDLE hits 200!

THE MIDDLE – “The 200th” – “The MiddleÓ celebrates its milestone 200th episode. (ABC/Michael Ansell): DEANN HELINE (EXECUTIVE PRODUCER), ATTICUS SHAFFER, CHARLIE MCDERMOTT, NEIL FLYNN, EDEN SHER, PATRICIA HEATON, EILEEN HEISLER (EXECUTIVE PRODUCER)

THE MIDDLE has quietly had one of the best runs of any comedy series of the modern era: always funny, always relatable, and one of my favorite shows on TV.  Now in their 9th and final season (Eden Sher promises “we decided it!”), the series has hit another milestone – 200(+) episodes.

Episode 200, aptly named “The 200th,” celebrates Orson’s late achievement: they were selected as one of the top 200 cities in Indiana – number 200, to be exact! As you’d expect, with Nancy Donahue leading the charge, the town goes all out with a big event full of familiar faces from the past 9 seasons and a speech that made me cry like a baby.

I spent some time on set with the cast while they were filming this milestone episode and they offered some insight into when they knew that THE MIDDLE was likely sticking around, what they’ve learned over the course of 9 seasons, and why the show continues to resonate with fans.

Atticus Shaffer arrived to our lunch first, and joked that it wasn’t the first time he’d been there first – he’s the lone holdover from an original THE MIDDLE pilot, shot 10 years ago. “I was in the original pilot. I was the only cast member to be brought back from that pilot to this one. The original one had Ricki Lake as the mom and Lex Medlin as the dad. If you start to tell me a storyline,” and the show has been a learning experience for him from day one. “This has been my film school for the past 10 years, 9 years of the show. I observe and I learn, and this is where I’ve done my growing up.”

Asked when they knew this was a show that could make it 200 episodes (and then some), Neil Flynn joked, “oh, around 175?” 

Patricia Heaton: They told us they were never sure we were coming back from year to year [laughs].

Neil: It really does feel unreal to get to 200.  100 is great. [Patricia] had done this before; but 100 is all everyone would ever hope for. You get that, you’re on the air, you’re happy, you hope to get renewed, and then you can kind of tell you’re going to stay, you have a place, you’re allowed, you have a place for 4 or 5 years.  That gets you to 100.  You hit that milestone, and then somehow we just stuck around. Nobody told us to leave!

Atticus: I remember way back when we were doing interviews after S1 had come out and we were picked up for S2, I was doing interviews with Neil, and they asked, hey, what do you think the show can run.  He was saying “Hopefully 4 or 5 years, we get to 100.”  I did have a feeling of maybe we can get to 7 or 8, and obviously, we’re passed that now so that’s a huge blessing.

Neil: Remember a few months ago when they said it would be the last season?  I had more than one person say “sorry to hear about your show!” [laughs] Oh no, it’s been an incredible run.

Eden Sher: No, we decided it!

Neil: We’re fine with it.

Patricia: Or they couldn’t believe that MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE was running this long [laughs].  But the first season we were on, COUGARTOWN was going to be the big hit.  That had all the advertising, remember that? The evening started with Kelsey Grammar’s show, HANK, which was pulled after two episodes, then it was us. Then it was MODERN FAMILY, and then COUGARTOWN, and so HANK disappeared after 2 episodes, MODERN FAMILY just exploded out of the box, COUGARTOWN kind of faded away, and then we’ve just been the little engine that could. They slotted us into the 8PM hour where Hank had been…

Neil: No lead-in…

Patricia: …no lead-in ever…

Neil: …they were thinking Kelsey would be the lead in, and people would tune in to see his show, and we’d have a lead-in. And then all of a sudden we were the lead-in.

Charlie McDermott: They starting playing us for an hour halfway through Season 1!

Patricia: I’ll never forget that that first season, we just felt like nobody knew who we were or where we were. And one day, I was coming here, into work, and I saw a plane with a banner behind it, advertising COUGARTOWN [laughs]. It’s like, really?  You gotta fly over our sound stage with it?  And I’ve been bitter and resentful ever since [laughs].  We just kept chugging along. And they started using us to launch their new shows. It’s sort of this great thing that happened with us and we started getting some great critical feedback, in unexpected places. The last one we had was in GQ.  It’s been a fun ride.

When the conversation inevitably turned to why they decided season 9 would be the last, Eden was quick to add “200 episodes. That’s a lot of stories,” while Atticus pointed out that he’s not quite ready to leave, “I am the one that was voting to not the end show.” But Patricia Heaton made a great point –

“The writers, we had talked about since around s6, was the start of the conversation of when do you leave?  I’ll speak for myself, but I think this also includes Neil’s character, when you get to be people of our age, or the character’s ages, and you don’t have financial flexibility, your lives stay pretty much the same, because you’re not going to be, when the kids leave, going on a European tour. You’re going to pretty much be going to the quarry and to the dentist office, and that’s it. There’s only so much to explore for Frankie and Mike – I remember for the last three seasons, I keep saying this one line of “It’s all going so fast” [laughs]. I think we’ve explored everything we’re going to explore.  The kids, they’re going into their lives. There’s always going to be new things happening for the kids. At some point, there is a point where the writers feel burnt out, and to keep the whole show going and you want to go out on top. I know for RAYMOND that they felt the same way.  They didn’t want to repeat themselves and didn’t want to have to start going to crazy places to keep the show afloat.”

THE MIDDLE – “The 200th” – “The Middle” celebrates its milestone 200th episode! (ABC/Michael Ansell) EDEN SHER, NEIL FLYNN, PATRICIA HEATON, CHARLIE MCDERMOTT, ATTICUS SHAFFER

The 200th episode is equal parts a “very special episode of THE MIDDLE” and “another classic episode that happens to be special” – and the cast was asked about how the show celebrates the achievement on screen. Neil Flynn gave us the scoop and echoed Patricia Heaton’s reasoning for ending the show:

“They incorporated the 200 number. Orson is named one of the 200 best cities in Indiana. So we have town celebration revolving around 200 so it’s kind of fun for us. We took a cast and crew picture, all of us, in front of the cow. I think it says 200 on it. For those who know, with what Patty was saying earlier – it’s true, and face it folks, we’re all about to be in that boat, adults’ lives aren’t nearly as eventful as children, and I was a child, but I don’t have any, so it was a sort of surprise to me. Thank goodness we had these three capable actors to play these children because there’s always a plot line for a kid. Prom, graduation, exams, kids have markers in their lives. Adults, sorry to realize, do not, for the most part [laughs]. For some of us, the only thing you have like that is your kids’ milestones. And if it was just us, and the kids were out of the house, nothing happens on a day to day basis. So many plotlines could deal with the kids’ “this” happening. A million things.”

THE MIDDLE has consistently found a new audience as the seasons have progressed thanks to syndication, critical acclaim, and word of mouth.  The show resonates strongly with so many people because, as Atticus pointed out, “there’s a realness to our show, it is everyday life.”  The show is evergreen, in that you’re never quite sure what time period they’re tackling.

Neil: I think that is a quality that the show has that I don’t know if it was intentional at all, but it feels timeless – I don’t mean to say that to make it a big compliment, but it could be any time. I think I said before, this show could have been on when I was a kid, in between THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY and THE BRADY BUNCH, and it would seem to fit. And also, because in the beginning sometimes, there’s retro stock footage that gives you a nostalgic feel.

Eden: There are no indicators or markers – it exists in its own independent world, outside of the real world.

Neil: Every once in a while, there’s a mention of a pop culture thing….

Patricia: THE BACHELOR! [laughs]!

Eden: There’s also not a lot in it to make it seem in 5 years “oh that’s really dated”

Patricia: I also think outside of Los Angeles and outside of bigger metropolitan areas, the same things are going on, which is just the local whatever and the prom, and those are some of the same events that are big in people’s lives that have been going on forever and so that’s the stuff we focus on. I think one of the things, and it sounds sort of corny and it’s been said a million times, but people do like watching it with their families and their kids and they feel comfortable that they’re not going to be blindsided by some off-limits topic that they’re not prepared to discuss with their kids, having to explain a certain word or something. There was one recent thing where I was supposed to call somebody a d-bag and I changed it. [laughs].  It’s like, we don’t need to have a parent explain that to a kid.

Atticus: There’s a realness to our show, it is everyday life. No matter what, you will deal with an issue or something similar to it. The basic issue is there, and people can relate to it, and it does make people feel that, because it’s relatable, but it’s still an escape, going into this fun world, and you get to watch us do what we do, or watch The Hecks do what they do.

Neil: Relatable is a big word.

The conversation turned to the experience over this past almost-decade of working on the show. Charlie McDermott offered up some insight into the origin of Axl Heck: “I think I’m the only one who’s not based on a real person. Eileen’s youngest son is Brick, and then you (Eden) were like a combination of DeAnn and Eileen.  They told me at the beginning that they didn’t know what to do with me for like, 2 years because he’s the only one that didn’t exist with any of the other writers [laughs]. I think I started off as a general disgruntled teen.”

The cast quickly chimed in to compliment him for what he brings to Axl:

Eden: And then you became a Charlie, a Charlie-infused disgruntled teen. The most endearing disgruntled teen.

Patricia: I remember Charlie’s audition. You were the only one that they brought in for it. It was just so spot on. I have 4 sons who all walked around in boxers the whole time. So Charlie was amazing. And he’s actually sort of a quiet shy guy, so you can see what a great acting job he’s doing.

Eden: Charlie might be the best actor on the show – I’ve never seen someone so opposite. You’re so respectful and sensitive. Kind and you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m like, basically, Sue. I’m totally unaware. I have no range as an actor. This is it!

But Charlie was quick to point out that he still struggles with things, this far into the show – “I still have trouble with some stuff, that I’m surprised I’m not more comfortable with.  Axl is very big, and I still get nervous.  I always think it’s going to be bad, and it’s not!”

The biggest question came up about how the show has changed them, or what the cast has learned, and Neil was quick to poke fun at his TV wife:

Eden: “I know how to hit my mark really well.”

Neil: “Teach Patty!” [laughs all around]

Patricia Heaton was quick to “defend” herself as she explained the differences between her previous 200+ episode show and this one –

“I had not really worked on single camera for any length of time, so it’s been interesting. I feel like I’m still learning.  The kids really seem to be able to just naturally do this, and I’m always amazed at their skill set, and I didn’t have that skill set.  I still feel, after 9 years, I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to do this.  There’s no preparation – you’re given your scenes for that day, and there’s no real rehearsal, where in multi-cam, you have 3 or 4 days of rehearsal before you do the show, so here, it’s just you come in, you run it once, you mark it, and that’s all you get.  In multi-camera, in that rehearsal time, you start leaning your lines, where here, you either have to memorize them at home the night before if you have big speeches, and then when you get here, and you think you know it, and you put it up on its feet with all of the other interaction, and the business and the movement, it all goes out of your head and you have to re-memorize it. It’s this big process and is still not one that I’ve entirely nailed down yet. Maybe just starting. I feel in 9 years I’m just starting to feel comfortable with it, and the show’s over. [laughs] That’s for me, as an actor, that’s been an interesting process. Also, with single-camera, I think something is too big and I see it on screen and it’s not nearly as big as I thought it was, in fact I feel like I could have gone further with it.  It’s much harder than multi-camera. And the hours are so long!  We’re just here a lot.”

Atticus expanded on his view of this show as his own type of film school, as he said, “being the youngest one here, I have grown up on camera, so my teenage years are in a time capsule. I’ve learned a lot not only in life and work ethic and everything like that, but I’ve learned about this industry specifically. I’ve learned the directing standpoint, the post standpoint, especially in the most recent years. I’ve really been paying attention to it, because again, this is the best film school you could ever hope for, this in person, on set interaction. So I’ve enjoyed being able to get an incredible education and I know it’s going to take me into my future endeavors.”

As for Eden? “I don’t pay attention to anything.”

As they plan for what is next, Atticus told us he had been fortunate enough to participate in the Warner Bros’ Directors’ workshop over the past hiatus, “so that kept [him] very busy in being able to study and beings on with that.”  And he seems himself continuing in that direction. “That is where I want to go as I transition in my career. I want to keep up with acting, but I want to get into the directing, the writing, the producing, and I’m starting to dabble in that right now, so I’m excited to see how that will transpire.”

Talk turned to Charlie’s turn behind the camera, with more accolades from the cast, Patricia adding, “Charlie was a great director. It was weird – when he told us, we were like, okay, let’s just go with this, because we never worked with each other as a director before, and he was just brilliant.” Charlie added, “This was really tiring. But it kind of does itself. There are so many department heads and everyone does such a great job already, that you kind of really have to almost try to mess with it. A lot of that went down to everyone here just does such a great job already.”

The question was asked about whether they see each other as these familial roles, and the cast expanded on their fondness for each other:

Neil: Thank goodness we’re friends. It’s a lot of hours to spend together. To be able to have a conversation with no matter who you’re paired with. You hear tell of actors that don’t get along, or are feuding.

Patricia: Can you imagine? Spending all of these hours together and not getting along? It would be Hell.

Neil: It would make things so much more difficult.

Atticus: we don’t see each other as the roles of the family that we are, but I think by default after 9 years, not only amongst each other, and with the crew, we’re all one big family.

Eden: Charlie and I are very close friends; everyone’s friends, but we lived next door to each other.

Charlie: Shared a wall [they didn’t punch an accidental hole in it]

Eden: Yes we shared a wall and I would pop over. I sometimes think…I have two brothers in real life, and I love them so dearly, I really do, I love them, but I sometimes think of Charlie as the brother I never had.

Patti: The brother you always wanted as opposed to the brothers that you got [laughs].

While the cast talked about downtime, Eden was quick to point out that sometimes, “it doesn’t feel like too much if you just do nothing for 3 months,” but Atticus felt a little differently – “I find rest in doing different work. I do a lot of voiceover work, because that’s a different kind of work, different hours, but it’s a different focus, focusing on your voice instead of everything.”

Patricia mentioned she’s ready to get back out on the road with the charity she works for, WorldVision: “I do some traveling on hiatus with either vacation stuff or do some stuff with WorldVision which is a charity I work for. I have a production company, so we work on developing TV series. Last season on hiatus, Beau Wirick, who plays Sean Donahue, who plays [spoilers] Sue’s love interest, or soon to be, we went to Jordan to visit Syrian refugee camps together.  I’m going to Uganda next, so doing that kind of stuff.”

The conversation all came down to what might happen in the finale, and what happens next for them – would they be interested in doing another family sitcom like this?  Or is there going to be an effort to shake off the Hecks for something new?

Eden: I would do another show, I would do another comedy. I would do another series. I would love not to play a teenager ever again. But whatever if anyone wants to hire me, I’m free in March! [laughs]

Neil: I think that’s the thing that ties into why stop now? As lucky, fortunate, and grateful as you feel, you have been doing the same thing for 9 years. If a part was similar to Mike Heck in another show, no I wouldn’t want to do it. Part of being an actor is “who am I this time….

Patricia: …the fun of that…

Neil…to not only do it for your own fun and experience, but to show you can. This is a “more than a one trick pony” sort of thing, so I think most of us feel like we would gladly do something else, just not something very similar.

As if there was any doubt, Patricia offered that she thinks the finale is “going to be special.”  The two-parter will air in May and I’m already stocking up on Kleenex.

Patricia: We don’t really know what they’re going to do yet, but I think there will be some sort of special aspect to the final thing.

Eden: What if we go to Hawaii?

The Hecks in Hawaii?  Sign me up! THE MIDDLE’s 200th episode airs at 8/7c on ABC. Their final Christmas-themed episode airs the following week, and after a break for the holidays, new episodes will air throughout the Winter/Spring until the Series Finale in May.

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