sitcom about two working-class parents raising three children in small-town Indiana. Rife with narration and flashbacks.
Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton
) and her husband Mike (Neil Flynn
) live in the midwestern town of Orson, Indiana. Frankie is a saleswoman at "Ehlert Motors" (where she has the lowest sale record) and Mike is the manager at the local quarry. Their three children are: Axl, perpetually lazy and unmotivated, even to wear a shirt or pants; Sue, the braces-wearing middle child who tries out for a number of extracurricular activities...and fails spectacularly at them all; and Brick, the gifted, but socially awkward smallest child, who reads a lot and has a tendency to repeat the last words he saidnote
Other characters include Bob (Chris Kattan
), Frankie's coworker at Ehlert Motors; and Don Ehlert (Brian Doyle-Murray
), Frankie's boss.
Along with Modern Family
, it was the
break-out comedy of the 2009 television season (though Modern Family
tends to get all of the entertainment media attention
Not to be confused with the 2000 sitcom Malcolm in the Middle
(though some comparisons are inevitable).
The show provides examples of:
- Abhorrent Admirer: Weird Ashley to Axl
- Aerith and Bob: There's Axl, Brick, and... Sue. It kind of emphasizes her lack of specific talent. It even works with their real actors' names: Charlie, Atticus, and Eden.
- Agony of de Feet: Sue drives over Axl's foot.
- The Alleged Car: Axl's '75 Ford Gran Torino met its end when a county fair official took a guess about the rusty, faded old land yacht and waved Axl into the demolition derby.
- Ambiguous Disorder: Brick (see under Intelligence Equals Isolation and Verbal Tic on this page).
- Ambiguously Camp Gay: Sue's temporary boyfriend, Brad, whose talents include square dancing, embroidery, and making centerpieces out of everyday objects. Mike and Frankie have their suspicions, but Sue and Brad are both oblivious of that fact (they broke up because Sue found out that Brad was a smoker).
- Ask a Stupid Question...: After Brick reveals he lost his backpack in "The Smell" and Frankie asks where he was when he lost it:
Brick: That's kind of what makes it lost, mom...
- Assumed Win: When Brick entered a contest to come up with the town's new slogan.
- A Very Special Episode. Subverted by the third season premiere, in which Sue gets her first period near the end of the episode.
- The Baby Trap: One episode had Brick have an unwanted girlfriend that started stalking him. When he tried to break up with her, she said that they were now married and had a baby to apparently keep him from leaving her.
- Back to School: After being fired from Ehlert Motors in the fourth season, Frankie decides to retrain, ultimately as a dental technician.
- Bad Job, Worse Uniform: Sue and (even more so) Brad's uniforms for their jobs at the mall's food-court chain outlets, as seen in "Vacation Days" during the fifth season.
- Bad Luck Charm: The titular object in the third-season's "The Clover" is an inversion, as a four-leaf cover is usually a good luck charm.
- Bears Are Bad News: On their camping trip...
- Big Brother Instinct: While Axl shows more affection towards his little brother, Brick, he's more emotionally closed off when it comes to his little sister, Sue. He treats her with disdain, taunts and teases her to no end, and belittles her very existence (he never tells anyone in his school that he has a sister)... but when it comes down to it, Axl shows a softer, comforting side of him when it really counts. Examples would be in episodes like The Block Party (where he gives Sue his old Jersey because he felt bad for her not making ball girl), and The Paper Route (where he gives her a little pep talk after her boyfriend dumps her for another girl, and invites her to come watch his game to cheer her up, awww!).
- Big Eater: Axl has a reputation for having a big appetite.
- Brick as well, in "The Map" he and Axl try and create a model Indiana cake out of brownie mix, pancake mix, and pizzas. The brothers end up devouring all of them. As for the pizza model they ordered two so they could eat one and use the other for the model; they end up eating both of them.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Shannon in "Errand Boy."
- Blackmail: In "The Telling", Axl accidentally wakes Sue up late at night while sneaking back into the house via her room. Knowing that he has a big trip to the lake with his friends coming up on the weekend, she holds the threat of telling on him over him to get rides for her and her friends everywhere over the next few days.
- Book Within A Show: Brick is a huge fan of the sci-fi series "Planet Nowhere," as revealed in "Twenty Years."
- Bratty Teenage Son: Axl
- Braces of Orthodontic Overkill: Sue is expecting to get her braces off in the third season's "The Paper Route". Instead, because the braces overcorrected her teeth, she developed a simultaneous overbite and underbite and must wear headgear full-time.
- Brainless Beauty: Deconstructed in a season 2 episode; Axl's boss is an extremely sexy but extremely dumb party girl who he is at first overjoyed to work with, but eventually grows to intensely dislike, even turning down a date (to his own shock) due to frustration at her thoughtlessness.
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: In the first part of "Last Whiff of Summer", the fourth-season premiere, the Hecks go to a drive-in where the triple bill is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Fiddler on the Roof, and Serpico.
- Brick Joke: No, not with the character. In one episode, Brick tries to make Pizza puffs with the oven and nearly starts a fire because there was a quilt in the oven. In a 2012 episode, Axel and Brick try to bake a dough map of Indiana and after turning the oven on, shout, "THE QUILT!" and take it out of the oven.
- Its return in the next season's "Christmas Pageant" suggests this may be becoming a Running Gag.
- Brilliant but Lazy: Subverted with Axl in the season one finale. Arguably, Brick is a more straight-up example (though see below)
- Brick does invert this in one episode. He fails a few math tests, but it's not because of the teacher or the material. He was just curious what getting an F was like.
Brick: That's probably because I only answered the first five questions.
Brick: Ms. Rinski said we could have free reading time after we finished the test, so I finished in five minutes.
- When a football recruiter from East Indiana State visits the Heck home, Axl demonstrates that he can be a polite, charming young man, infuriating his parents, because at home, he doesn't bother.
- Broken Aesop: In-universe in the second-season episode "The Quarry". Axl gets suspended from school, so Mike decides to teach him a lesson about how much of a drag the real world is compared to school by taking him to work with him. It backfires when Axl finds his temporary co-workers are cool guys in their early 20s who throw weekend parties attended by lots of attractive women.
- The Bus Came Back: Averted in "Valentine's Day IV" when Matt leaves a message for Sue to tell her he's back together with his old girlfriend, so he won't be coming back to Orson to take her out to the dance.
- By Wall That Is Holey: In "The Name," Axl is helping out at a Habitat for Humanity house. When asked if he needs help with the bracing, he scoffs and says he knows what he's doing, only to have the wall fall while he stands in the doorway.
- Butt Monkey: Sue and, to a lesser extent, Frankie. You could argue that it's an entire family of ButtMonkeys, but those two stand out the most.
- California Doubling: Normally averted, except for the roadside scenes in "The Concert".
- Call Back: In "Halloween III: The Driving", Sue mentions her "near-death experience" secretly driving the Donahues' car (see Product Placement, below) in the previous season's "Hecking it Up."
- In the very next episode, Sue and Brick accidentally reopen the same hole in the wall from the second season.
- Camp Straight: Brad, on the off chance the entire Heck family (save for Sue) is wrong.
- Can't Get In Trouble For Nuthin': In "The Last Whiff of Summer", Sue attempts to get attention from her father by deliberately misbehaving so he will have to punish her. However, her attempts to be a 'bad girl' fall solidly in Poke the Poodle territory and Mike fails to even notice.
- Captain Oblivious: Sue is the only one who seems to have no idea that her former boyfriend Brad is very probably gay.
- Celebrity Paradox: Frankie says that Axl impressed a college professor with facts he learned from watching Hot Tub Time Machine 27 times. Charlie McDermott, who plays Axl, was in Hot Tub Time Machine.
- Child Prodigy: Youngest son Brick is prone to philosophical thoughts about the meaning of life.
- Cloud Cuckoolander: Brick Heck.
- Continuity Nod: In "Friends, Lies and Videotape" during the second season, Mike confronts Sue about a ticket stub to an R-rated movie she and her best friend sneaked into earlier in the episode. Sue responds by tearfully confessing every (actually relatively minor) trangression she's committed recently. In the process she reveals the hole in the wall she and Brick enlarged while trying to fix it four episodes earlier in "The Big Chill."
- In "The Friend", we learn who fixed it, and Sue confesses to it again (even though it's fixednote ) in "Wheel of Pain."
- In "The Clover", Mike takes the Heck's old dishwasher from "Valentine's Day III" to his father.
- In "The Telling", Sue is shown sleeping with her headgear, which she got earlier that season, on. During "Last Whiff of Summer (Part 2)" she takes it off in a desperate bid for attention, loudly announcing she's doing so, but no one notices. She sleeps with it yet again in "Bunny Therapy."
- In "The Wedding", Sue looks for ideas for Rusty's wedding in a notebook she kept when she was imagining that she and Matt (whom she'd broken up with long distance earlier in the season) would someday get married.
- In "Bunny Therapy", Axl and his friends are shown raking leaves in the "Boss Co." shirts they had printed up for the previous season's finale, "The Wedding," And they're seen again in a couple of other episodes that season.
- In "The Friend", Cassidy turns out to be a big fan of the Planet Nowhere series that Axl spoiled for Brick in "The Smile," and in "Wheel of Pain", we see some of the books stacked next to Brick's bed.
- Covered in Mud: Mike, in "The Ditch", during the fourth season, after trying Axl's plan to get the car and boat unstuck.
- Crappy Holidays: As of its fourth season, the show has done a Thanksgiving, Christmas and Valentine's Day episode every season. An annual Halloween Episode started in the second season. The first two seasons also featured Mother's Day episodes, and then "Hallelujah Hoedown" in the fourth season had Mother's Day (the Sunday after it aired) as one of its plot threads.
- The first Mother's Day episode sneaked in a Father's Day episode via flashbacks. A third-season episode was also devoted to the Hecks trying to keep their New Year's resolutions.
- And the show has also built episodes around the 2011 Final Four and Super Bowl XLVI, both of which in real life took place in Indiana. And an episode around the 2011 Royal Wedding.
- On Feb 29, 2012 the show aired the episode Leap Day.
- The two-part fourth-season premiere, "Last Whiff of Summer," had one act set on Fourth of July.
- Cut Himself Shaving: Subverted when Frankie tosses an empty bottle to Sue, which accidentally hits Brick in the arm. Later at school when asked about the injury, Brick innocently says, "My Mom hit me with a beer bottle", not intending to make it sound the way it did.
- Damned by Faint Praise: Sue wins an MVP award for her participation on the Cross Country Team. Unfortunately, the specific award is "MVP Most Punctual", and everyone on the team gets some sort of an "MVP" award. Sue being Sue, she's still genuinely excited to win something.
- Daydream Surprise: "Ok...that didn't really happen..."
- Demoted to Extra: Bob was a regular for the first season or so, but after the show began to focus more on the Hecks' lives and less on Frankie's job, he had little use on the show and was relegated to the end credits.
- Deadpan Snarker: Axl most of the time, but everyone has their snarky moments.
- Mike, especially to Frankie and Axl.
- Determinator: Sue. No matter how many times she fails to make any team or club, she never gives up. This extends far enough that, in that Season Finale, she "runs" five laps around a cross-country track with a twisted (and possibly broken) ankle, only for it to start raining while she's on her final lap. Then, after being splashed with mud and grass and losing a crutch, she drags herself across the finish line with only her arms. Did we mention that the entire time the theme from Chariots of Fire was playing, timed out well enough that what is usually a cheesy Stock Parody turned into a Crowning Moment of Awesome for Sue?
- Not to mention the fact that every one of her schoolmates watching and cheering for her cheered the wrong name until the family corrected them!
- And presumably had been for the first four and a half laps. That makes the support of the family even more heartwarming!
- In the second episode of the third season it's lampshaded when Axl pays her a backhanded compliment, calling her a "dork optimist."
- It's lampshaded again in "Twenty Years", when she says "Sue Heck will never give up!".
- Frankie could be one too, given her various quests to help out her family (during which she is inevitably faced with several obstacles).
- Her speech in the dental-assistant class at the end of "The Safe" pretty much confirms it.
- Double Meaning Title: The name of the series actually has a triple meaning. It's about a middle-aged mom, in a middle-class household, living in the Midwest.
- Let's not forget the family tends to consciously or unconsciously avoid the winner obsession usually attributed to American society. They represent Aristotle's aurea mediocritas (golden mediocrity, another way of being in the middle) and this is shown as the basis for their simple yet beautiful happiness, much in the vein the greeks understood it.
- Driving Test: Sue spends the fourth season trying to get her license. By "Hallelujah Hoedown", when she's alone among her like-aged friends in we learn she's failed her road test six times and must wait another month.
- After which, in the season finale, she passes at last.
- Egg Sitting: Axl gets this assignment in sex ed. Needless to say, he is a less than perfect parent.
- Embarrassing Middle Name: Sue Sue Heck. Her first name was accidentally written twice on her birth certificate. Frankie and Mike have been meaning to get that changed.
- When they finally get around to it in "The Name," the government worker at the courthouse thinks her name is interesting. Sue, delighted that someone has finally found something about her unique and special, decides not to have it changed after all.
- Eskimos Aren't Real: In a Christmas Episode, Brick explains that Eskimos know how to put a fire in an igloo, only for Axl to snap that back that Eskimos aren't real, but are made-up creatures like leprechauns.
- Eureka Moment: Near the end of "The Test", Mike finally manages to get Brick to stand up for himself, something he wanted throughout the entire episode. However, as he tells Frankie, he realizes that Brick tricked him when he thinks back to how Brick deals with bulliesnote .
- Exact Words: In "The Clover" during the third season, Frankie, worried about Aunt Edie's ability to continue on her own after her sister's death, visits her. While there, she points to the phone with extra large buttons and pictures of her, her mother and her sister on the numbers in memory:
Frankie: Press my face if you want to talk.
Aunt Edie: (reaching out and actually pressing Frankie's face) Hello? Hello?
- Expy: The title, characters, setting, and family dynamics have a resemblance to Malcolm in the Middle.
- Both shows even share some staff including writer and co-executive producer Rob Ulin.
- Extracurricular Enthusiast: Sue.
- Fail O'Suckyname: Axl and Brick. Not surprising with a family name like Heck.
- Justified, sort of, as they are from what is presumably central Indiana... where the "Brickyard" is. That is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for those who didn't know.
- Fanservice: Axl. He's played by a 19-year-old actor.
- Don't forget about his two buff football buddies who have had multiple shirtless scene. Sometimes the scenes are even homoerotic. Case in point: the first Valentine's Day episode, where Darren takes a picture of the three of them sitting side by side, flexing for the camera.
Axl: Dude, we look like three naked guys huggin' each other.
Sean: Yeah, and you can't see what our hands are doing...
Darren: And...send! High five, my brothers!
(Axl and Sean look at each other in disgust before fleeing the scene)
- Felony Misdemeanor: Frankie being arrested for an overdue library book - "Stormy Moon."
- First Kiss. Subverted somewhat in "Valentine's Day III" in the third season. Sue and her new boyfriend have admitted to each other that his French kisses have been a problem for them both—she doesn't like the feel of an other person's tongue in her mouth, and he's been trying to avoid cutting his tongue on her braces. So the show ends with a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming on the Hecks' doorstep, as they kiss on the lips, limned by sunlight. It's not her first kiss per se but it's her first real one.
- Flanderization: Sue seems to be becoming even more hopelessly naive and clueless than ever in recent episodes, to the point of ridiculousness (especially in "Halloween III," when she becomes so nervous about driving that she accidentally runs over Axl's foot and potentially ruins his football scholarship). Rule of Funny aside, Sue has not shown very much depth or personality change, and some are finding her perpetual quirkiness stale - not to mention fast becoming unrealistic (underbite-crossbite, anyone?)
- This was addressed in the fifth season's Halloween episode when Mike showed legitimate concern that Sue's "extreme innocence" (which he referred to as being normal for a child but not for a 16-year-old) will make her look crazy and the victim of bullying.
- Brick, too, has been affected by this. As of "Bunny Therapy" he's acquired a whole new odd Verbal Tic for no apparent reason, other than perhaps to make him seem even weirder.
- Flyover Country: The show is set in the U.S. Midwest, and the title, "the middle", is a colloquialism used by inhabitants of places like Orson to describe where they live.
- The pilot episode even goes so far as to show a plane flying overhead, and the passengers not caring when the flight attendant tells them that if they look out their window, they can see Indiana.
- Four Philosophy Ensemble: Axl (the Cynic), Sue (the Optimist), Mike (the Realist), Brick (the Apathetic), and Frankie (the Conflicted).
- Four-Temperament Ensemble: Axl (choleric), Brick (melancholic), and Sue (sanguine/phlegmatic), Frankie (sanguine), and Mike (leukine).
- Axl and Brick may both have a phlegmatic side, given Axl's frequent laziness and that Brick is not very depression-prone, for a melancholic like he is.
- Sue and Frankie have both been prone to wearing their hearts on their sleeves sometimes; Sue is pretty much just a better supportive and more easygoing version of her mother.
- From Bad to Worse: Sue and Brick's attempt to fix a small hole in her wall in "The Big Chill" only makes it larger.
- Funny Background Event: While Frankie is talking to Mike and bemoaning her inability to figure out who she really is, Brick can be seen in the background trying to get himself into a sleeping bag, and failing miserably.
- This gag is repeated in a later episode. Frankie and Mike have a conversation while Sue is shown in the background learning to row a boat in the above-ground pool and, also, failing miserably.
- Funny Foreigner: Subverted in "Foreign Exchange". The Japanese exchange student who comes to stay with the Hecks has zero personality and says almost nothing to the family the entire time. Only when he returns home and a brief shot of him with his Japanese family is shown in The Tag, is it revealed that he's basically a sullen teenager with some of the same personality quirks as Axl and Brick.
- Genius Book Club: Brick is often shown reading something incredibly advanced for his age. This leads to the hilarious "I googled Moby-Dick - the hard edition - and guess what I found?" line.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Axl is responsible for quite a bit of this.
- For example, in "Last Whiff of Summer," he just knows Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sucks because "it has "chitty" right in the title!"
- In "The Friend," he's Snap-Chatting with Cassidy, and he says, "Hang on, gotta say good night to my girlfriend." At which point he ducks under his covers, then the scene changes.
- Brick does this in "From Orson With Love," where he says that the bunny he got in "Bunny Therapy" found a bunny friend, gave it "piggyback rides," and now there's a litter of bunny babies in his and Axl's closet.
- Gilligan Cut: Used often.
- Girlfriend in Canada: Brad has one, per "Sleepless in Orson".
- The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: The third season's Thanksgiving episode introduces Molly Shannon as Frankie's sister Janet. Frankie resents the fact that she's married to a chiropractor and has a higher standard of living than the Hecks do, while Janet in turn resents that Frankie didn't need medical assistance to conceive and has three children whereas she only has one.
- This builds up to Frankie telling her off during "The Name", when Janet shows up all by herself ostensibly to give Frankie some time and space to study for her dental-hygiene final, but seems only interested in showing her sister up. A short time later, Janet admits to Frankie that her daughter has severe tantrums and has been sent to a special camp during spring break, and as such she envies Frankie, setting up a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming.
- Going to See the Elephant: In "The Bee", the family forgets Sue's birthday in the run-up to the road trip to Chicago for Brick's appearance in the regional spelling bee, so they make it up to her by letting her plan the trip from a guidebook. Sue winds up wanting to see hilariously minor tourist attractions.
- Golden Moment: Usually with Frankie, but when it's Mike, expect a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming.
- Good Girl Gone Bad: Subverted in "Last Whiff of Summer," the fourth-season premiere. Sue realizes that even the negative attention her older brother gets is attention, and decides to start going bad to get some of that from her parents. However, the transgressions she comes up with—not wearing her headgear at night, wearing a red hair extension, and not taking her multivitamins—aren't really that serious. Double subverted by her parents not noticing or caring.
- Great Escape: Brick is terrified of the schoolyard and prefers to spend recess in the library, reading. When forced to spend recess outdoors in one episode, he and his friends devise a scheme for distracting the teachers and getting back into the library that plays out as a pint-sized prison break.
- Happily Married: Frankie and Mike
- Heroic BSOD: In "Twenty Years," Axl spoils the ending of the final "Planet Nowhere" book for Brick, sending him into a catatonic state for much of the remainder of the episode.
- Sue gets one in "Life Skills" after realizing that she has brought the wrong bag to school, and she is afraid she'll now get an F.
- High School Hustler: Axl unexpectedly becomes this in "Life Skills," as he manages to extract favors from a huge number of students to help him design a "How to Run an Italian Restaurant" project demonstration for himself and Sue in less than an hour.
- Horrible Camping Trip: The two-part third season premiere, which doubles down on the trope by flashing back to a similar trip 20 years earlier—which was the Hecks' honeymoon.
- The pilot also features a horrible field trip for Sue, where she forced her way onto a bus that was for kids that had sold a certain amount of cheese and sausage for a fundraiser so that they could go to the state capital. It turned out that her mother had forgotten to mail the money, resulting in Sue having to sleep on the floor in their hotel, not having a seat on the bus, having to sit out on the steps of the state capitol with an orderly because she wasn't authorized to come in, and a whole other list of horrible things that happened because of it.
- Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Lampshaded in the episode "The Final Four" when Mike meets Frankie's boss for the first time and Mr. Ehlert remarks "Short woman, tall guy...always funny!".
- Hypocritical Humor: After loudly complaining she wasn't that old in "The Diaper Incident" when the store clerk assumed she was looking for adult diapers, Frankie takes out her reading glasses to look at the fine print on a package of child diapers he finds for her.
- I Ate WHAT?: Axl's toenails, clipped into a bag of Doritos that Frankie ate.
- In "The Map", Axl eats Brick's school project, a baked clay relief map of Indiana, after it breaks. Subverted, weirdly enough, in that he doesn't seem as bothered by this as much as he is at the fact that everybody else finds this almost too stupid to believe.
- The chicken that Frankie brought along on the Fourth of July in "Last Whiff of Summer" got browsed at by a dog, surprisingly not eaten, and left so the Hecks could do so. Then they all got sick.
- I Call It "Vera": Mike's father nicknamed his belt 'The Enforcer'.
- I Take Offence To That Last One: In "Dollar Days", when Frankie, after a fruitless day of job interviews, asks her kids for one word to describe her. They offer "lazy", "angry" and "tired", prompting Mike to defend her:
Mike: The reason your mother is tired, lazy and irritable is because of you kids.
Frankie: No one ... said ... irritable (walks offscreen).
- I Want You to Meet an Old Friend of Mine: Doris Roberts as Brick's teacher during the second season and Ray Romano in the third-season premiere—both costars with Patricia Heaton in Everybody Loves Raymond.
- Idiot Ball: Brick. Axl and Sue's stupidity have always been consistent but Brick's intelligence will disappear depending on the episode or situation.
- Inept Aptitude Test: Sorta played around with in the season finale. Axl's score says that he's Brilliant but Lazy, so Sue and Mike try and push him harder. It turns out that some results were switched, but because of his hard work, Axl gets the best score he's ever gotten- a B minus.
- Informed Attribute: It's a little hard to believe that Axl could be a self-professed "football hero," largely due to his slim build and relative lack of muscle (just compare him to his buddies Sean and Darren for proof.) He's also a little on the short side for playing basketball.
- Intelligence Equals Isolation: Brick, who'd almost always rather read. His speech to Axl in "Twenty Years" about how he reads so much because he doesn't have many friends otherwise rather poignantly lampshades the trope.
- Ironic Echo: Plenty.
Mike: I'm done talking to you now.
- It Makes Sense in Context
Sue: I'm allergic to Christmas!note
- Jerkass Has a Point: In the 2013 Christmas episode, Axl and Frankie negotiate when and how they will spend Christmas together. Frankie's non-negotiable is watching a Christmas movie. Problem, she got it in German. Axl, having been denied the right to go to a bonfire to watch this, determines that this sucks and goes to his old room. Frankie says that he's right, and this Christmas is terrible. Don't worry, it gets better.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Axl, who usually treats Sue with disdain, will nevertheless protect her and help her—but only when she'll never know he did.
- Killer Rabbit: The title creature in "Bunny Therapy" eventually takes over one of the Heck's bathrooms due to its vicious attitude.
- Laxative Prank: Axl does this to Sue in "Foreign Exchange", just before the family takes a long car trip.
- Leap Day: Sue was born on February 29th and is technically four years old.
- Lemony Narrator: Each episode begins with Frankie narrating over a short montage of Stock Footage, going from describing some general aspect of life in "the middle" to the specifics of the episode. The narration returns when needed later in the episode, sometimes describing things Frankie couldn't be aware of, and usually taking a somewhat Garrison Keillor-esque tone.
- Limited Wardrobe: Axl again. To the point that his wardrobe seems to consist solely of boxers.
- Lampshaded in Mike's case in "Wheel of Pain", when he observes that he seems to have an awful lot of plaid shirts.
- Long Distance Relationship: Sue tries to have one with Matt in "The Paper Route." Axl warns her it won't work, and they break up by the end of the episode.
- Meganekko: Cassidy Finch, Axl's new tutor in "The Safe."
- Messy Hair: Sue. To further cement her loser status, it always looks like she just got of bed and forgot to brush it.
- Middle Child Syndrome: Sue seems to be unable to succeed. On the bright side, she at least appears to be cheerfully unaware of it or undaunted. Either way, you gotta give her credit for trying.
- Multi-Part Episode: The third- and fourth-season premieres are Type 1: "Forced Family Fun (Parts 1 and 2)" and "Last Whiff of Summer (Parts 1 and 2)", respectively.
- Must Have Caffeine: Sue starts drinking coffee after becoming a senior, which makes her act more hyperactive. She crashes on the night after the second day.
- My Beloved Smother: Brick's teacher accuses Frankie of this.
- Never Mess with Granny: Though Aunt Edie is very old and senile, in "The Math Class" episode she sprays a guy with a garden hose.
- Never My Fault: Practically Axl's catch phrase. He's convinced that his parents only punish him to ruin his life and is oblivious to the fact that his actions are completely selfish. When he gets caught he blames everyone else for his own stupidity.
- New York City: Sue wins a trip there in the second-season episode "Hecks on a Plane". However, when they arrive, after the expected plane trip in which everything that can go wrong does, it's snowing and they can't really see anything.
- Nonverbal Miscommunication: When Sue is at the meeting listing all the activities she tried (and failed) at in a speech, Frankie gives her a 'hurry up' gesture from the audience. Sue sees this and concludes "Oh, yes, and tumbling."
- Noodle Incident: One of the many things Tag tells Mike about in "From Orson With Love" is this, because all that is known about it is that Tag is no longer allowed at the Panama Canal.
- Once an Episode: Brick will whisper something to himself.
- Less common, but Axl will usually wind up in his boxers at some point in the show.
- Only Sane Man: Mike is usually the first to acknowledge the craziness going on in the house.
- Brick also falls under this category, as he's usually the only calm one in the family.
- Invoked by Frankie early in "Vacation Days", when Mike is at odds after being forced to take a paid vacation and Sue reacts with joy when she learns she'll get double shifts at her job while her coworkers are on Spring Break.
- OOC Is Serious Business:
- Subverted in "The Concert", Brick is angry and depressed after washing out of the school spelling bee on the first word (after he had gone to the regionals in Chicago the year before). His parents are actually happy about this since it's an emotionally appropriate response (normally, he responds to his failures philosophically).
- Played straight in "Halloween III: The Driving", when Brick eats all his Halloween candy that night. The resulting sugar high makes him much more normal, to the point that one of his teachers says to keep doing whatever it is they did. However, Frankie and Mike miss the old Brick and are relieved when he returns after passing out.
- Played straight again in "Wheel of Pain." When the kids are nice and civil to each other the morning after the window was broken, Frankie knows something's up.
- "From Orson With Love" starts with Sue lying on the ground moping because she didn't get invited to another girl's party (but her best friend Carly got to go). This prompts Frankie to finally take an active interest in improving Sue's social life.
- This becomes a bit of a Running Gag whenever either parent suggests that the family eat around the dinner table. Sue immediately panics, assuming the family needs to talk about something serious, which must mean that either her mother or father is dying.
- Papa Wolf: Mike has this towards his children; especially towards his daughter, Sue. An example of this would be in season one's Valentine's Day.
- Parental Favoritism: Deconstructed by "Last Whiff of Summer", the two-part fourth-season premiere. The kids' debate among themselves as to which of them their parents like more soon turns into a question to them, and their answers and non-answers (Frankie denies that parents favor any of their children) drive the plot. Then Frankie and Mike ask the kids which parent they prefer, which leads to a competition between the two of them.
- Persona Non Grata: : Mike is banned from Brick's school after his attempt to help at the Valentine's Day craft project ends up ruining Valentine's Day.
- Plot-Driven Breakdown: Axl's car breakdown in "Vacation Days" sets him up for a climactic chat with his mother on the way home. Justified by Axl not being the kind of person who would be expected to regularly maintain his car, as his father points out.
- Poke the Poodle: Sue trying to act out so that her parents will notice her. It doesn't work.
- Potty Failure: It's stated many times that Frankie pees herself a little anytime she runs, jumps, or sneezes.
- The Pratfall: Sue specializes in this.
- Product Placement: "Hecking it Up" in the third season is a drawn-out ad for the Volkswagen Passat.
- Later in that same season, "The Guidance Counselor" has Frankie announcing dinner's ready while the camera pans across some ostentatiously placed Subway sandwiches and wrappers.
- And, in "Twenty Years" next season, the family is again seen conspicuously dining on Subway fare.
- In "Halloween III: The Driving", Frankie sneaks a Kit Kat out of Brick's bag of candy.
- In the original broadcast of "The Smile" Axle talks the family into going to Red Lobster to tell them that he got accepted into college. Next commecial break — "ABC's The Middle—brought to you in part by Red Lobster, followed by a Red Lobster ad.
- That episode also had a subplot in which Brick successfully persuaded his parents to get him an iPad. One was shown briefly near the end, but unlike Red Lobster Apple wasn't credited with promotional consideration.
- When the episode was rerun on 5/29/13, Red Lobster again sponsored it, complete with another 'brought to you by' bumper and commercial.
- A subplot of "The Bachelor" is built around Frankie's shock at the resolution of that season of that eponymous reality show, which like Castle also just happens to air on the same network.
- In the episode "From Orson, With Love", an ad for the upcoming movie Disney's The Lone Ranger appeared alongside Frankie's Dad's YouTube video. Disney owns ABC.
- The very next episode, "Hallelujah Hoedown", had Frankie's perennial concern about the Mother's Day gifts she got as one of its subplots. She dropped hints to all three kids about a Brookstone back-rubber that she wanted, in the hope that one of them would tell Mike (it backfires when none of them can remember exactly what she wanted). Twice she described the product in detail and told them how much it cost, and then Mike and Brick went on an extended visit to Brookstone to get it, with the store's logo conspicuous in the background and on product boxes.
- "Orlando"/"The Wonderful World of Hecks" is another of a long line of ABC sitcoms promoting the Disney Theme Parks. A prize of what is assumed to be tickets to Walt Disney World turns out to be tickets to Disneyland, 2,500 miles in the other direction. WDW is magnanimous enough to accept the Hecks' tickets anyway.
- Pungeon Master: Sue will do this with any word that she can use as a pun on her own name, e.g. "Sue's Babysuetting Service" or "Sue-eet Sixteen".
- Put on a Bus: Sue's boyfriend Matt moves to another town in "The Paper Route."
- Rant Inducing Slight: When Sue finds out Brad used a pseudonymous Yelp! account to post what he thought was constructive criticism of Sue's work performance at the mall in "Vacation Days", she gets up on a table and makes a speech about how if people want to do that they should use their own names at least. It backfires when people in the audience start to use it as setup lines for their jokes at Sue's employer's expense.
- Reality Ensues: One of the subplots in the pilot ends like this when Sue forces her way onto a field trip after she did all of the work necessary (which her mother forgot to turn in) to go. Needless to say, because the field trip wasn't prepared for an extra student, it was a miserable experience for her. She couldn't go in the state capital building, had to sleep on the floor in the hotel, and numerous other things that combined to make the trip awful.
- Recycled In Space: Some people feel like it's a rip off of Malcolm in the Middle.
- Ridiculous Procrastinator: Brick has a habit of forgetting to tell his parents about school projects he needs their help with until the last minute.
- Roadside Wave: Happens to Sue when she is walking home from a football game in the mascot costume in the episode where she breaks Axl's foot.
- Rule of Three: Whenever a character thinks about previous examples - Sue's past Halloween costumes, Brick's suffering though Frankie's errands etc - they generally think about three examples.
- Running Gag:
- Frankie always forgets the blue snack bag.
- The family using the oven and forgetting that there's a quilt stored in there.
- "I made dinner!" whenever someone brings home fast food.
- The announcer on the P.A. system at the car dealership constantly paging Frankie about weird home situations.
- Brick occasionally repeating the last word or phrase he says under his breath.
: My egg hatched! There's a chicken in the house! [Stage Whisper]
Chhhhhhicken in the houuuuuuse...
- When Betty White made a cameo in the season finale as an authoritative librarian, she was seen to share this habit.
- Or she was making fun of his tic, she was playing a character just mean enough to do that.
- Did Sue mention that she was on her school's cross-country team throughout the second season?
- Various things ending up in kitchen appliances that you wouldn't expect or want to be there (i.e., a quilt in the oven)
- Mike's father and brother rarely informing him about major events in their lives, such as a health problem or getting engaged, because he didn't ask, and their general tendency towards almost no verbal communication when they're together.
- Saw "Hot Tub Time Machine" Twenty Seven Times: As Frankie reveals in "The Carpool", Axl's knowledge of what a black hole is comes from doing just that, Celebrity Paradox be damned.
- Sexy Priest: Rev. TimTom, youth pastor at the Hecks' church.
- Shaming the Mob: Inverted in "The Award". Mike is honored by his employer for 20 years on the job, which actually makes him depressed since he realizes he's spent all that time in the same place, not moving. At the party celebrating this, he reminds his coworkers of their colleagues that he's recently had to lay off, who won't be getting to celebrate this anytime soon, and how basically any of them could lose their job at any moment. The crowd goes from exuberant to subdued.
- Shout-Out: In "The Map":
: How is it that we've missed all these milestones in our children and family's lives, but we haven't missed a single episode of Celebrity Rehab
- In "Year of the Hecks", two of the four girls who try out for the "wrestlerette" cheerleading group that Sue organizes decide to go home and watch Phineas and Ferb instead.
- Brick might very well be open to reading anything, but most of the time when he has a book open, it's a Percy Jackson book.
- In the first Mother's Day episode, when the kids are in Frankie's room, you can see briefly that they're watching Kick Buttowski.
- In "Last Whiff of Summer," Sue asks her father what his favorite Glee character is during her attempt to create a scrapbook of the summer and get closer to him.
- One episode Mike asks if the kids are done watching Wizards of Waverly Place on the tv yet
- "The Safe" name-drops a surprisingly wide number of popular reality shows having to do with the finding of old things, including but not limited to American Pickers and Antiques Roadshow. Rick Harrison even cameos as a pawn-shop owner.
- Frankie references Castle (which coincidentally airs on the same network) twice when explaining her suspicions about the kids' story about the window in "Wheel of Pain.":
Frankie: There are no coincidences. Only clues.
Frankie: It's a really good show, Mike. You should watch.
- Significant Reference Date: The episode Leap Year aired on Feb 29, 2012.
- In The Guidence Counselor, guest star Whoopi Goldberg gives her character's birthday as Nov 13th, same as her own.
- Sitting on the Roof: Axl and Sue on "Major Anxiety". Sue almost falls off.
- The Snark Knight: Cassidy Finch.
- Spiritual Successor: To Malcolm in the Middle (down to name similarities)
- Malcolm mother Jane Kaczmarek even guest starred in the fourth season as Frankie's teacher.
- Stage Whisper: Brick's Verbal Tic involves repeating the last thing he said in this manner. In thiiis mannner.
- Status Quo Is God: Sue's relationships never last. By her count in "Dollar Days", she's had three boyfriends.
- The Stool Pigeon: Brick, who we learned in the third season episode "The Telling", has been rewarded by Frankie with candy cigarettes for years for informing on Axl and Sue.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: Inverted in "Dollar Days", when Frankie, after a fruitless day of job interviews, asks her kids for one word to describe her. They offer "lazy", "angry" and "tired", prompting Mike to defend her:
Mike: The reason your mother is tired, lazy and irritable is because of you kids.
Frankie: No one ... said ... irritable (walks offscreen).
- Used several times by Sue in reference to Derrick Glossner in "Sleepless in Orson."
- Subverted as Frankie drives Axl home in "Vacation Days". When she admits she misses him, she qualifies it by saying it's not like she's smelling his pillow or anything, which she told Mike earlier in the episode she had done a few times.
- Switched at Birth: Mike and Frankie put off telling Brick the story of his birth, because they are embarrassed to admit that they impersonated another family at the hospital to get a nicer room, and ended up taking the wrong baby home as a result (since both were labeled "Baby Ferguson" in the nursery). Both families had the wrong baby for a month before things were straightened out.
- Take That: A rare one in "The Award":
: (at laptop, excited) Look, Mike, now there's an Orson Patch
Mike: Great, now it's even easier to read stuff I don't care about.
- The Talk: Deconstructed in "The Hose." It starts off as Type 1, when Brick tries to opt out of sex-ed class at school because it makes him uncomfortable, making Mike and Frankie realize they've never had "the talk" with him. Before they can, however, he asks his older brother, who gives it all to him in a two-hour session of what is clearly Type 2. Brick repeats it when he does finally have sex ed, which results in a parent meeting and ultimately Mike and Frankie talking to Axl.
- Teen Pregnancy: In "Valentine's Day III", Frankie expresses her amazement at Sue's mistaken belief that a French kiss was one given under a rainbow by reminding her that at least two girls in her high school class (she's a freshman) are pregnant.
- In "The Clover", Axl and his friends recall that at last year's prom, a girl gave birth.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Frankie to her sister Janet in "The Name".
- There Will Be Toilet Paper: A rare example with a female character. Among Sue's attempts to go bad in "Last Whiff of Summer" is shaving her legs with her father's razor, followed by a Smash Cut to her sitting next to him watching TV with little bits of red-dot special on her legs.
- Those Two Guys: Axl's not-terribly-bright friends Sean and Darren.
- Title Drop: Just about every episode starts with Frankie's narration saying some version of "Here in The Middle...."
- Cassidy also works one into her valedictorian speech at graduation, quoting Mary Shelley, "There are no happy endings, so just give me a happy middle, and a very happy beginning."
- Title-Only Opening
- Toilet Paper Prank: In one Halloween Episode, Frankie leaves her elderly aunts to hand out candy while she and the family go out. The aunts forget to hand candy, and when Frankie returns, the whole house is covered in toilet paper.
- Tomboyish Name: Frankie
- Totally Radical: Mr. Fulton, as if he wasn't creepy enough.
- Transparent Closet: Brad Bottig
- Ultimate Job Security: Averted, seemingly, in "The Second Act." After three full seasons never having actually sold a car that we've seen, Frankie gets let go from the dealership. She decides to go to a technical college and learn another job skill.
- Undisclosed Funds: In "The Hose," Sue freaks out when she sees her dad's paycheck and realizes how little the family lives on. We never actually find out how much it is.
- The Unsmile: Sue in "The Smile," where she tries to prove that smiling is contagious, and ends up creeping people out instead. It's so bad, in fact, she actually makes a baby cry.
- Verbal Ticnote
- "It soothes me."
- The fourth episode of season four has Brick starting to make little siren sounds out loud. Cue Frankie spraying Brick with water (like a bad cat).
- Later in that season, "The Name" has Brick invert his older tic, when he finishes a sentence that he's whispered to his mother so his aunt won't overhear them with the word "bossy"—and then repeats it in a normal tone of voice.
- Walking Shirtless Scene: It's easier to count the number of times Axl has worn a shirt. He's even in his boxers on the cover of the first season DVD set.
Axl:(walking around shirtless) Where's my favorite shirt?
Frankie: I thought your chest was your favorite shirt.
- And again in "From Orson With Love", when Axl is looking around for his shirts and can't find one.
- Wedding Day: The third-season finale, "The Wedding", built around Mike's brother Rusty's wedding at the Hecks' house.
- Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Axl and Brick?
- Cool name makes a cool kid, right?
- Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Brick is afraid of bridges.
- Yoko Oh No: Invoked by Axl in "Dollar Days," in which Sue starts giving Axl's band advice in her typical oddball style (such as changing their name to "DaSeanAx" to incorporate everyone's name). While Darren and Sean don't mind, Axl does, very much, and this leads to a fight between Darren and Axl which culminates in Sue stepping in and accidentally getting punched in the face by Darren. The two break up by the end of the episode.
- You Can Always Tell A Liar: For Brick it's when he says "I'mmmmmmmmmm lyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyingggggggg" to himself out loud.
- Recently, Sue has demonstrated a tendency to end her lies with a nervous "...and so on, and so forth, and what have you!"
- Your Favorite: For Frankie, the way her Mom makes grilled cheese sandwiches with potato chips in the middle.