New TV drama is rare during Covid-19, and the best so far - Normal People and I May Destroy You - have already been reviewed to death. So I’ve decided to give a shout out to an unassuming comedy series that ran from 2009 to 2018 which, while not exactly cutting edge, gives an insight into the weird world of Trump-voting America that is compassionate as well as satirical.
Frankie and Mike Heck live with their 3 children in the “Hoosier” state of Indiana - in the middle both geographically and socially. They’re not quite on the bread-line, but it’s a close call at times, as Frankie urges her family to eat up before the chicken bought at the Frugal Hoosier goes past its use-by with minutes to spare, or take pot-luck with the label-less tins of unknown foodstuffs from the bargain bin. Both Hecks hold down low-paid, soul-destroying jobs, supplemented by additional work when times get particularly hard. In my all-time favourite episode Frankie is forced to work at a Pioneer Experience and Mike does a nightshift delivering cupcakes because Frankie, misreading the price tag, coughs up $200 for a miniscule pot of eye cream. Quipping that even while playing the part of a pioneer wife as her second job she has to churn butter to keep the family afloat, Frankie is hurt that Mike appears so unforgiving of her gaffe. Until it transpires he’s actually mortified that at their stage of life (middle-age being another strand of the “middle” theme) it takes as little as $200 to pitch them into poverty. They console each other by remembering that back when they had to use couch money to buy nappies it took only $5 – progress of sorts!
What elevates this show from others of the same ilk is the spot-on casting. Patricia Heaton, in particular, is to be commended for making Frankie so different from her alter ego, the uptight Deborah in Everybody Loves Raymond, as to be practically unrecognisable – no mean feat considering the only visual distinction is Frankie’s fringe. Then there’s the Heck children - I’ve tried to analyse why I don’t want to shove them off a cliff like I invariably do other American kids on TV, and I conclude that it’s partly down to the actors playing them. Axl, Sue and Brick can be as whiny, entitled and cluelessly jingoistic as their more materially blessed peers, but these young actors bring both charm and authenticity to the roles. Brooke Shields, a far cry from her sex-kitten, Blue Lagoon days, is scarily convincing as the Amazonian matriarch of the “white-trash” Glossner clan. An enduring image throughout is that of the youngest Glossner pedalling around on his tricycle wearing a nappy, while beating up mail-boxes with one hand and crushing soda cans with the other. But though self-aware enough to acknowledge that some clichés exist for a reason, this is an affectionate portrayal of much-maligned Middle America that is also genuinely funny.