Emmy Watch: 'The Middle' boss on turning real-life tragedy into relatable comedy

THE-MIDDLE

Image Credit: Diana Koenigsberg/ABC

Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to return nomination ballots, EW.com is running a series called Emmy Watch, featuring highlight clips and interviews with actors, producers, and writers whom EW TV critic Ken Tucker has on his wish list for the nominations announcement on July 19.

Despite a bevy of critical love in the course of its first three seasons, Emmys have eluded The Middle. Why? We’re not entirely sure. But Eileen Heisler, co-creator of ABC’s quiet comedic gem, has an idea or two. Atop her list? Ironically, the show is sort of stuck in, well, the middle. “We had a line in the beginning of our pilot that was, ‘Yeah, we’re in the middle — the place you fly over on your way to somewhere else,’ and I think that sometimes that happens to our show, too,” she says with a laugh.

The so-called destination, in this case, is of course that other ABC comedy, Modern Family — which, with six Emmy statues, is dripping in award riches. Not that buzz is undeserved; quite the opposite, in fact. If anything, it simply makes it hard to shine, says Heisler. “I think that we’ve always been in the shadow of Modern Family, which we have to be thankful for because it made it a night that gets attention,” she says. “I think there are still some people who are simply not aware of it and not aware that there’s more than one great family show on Wednesday night…But I think there’s also something, maybe, unsexy about [The Middle] and its description — until they watch it. I think there’s always a bit of a bias against something that’s perceived as less hip.”

But the show is edgier than some might think, Heisler says, and relatable. The latter being among the things The Middle does best, which is why Heisler chose “The Map” to take a deep dive into with EW. The episode, in part, dealt with the death of the Hecks’ Aunt Ginny and was a nod to the passing of beloved actress Frances Bay, who portrayed her. See a clip below and read about how the late Bay inspired the episode.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me why you picked this episode.
HEISLER: It was a fun episode to sink our teeth into. When there’s more drama on the table, there can also be more comedy — if you do it right.

The actress who played Aunt Ginny (Bay) had died in the first part of the season, and we felt like it was something we wanted to address. And I think we waited to do the episode because [fellow creator DeAnn Heline] and I wanted to write that one. So we wanted to wait until after Christmas so we could write it over the holiday.

What’s your favorite scene from the episode?
One thing I loved, personally, was being able to write this long scene — we did a whole act that was one scene of the Hecks in the car coming back from the funeral. And that was one of my favorite things about the episode. Our cast is so great, and it was so much fun to get to play a scene where they’re just talking in a car and their conversation is ranging from Axl (Charlie McDermott) wanting his head frozen when he dies to Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and Mike (Neil Flynn) having a “death napkin” as their will. It was relatable and touching.

The other thing that I really loved about this episode was that it was the episode where Sue (Eden Sher) found out that Matt liked her and when he and his fellow wrestling teammates did a Haka dance in her honor. It was a very exciting, triumphant moment for Sue. And I also loved the story line with Axl and Brick (Atticus Shaffer) trying to make an Indiana map out of anything in the cabinet after Axl ate Brick’s dough map. It was a fun episode. It was fun because it had a death and a triumph for Sue.

And it was dedicated to Bay, correct?
She didn’t say a lot of words on our show, but she was a member of the family. We did it to pay tribute to her and the fact that she left. And we purposely started the episode after the funeral because we didn’t want to do a funeral. That was too sad. We wanted to just come up, and the ride home from a funeral is kind of an iconic scene in family life.

What lesson have you learned from previous seasons that served you well in this episode — and the season as a whole?
I think in your first few seasons, you don’t know what’s going to be successful. Last year, we tried to capitalize on some of the things we learned throughout the years about what combination of characters are fun in scenes together, and what episodes were successful. I think it really turned out to be a great season. I really loved many of the episodes. We knew our family better after living with them longer. We know every cast member can carry stories [so] we were more brave to send them off more. And we had a lot of fun with Sue being in school, which we hadn’t gotten to do before. We learned our characters. They began to breathe more. I think they became very real to all of us. They’re real, in our minds.

So, we know the show made our Emmy wish list, but is this the year you’ll get a nomination? Is this the magic episode?
I would love to be able to break through. But we’re a little like the Hecks. We go, ‘I hope, but…’ [Laughs] We’re the Sue Heck of television. We work really hard and people don’t always notice us, but we’re really happy here in the middle and at The Middle.

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