It’s the end of the road trip for “The Middle” Tuesday night.
After nine seasons, the ABC sitcom about the Hecks — a struggling Midwestern family of five — appropriately signs off with a signature of the show: an outing in their clunker car with bickering kids in the back seat and befuddled parents in the front.
“The finale really is a very satisfying ending for people who’ve loved the show for all these years. We’re not going to cut to black at the end like ‘The Sopranos,’” says co-creator and producer Eileen Heisler with a laugh.
The series stars Patricia Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) and Neil Flynn as Frankie and Mike Heck, parents living paycheck-to-paycheck in fictional Orson, Indiana. They do their best to raise their three children — laid-back eldest son Axl (Charlie McDermott); hyper-active, clumsy middle child Sue (Eden Sher); and quirky youngest sibling Brick (Atticus Shaffer) — against a backdrop of home disrepair and family dysfunction.
In the one-hour sendoff, Axl plans a job move 1,000 miles away to Colorado. “Denver looms and it impacts the family. That is really the main event driving the actions of the finale,” says Heisler. “All of those who have come with us along this ride should strap in and join us on this one.”
“The Middle” debuted one week after “Modern Family” in 2009 and was often called “underrated” by critics, but it kept chugging along in that mega-hit’s shadow. In its final season it has averaged about 6 million viewers per episode.
“We were always were riding their wind,” Heisler tells The Post. “Not being as splashy as ‘Modern Family’ just became part of our narrative. We’re like the kid who is staying up late and the parents don’t know they’re up.”
Heaton says the show’s blue-collar focus — a contrast to the LA glitz of “Modern Family” — was refreshing. “Prior to ‘The Middle,’ ‘Roseanne’ was the only show dealing with families in the situation the Hecks were in,” she says, alluding to Roseanne Barr’s 1988-97 sitcom that was rebooted in March. “Now ‘The Middle’ leaves and ‘Roseanne’ has taken its place. It speaks volumes that we were filling a vacuum when ‘Roseanne’ left and now they’re filling that vacuum again.”
And while the new “Roseanne” wears its politics on its sleeve — Barr’s support of President Donald Trump parallels her character’s leanings — Heisler says “The Middle” never did.
“It was never a message-y show. It was political in that it shows their struggles, but our show appealed to people from both political bents and never wanted to alienate either half,” she says. (Both Heisler and co-creator DeAnn Heline worked on the original “Roseanne.”)
‘It was never a message-y show. It was political in that it shows their struggles, but our show appealed to people from both political bents and never wanted to alienate either half.’
That made the Hecks relatable, including to cast members. Eden Sher says playing Sue for nine years created a “blurred line” between the two. To wit: while speaking by phone from her LA home, she accidentally bumped into a wall mid-sentence, interrupting her train of thought.
Classic klutzy Sue.
“Where the differentiation starts, it beats me,” says Sher, 26. “Sometimes my friends will make a face and say ‘That was so Sue,’ and I’ll be like, ‘No, it wasn’t — that was so Eden. That was me first and I gave it to Sue!’”
When filming wrapped in March, she even kept a sentimental souvenir from Sue’s cheery bedroom. “It was an inspirational poster that had a little piggy on it and said ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff,’” she says. “It was this meta reminder. Whenever I was doing a scene, if I messed up, I’d be able to look up at my little piggy and it’s like, ‘Okay, just relax.’ It helped me through a lot of speeches. I had a lot of Sue-alogues.”
Shaffer’s Brick is based on Heisler’s son Justin, a bookish child who would repeat the last word of his sentences in an eerie whisper. (Justin is now a film major finishing his freshman year at New York University.) While Shaffer, now 19, has coped with health issues including a brittle bone disease since he was a child, he isn’t as eccentric as Brick, but appreciates his pseudo-political relevance. “He’s a role model,” says Shaffer. “He shows it’s okay to be unique and smart and march to the beat of your own drummer. That’s such a powerful message, especially in today’s times.”
“The Middle” Series finale 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on ABC