9:10am PT by Will Harris
'The Middle' Producers Preview Season 7 — and Beyond
The Hecks are back.
The Middle kicks off its seventh season Wednesday on ABC with additional changes to the family comedy's dynamic. With Sue (Eden Sher) entering college and Axl (Charlie McDermott) having to deal with attending the same school as his sister, Frankie and Mike (Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn) can see the light at the end of the tunnel, parenting-wise. That leaves their youngest son, Brick (Atticus Shaffer), to reap the benefits — and suffer the consequences — of being the only child left at home.
Off-screen, the Warner Bros. Television comedy — which has been a consistent anchor for the network's Wednesday comedy lineup — had to ink new deals with the entire cast, including McDermott, who nearly exited the series to star in CBS comedy pilot Super Clyde.
Here, executive producers DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler talk with The Hollywood Reporter about what to expect from season seven — and if the adventures of the Heck family could come to a conclusion anytime soon.
Even though you’ve done the "going off to college" storyline before, it seems like the amount of repetition will be somewhat limited, since Sue is certainly no Axl.
Heisler: Actually, in the first episode of the season, she finds herself wanting her college drop-off experience to be just like Axl’s, but … it’s not. [Laughs.] When all the Hecks get in the car together, you can imagine there’s going to be trouble. But I think we found a new way to do one of our famous car scenes that’s pretty unique and different. But, yes, Sue approaches college a bit differently than Axl, and it’s fun to see the two of them at school together. It makes the college world come alive a bit more. Charlie doesn’t have to be off by his lonesome anymore. He still gets to be with family even when he’s at school.
Speaking of Charlie, you guys were reportedly blindsided when he was cast in CBS’ Super Clyde. It didn’t get picked up, but were feathers still ruffled when the time came to start the seventh season of The Middle?
Heisler: It was a trauma when we were all going through it, but it’s quite beautiful the way that worked out. The Middle is a family, and as a family, we all worked through it, and I think if anything it’s kind of like we returned with a newfound joy in being together. So, no, it’s been perfect.
Last season, we saw a lot of concern from Axl about how Sue was going to be all up in his business if they went to the same college. Was his concern warranted?
Heline: Well, not to give too much away, but she does sort of get in his business. [Laughs.] Which causes problems for Axl, for sure. Sue’s more excited about college, but she has a much more difficult time transitioning than Axl did. She has a bad roommate who’s the opposite of what she would hope for in college. And she’ll also eventually go through sorority rush, so her college experience is very different from Axl’s, as is her adjustment to being away from home. I think she comes home for the first time after, like, 10 days, and it’s like she hasn’t been there for two years.
Heisler: Unlike Axl, where Frankie had to go through her withdrawal at not knowing what’s going on with him, Sue is quite the opposite for her, which puts her on kind of a rollercoaster. And then Brick’s being left at home with Frankie and Mike, who are a bit tired from getting two kids to college, and he finds them … perhaps a bit more lax than usual. [Laughs.] Brick’s kind of getting his dander up a little bit, getting stuck with chores and everything. It’s not a giant change of personality. There are just some moments where he’s sort of standing up for himself a bit more than he used to. He’s not becoming a teenage nightmare, but he’s growing up.
Heline: He’s got a little bit more sarcasm to him this year, I think.
Heisler: After surviving this long in this family, I think he realizes that you’ve got to stand up for yourself. But his girlfriend Cindy is still around – that’s really a great relationship – plus he’s in eighth grade now, so he’s enjoying being one of the oldest kids at the school. And he dresses up as a bookmark. [Laughs.] Because, you know, being a bookmark at a pep rally is a staple of every fall back-to-school event!
How prominent will Axl’s girlfriend Devin be this season?
Heisler: Oh, she factors in. Their relationship dynamic shifts a little bit, but she’s around. It’s not the romance focus of the century, though. Axl is in college, you know. In fact, in the second half of the season, we’re going to put Axl into an internship, putting his business major issue to use, so we’ll get to see Axl navigate the workplace and grow up a little and be forced to be in a new environment that we haven’t seen yet. Meanwhile, Mike goes through a little bit of a midlife crisis, shaking it up for him a little bit. He’s finding himself a little generally restless and being affected by the changing dynamics in the house, and as part of his midlife crisis arc, he goes into a little business with his brother Rusty, so we’ll have Norm MacDonald back. And Jack McBrayer, who plays Frankie’s boss, is going to be back. Frankie’s job goes through some transitions up ahead, and it becomes a little bit more corporate because of certain issues. Logan, Sue’s dreamy prom date from the food court last year, is going to be back on the scene, as is Brooke Shields (as the Hecks’ neighbor, Rita Glossner). Faith Ford is coming on in the Thanksgiving episode. Frankie finds herself back at the Heritage Village that she worked at in season two, and Faith plays an overly zealous co-worker who insists on being historically accurate. That was a lot of fun for us, because we worked with Faith during our Murphy Brown days, so we’re excited to have her on the show.
Heline: We also have a Halloween episode coming up where we kind of do an homage to The Twilight Zone and tell three little separate stories. It’s a bit more high-concept than we usually do, but it’s really fun.
So it’s The Middle’s equivalent of a "Treehouse of Horror" episode?
Heisler: In some ways, definitely! Our stories intertwine, but they’re also really separate stories. But Brick ends up dressing as Rod Serling for Halloween, so he ends up narrating, basically. And that’s also the episode where Brooke Shields is guest-starring, because what’s scarier than Rita Glossner? [Laughs.]
Given that this is the show’s seventh season, do you have any sort of endgame planned yet, or do you just plan to keep playing until someone calls time?
Heline: You mean until someone kicks us out? [Laughs.] You know, it’s weird, because you always start out the season saying, "Well, this will probably be the last year." But then you get going and get into it, and in our writer’s room, there are still so many stories up on the board that we haven’t done yet.
Heisler: When the time comes, we’ll do it with aplomb. But it doesn’t feel like we’re ready to end yet.
The Middle airs Wednesdays on ABC.