What’s Worth Watching: ‘The Middle’ on ABC for Wednesday, October 7

Neil Flynn in The Middle - 'The Shirt'
Michael Ansell/ABC
THE MIDDLE - "The Shirt" - Frankie is speechless when Mike -- whose entire wardrobe consists of long sleeved flannel shirts -- decides to wear a short sleeved Hawaiian shirt when they go out to dinner with some friends. Meanwhile, while Sue excitedly finds herself signing up for as many no-cut college clubs as she can, she accidentally tells Devin how much Axl loves her, which scares Devin and leads her to question their relationship; and Brick gets a little too ambitious while tackling his chore of cleaning the bathroom, on "The Middle," WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 7 (8:00-8:30 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Michael Ansell) NEIL FLYNN

The Middle, “The Shirt,” Wednesday, Oct. 7, 8/7c, ABC

Last week, alone among network series on Wednesday, ABC’s self-starting little sitcom that could, The Middle, actually grew a bit in the crucial demographic ratings. Even Fox’s mighty Empire slipped, but then, it had a much higher perch from which to fall. Which is one way of reminding the industry that such a terrific and still-thriving sitcom should not be underestimated. (When Entertainment Weekly recently published a “what to watch/what to tape” chart and left a Wednesday 8/7c slot blank rather than even acknowledge this show, it childishly invalidated that entire exercise.)

So three weeks into a strong and very funny seventh season, The Middle plays to one of its less heralded strengths by focusing a prominent storyline on Mike (Neil Flynn), the gruff set-in-his-ways dad. He invites more scrutiny than he’s accustomed to when he impulsively decides to wear a colorful Hawaiian shirt rather than his customary flannel. “Well, hey there, Hawkeye, where’s Trapper John?” quips wife Frankie (Patricia Heaton), who’s tickled by the sudden change, but unaware how un-tickled he is by the teasing.

While the family begins to wonder if this might be a sign of a midlife crisis, back at college, Sue (the great Eden Sher) goes overboard as usual with her own enthusiastic rites of freshman passage: first in a hilarious frenzy of joining clubs when she realizes she can “sign up for anything” and “there are no cuts—it’s just about having fun.” Then she overshares with Axl’s (Charlie McDermott) super-cool girlfriend Devin (Gia Mantegna) about the seriousness of her brother’s affections, which could ruin things between the siblings. (Last week’s episode, in which Axl calmed Sue’s roommate-from-hell anxieties, was so sweet and touching, much more satisfying in its payoff than Modern Family‘s similar Alex-goes-to-college subplot.)

Back home, Brick (Atticus Shaffer) is left with all the household chores, and his extreme OCD approach to cleaning the bathroom leads to a classic Frankie tirade: “We are not ‘root of the problem’ people. The surface is where we live,” she sighs. “The filth and grime is what’s holding everything together.”

This is why I love The Middle. It reminds us of where we live and how we live, and how the act of just putting on a different shirt can rock someone’s world.