Workers of TV, unite!
ABC has assembled a Tuesday blue-collar comedy hour that’s likely to become a high-end ratings district, at least for its short duration.
The network has paired “Roseanne” (7 p.m. Tuesdays on WLS-Channel 7), which has made shabby chic since returning to prime time in March, with ninth-season Midwestern neighbor “The Middle” (7:30 p.m.), presenting its final six episodes.
The Conners of “Roseanne” and the Hecks of “The Middle” have different sensibilities, as evidenced by the lightning-rod reaction to “Roseanne” star Roseanne Barr. However, both represent a demographic — families surviving paycheck to paycheck, heartland division — that traditionally gets little representation on TV.
“I feel like the Hecks inherited this wonderful legacy that was missing from TV since ‘Roseanne’ went off the air,” says Patricia Heaton, who plays Frankie in the Indiana-based “Middle.” “And I wondered to myself when we decided to leave, where would that show be that is going to represent all the people that we represent? And, of course, it’s ‘Roseanne.’ ”
Although sitcoms usually feature families where money isn’t a concern or just isn’t discussed, there’s been an uptick in TV characters living paycheck to paycheck, including those in ABC’s “Speechless” and NBC’s “Superstore,” which focuses on a workplace. Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” offers a variation on the traditional representation — white family in the center of the country — by featuring a Cuban-American family in a coastal city, Los Angeles.
Barr embraces Middle America in her sitcom, which deals with hot-button issues such as health care, Social Security and opioid addiction.
“It’s working-class people and the things they go through. They’re trying to stay above water. I wanted to bring those subjects to television,” says Barr, who doesn’t think nuts-and-bolts issues get enough attention. “They don’t have too much real stuff on TV. That’s good for me.”
She sees blue-collar concerns differently, even from fellow “Roseanne” producers, who talked to people in Illinois (the show’s setting) in advance of its return.
“When they came back, I was laughing so hard, because the things they cared about were so off. They asked people in Illinois if it was important to eat organic foods, and they said, ‘Nah,’ ” she says, making the response sound extra disdainful. “I’m like, ‘You guys are lost.’ ”
The sitcom pairing seems especially surreal to “Middle” creators (and Midwest natives) Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, both writers on the original “Roseanne.” (“The Middle” has been a solid performer for ABC, averaging 7.1 million viewers this season, but its numbers are likely to get turbocharged riding the “Roseanne” lead-in.)
“It’s very oddly full circle in a really strange way, because [‘The Middle’] is influenced by ‘Roseanne’ and … and ‘Roseanne’ is coming back just as we’re going to end,” Heisler says. “I enjoy being part of the legacy of ‘Roseanne,’ because it was such a great show. It does feel like a weird little bow, coming all around.”
When “The Middle” premiered in 2009, 12 years after Roseanne finished its nine-season run, “I think the world was ready again for a Midwestern flyover-state story. People embraced it and we heard from our fans — from the Midwest, especially: ‘You have a camera in my house!’ ” Heisler says.
She thinks TV is starting to pay more attention to working families.
“When we came on the scene, we were saying, ‘Hey, ABC, you need to go back to these roots and remember the flyover states,’ and I think, with the current political climate, executives have become aware, so I think there is a trend toward representing more average Americans than there was when we started,” Heisler says.
“A lot of the shows that ABC did since we started stylistically looked kind of like our show and explored the family thing in different ways, but maybe inspired by what we did.”