For the TV networks, the meat and potatoes of prime time are back on the menu. After abandoning America's heartland and failing in recent years to create a successful sitcom, ABC last week tried to revive its legacy of strong family comedies with "The Middle."
Set in the fictional town of Orson, Ind., "The Middle" stars Patricia Heaton as a harried mom trying her best to hold down a job selling cars while taking care of her husband and their three kids — even if that means serving them still-frozen waffles.
NBC has a show set in Indiana, too. "Parks and Recreation," starring "Saturday Night Live" alum Amy Poehler, is about a warmhearted midlevel bureaucrat in the parks department of Pawnee. "To us, Indiana represented America with a capital A," said executive producer Michael Schur.
In recent years, fashionistas and other urban sophisticates have been the stars of prime-time TV. Inspired by the success of "Friends," which revolved around a circle of hip thirtysomethings and their affluent lives, the networks let loose a bull market in shows celebrating money, sex and power.
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Two seasons ago, just as the stock market was coming off its peak, shows such as "Cashmere Mafia," "Lipstick Jungle," "Big Shots" and "Dirty Sexy Money" were as prevalent as subprime mortgage brokers in Florida.
"We lived in a rich culture, and there was something in the zeitgeist about rich people and attaining wealth," said Samie Falvey, senior vice president of comedy at ABC, who oversaw development of "The Middle." Ordinary people, she said, didn't seem all that interesting.
'Ordinary' feels good
But as the nation sank into a recession and the unemployment rate climbed, such glamorous shows came across as phony and out of sync with the somber reality. Tougher times have inspired the networks to take another look at Midwestern sensibilities, and ABC's return to family comedies reflects the industry's shift.
"With all that is going on in the world, ordinary is beginning to feel pretty good," Falvey said.
ABC now believes that characters don't necessarily have to be rich or successful to portray the kind of lives most viewers wish they had. It hopes to build a Wednesday night comedy block with "Hank," a sitcom starring Kelsey Grammer as a downsized corporate titan; "The Middle"; "Modern Family," which explores the relationships of a diverse family; and "Cougar Town," about a 40-year-old divorcee, with Courteney Cox from "Friends."
"We believe that some 'wish fulfillment' can be found in the ordinary," Falvey said. "We wanted to be talking to the country rather than at the country."
Midwestern ethos, once exemplified in such prime-time favorites as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (Minneapolis), "The Bob Newhart Show" (Chicago), "Family Ties" (Columbus, Ohio), "Roseanne" (fictional Lanford, Ill.) and "Home Improvement" (Detroit), gradually gave way to an urban bathos in which the "family" was a cohort of friends. "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "Sex and the City" featured New Yorkers who flaunted their freedom and celebrated their individuality.
Although network executives in recent years have abandoned the Grain Belt as fertile ground for programming ideas, "there is this whole world between New York and L.A. that would like to see some shows about themselves," said Heaton, during a recent break in shooting on the Burbank set of "The Middle."
The Emmy-winning actress, who grew up on the west side of Cleveland and is best known as the exasperated wife on "Everybody Loves Raymond," believes that neglecting the middle of the country borders on arrogance.
"These are the people who watch TV," she said. "Where are the shows for them?"
The last hit comedy about an Indiana family went on the air when Gerald R. Ford, a former Michigan congressman, was president. "One Day at a Time" forged new ground in 1975 because the CBS show featured a recently divorced mother raising teenage daughters in an Indianapolis apartment. NBC scored during the Reagan administration with "The Cosby Show," although that one was set in New York, and "Family Ties," which starred Michael J. Fox as the politically conservative son of liberal parents.
Then in 1988, ABC premiered a decidedly different comedy. "Roseanne," starring comedian Roseanne Barr, quickly became one of TV's most popular shows. Not since Archie Bunker and "All in the Family" had Hollywood produced such an influential — and beloved — blue-collar family. This time, it was the mother, sassy Roseanne Conner, who was at the center of the family. The Conners were hardly Hollywood-handsome, and they grappled with such real-people worries as strapped finances and rocky relationships.
But advertiser preferences and technological advances in measuring audiences soon helped drive the Midwestern families from the landscape. TV ratings company Nielsen introduced People Meters in the late 1980s, which yielded highly detailed demographic information about audiences. Network programmers no longer had to make guesses about who was watching their shows.
Metropolitan viewers and younger viewers had an edge. More than two-thirds of the country's people live in largely populated counties. Moreover, the networks own TV stations in the biggest markets and have an incentive to air shows that appeal to that audience.
Small-town characters, made famous by the likes of Andy Griffith, faded from view. Older characters, including mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury in "Murder, She Wrote," were dismissed as not appealing to advertisers.
"People used to think that people who lived in these (rural) counties didn't have the money to buy much, or they didn't have access to the stores where people in urban areas shopped," said Angelo Pizzo, a former Warner Bros. executive who wrote and produced the Midwest-based movies "Hoosiers" and "Rudy" (both set in Indiana).
"The feeling was that family-based shows, those set in the rural areas or the Midwest, were 'soft' and that was the last thing that advertisers would be interested in," he said.
'A love letter to America'
Also working against the heartland has been the long-held Hollywood bias that anyone who lives outside of Los Angeles or New York is somehow out of fashion and a subject for satire.
For example, ABC's most recent Midwestern family comedy, "According to Jim," starring Jim Belushi, was a solid performer in the ratings. But TV critics frequently poked fun at the show for being too ordinary (a "big-lug-of-a-sitcom-dad") and the network lost interest. The show ended its long run earlier this year.
Heaton said TV executives tend to believe that "if they are going to appeal to a certain demographic, a show has to have a lot of fashion, a lot of sex or be completely irreverent." "There also was this idea, on the coasts, that you had to be making fun of Midwestern values or the Midwestern way of life."
She wasn't the only one who thought the "fly-over states" were being overlooked.
"We felt that TV had abandoned the Midwest," said television writer DeAnn Heline, the co-creator of "The Middle" who was born in Indiana and raised in Cincinnati. About two and a half years ago, Heline and her Indiana University roommate and writing partner, Eileen Heisler, a native of Illinois, were developing "Lipstick Jungle" for NBC.
That show — based on a novel by Candace Bushnell, whose "Sex and the City" anthology inspired the HBO series — explored the rarefied lives of high-powered Manhattan women and starred Brooke Shields.
"There was a lot of talk about 'wish fulfillment,' about what kind of clothes the characters would wear, what kind of heels, what kind of jobs," Heline said. At the same time, the writers — who are both moms — were working on their pet project, a sitcom about a family who couldn't afford a second car. "For us," Heline said, "our wish fulfillment became 'The Middle.' "
They had worked on "Roseanne." "We missed writing about real people with real problems," said Heisler. "We both were fortunate to have happy childhoods, not wealthy childhoods, but a normal Midwest upbringing. We missed that."
Falvey, the ABC programming executive, said the network passed on the original pilot of "The Middle" that the writers made nearly two years ago but then took the unusual step of asking them to try again for this season. "They wanted to make a hero out of an ordinary mom," Falvey said. She calls the show "a love letter to America."
Heisler and Heline hope that the show's embrace of the Midwest, including footage of a small-town parade and a giant polyurethane cow, will set it apart from sitcoms that could be based anywhere. (Although Oxnard stands in for the flat Indiana farmland.)
"It's tough times right now — the guy who is losing his job at the factory, he deserves a show," Heline said. "We care about those people, we love those people and we want to honor them. They are funny too, and should be the stars of their own show."