Deja vu all over again

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I don’t understand The Middle (TV2, Sundays, 8pm). 

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, as light entertainment goes, it’s just that it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’re watching a slightly altered, possibly pirated version of Malcolm in the Middle. 

As an effort in depicting a working-class couple in smalltown America trying to cope with the everyday crisis of family life, The Middle is about as close as you can get to Malcolm without going the whole hog and ripping off the names of the former characters as well. 

Instead of the firebrand and entirely scary Lois in Malcolm, the harried matriarch of the Heck family is Frankie, played by Everybody Loves Raymond “housewife” Patricia Heaton. 

Instead of Hal, the world-weary husband and father, is Mike, played by Neil Flynn, a quarry manager known for his unwitting insensitivity and apparent bafflement of all things female. 

It’s true, there are some differences between the shows, but they’re pretty minor in the scheme of things.
Lois worked at the local supermarket – Frankie flogs used cars at a local auto lot. Rather than having four sons, she has two boys and a daughter, all of whom are negotiating a difficult time in their life. 

The biggest difference is probably the most glaring: The Middle isn’t nearly as odd, or, therefore, as funny as Malcolm. It’s quirky, inoffensive and nicely produced, but it lacks the bite to command any expectations of longevity. 

And that’s almost certainly because, as a hen-pecked and desperate woman, Heaton is left for a dead in the role by the incomparable Jane Kaczmarek, the actress who won seven consecutive Emmys for her portrayal of Lois. 

Last week’s episode of The Middle could have been straight from a Malcolm production studio cookbook.
Take a missed anniversary, a sick kid, a teen with a crush and another who’s taking driving lessons. Mix together artistically, add a deranged aunt or two, a draconian employer, and garnish with a terminally ill pet. 

It was funny enough, I guess, although it was difficult to not miss the crazed, tyrannical leanings of Lois as Frankie tried to make some sense of it all before merely turning off her cellphone for 15 minutes. 

Not that the similarities end with the two suburban mums. Even the youngest in the Heck family, the slightly unusual Brick, looks a lot like his Malcolm parallel Dewey, as well as playing an almost identical role. 

Malcolm fans will remember Dewey for his cleverness and for having wisdom beyond his years, and Brick is just the same. In next week’s episode he announces that he has his first girlfriend, despite being only about seven years old. 

Heaton said in an interview recently she was initially concerned about taking Frankie’s role because it sounded a lot like the one she played during Everybody Loves Raymond. It was only after she read the script that she realised how different it was. 

Maybe if she’d compared it to a script from Malcolm, she would have seen what the real problem was.