I’m going to put on my serious hat today, which is a hat I do not often wear. It’s very dusty and has no googly eyes (not even one!). Oh, I’ll take it off and replace it with a sombrero in due time. But right now I need to tell a story.
I swear this story will eventually be about reading. But it starts with reading’s evil archnemesis: television.
Every Thursday afternoon, I take a break from writing to eat lunch and watch the DVR’d episodes of Modern Family and The Middle that were recorded the night before. Now, here’s the thing: I like Modern Family just fine. It’s got some good zingers, the actors do a decent job, (Ty Burrell does an excellent job, despite all those dumb orange juice commercials they’ve got him doing), and it’s a fun half hour. However, I don’t think the show is anywhere near as good as it was its first season, and I don’t think it remotely deserves the praise and awards that it gets.
But I don’t want to shit all over Modern Family. Like it said, it’s entertaining. But in my opinion, The Middle >>>>>> Modern Family. That’s SIX greater-than signs, for those of you keeping score at home. I’ll fill you in on why that is, in case you are one of the people who still aren’t watching. (WATCH, damn you!)
The writing. The writing, the writing, the writing. It’s not flashy, it’s not zingy, it’s not seven-jokes-just-happened-all-at-once-and-I-missed-five. Not that those shows aren’t awesome–Arrested Development, hurry back please–but there’s something to be said for those that are focused more on transforming mundane bits of life into comedy. I mean, the characters on The Middle talk like real people talk. They have the same problems normal people have. Yet it’s consistently hilarious, consistently clever, and consistently heartwarming in a down-to-earth way that doesn’t get awkwardly shoehorned down your throat (or at least not as much as *cough, cough* MF.) And its grasp on family dynamics and dysfunctions is truly a thing to behold. This is a conversation I have with my mom on almost a weekly basis:
Me: Did you watch The Middle?
Mom: YES. Oh my God, when Frankie did that thing, that was so me!
Me: And the way Mike reacted? That’s so Dad!
Mom: And you and Lisa did that exact same thing when you were kids!
Me: DID THE WRITERS BUG OUR CHILDHOOD HOME? WHAT SORT OF DEVILRY IS AFOOT, FORSOOTH?
And so on. This show just totally gets the whole slice-of-life-in-middle-America thing: the house is always a mess, this is why we can’t have people over, kids are teenagery idiots but still good kids, parents aren’t quite sure how to be decent parents so they’ll try and learn and make tons of mistakes along the way. That kind of stuff. Real life. The writers just get it.
(Aside: A second reason you should watch The Middle is because the actors are AMAZING. I can’t say it enough. I don’t understand why everyone on this show doesn’t have a mantleful of Emmys–especially Eden Sher, who plays overenthusiastic, fashion-challenged, lamewad Sue, and whose willingness to A) be the not-so-pretty character actor, B) do ridiculous, flaily physical comedy, and C) do both A and B while being a GIRL (can you IMAGINE?) makes her my hero.)
I’m well aware that The Middle will continue to be overlooked and ignored. The Golden Globe nominations were announced yesterday, and surprise, surprise: nothing. Snubbed across the board, while Modern Family piles them up for some reason that I don’t think even science can explain. (Parks and Recreation got shut out of Best Comedy too, another crime against humanity.) But if you need some proof as to why it’s a better show than it gets any credit for (and if you are a lover of books, which I assume you are since you’ve decided to grace my corner of the web), here it is.
Wednesday’s episode contained a storyline in which the youngest son Brick (a socially incompetent weirdo who does nothing but read, day in, day out) is out-of-his-mind excited about the release of the seventh and final book in a sci-fi Harry-Potter-ish series that he’s been reading his entire life. (You know the feeling. You’ve been there. I’VE been there, round glasses and all.) Literally half of his twelve-year-old life has been building up to this moment. So he dresses up like the characters, waits in the long line, buys the book, and starts devouring it.
And then his older brother Axl reads the last chapter and tells Brick how it all ends before he gets a chance to read it himself.
Did your heart just cave in? It gets worse.
Brick goes catatonic for the next couple of days. Axl feels bad but asserts that it was just retaliation (Brick had previously stolen his guitar), and he doesn’t really get why Brick is so upset. And then: magic happens. Brick, who normally can’t string more than a few thoughts together into a coherent sentence or express himself in any sincere, meaningful way, stops staring at the ceiling. He sits up, looks at Axl, and says:
I don’t play sports. I don’t exactly have a ton of friends. I have books.
You don’t read. You don’t understand. You don’t know what it’s like to live in different worlds. To travel on great adventures through the galaxy with people you know better than your own family. To live with them. Have you ever loved anything? Do you have any idea?
These are my friends, Axl. My best friends in the world. You took away something from me that I can never get back. You took it and you wrecked it.
Are you crying yet? I was. Hearing all this coming out of the mouth of a kid that my twelve-year-old self immediately identifies with, who is constantly wrapped up in the world of books even though it’s not the cool thing to do, this is just so simple and straightforward and true. It’s not funny. It’s not clever. It’s just real. Correct. (And delivered perfectly, to the credit of Atticus Finch.)
Now, it’s not like I think this should win a Pulitzer or anything. Mountains of words have been written about the love people feel for books and for characters whose lives are entwined with ours; these sentiments certainly aren’t new. But for whatever reason this random twenty seconds on a barely-watched middling sitcom struck such a chord with me that I had to share it. The writers–clearly lovers of reading themselves–just captured it so perfectly. That is why I write books. That is why I read books.
Because they are the best friends in the world.