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Critic's Notebook: Optimists emerge among television's cynical characters

Sue Heck on 'The Middle.' Phil Dunphy on 'Modern Family.' Leslie Knope on 'Parks and Recreation.' They persist in believing the world is a bit better than it is. And we love them for it.

April 10, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Eden Sher in "The Middle."
Eden Sher in "The Middle." (Eric McCandless / ABC )

On more than one occasion during the last several years, my 10-year-old daughter has expressed a desire to be an actress. This has led to Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel being banned from our household for long periods of time while I chastise myself for ever turning her on to "Hannah Montana" or "iCarly."

But the desire has remained long enough to be respected, and so I recently recommended that she watch the work Eden Sher is doing on ABC's "The Middle" as beyond-awkward teen Sue Heck. Sue is a lanky, fashion-challenged girl with a mouthful of braces, a headful of dreams and so much oblivious hope that it may turn out she has some syndrome or other. It is one of the most challenging roles on TV these days, and Sher handles it brilliantly.

After years of being squished into stereotypes and used shamelessly as props for exposition, there are more than a few terrific kid characters on TV right now — the children of "Modern Family" and "The Good Wife," the cast of "Glee" (if we really count them as kids) — but Sue is something else again, one of the best examples of comedy's recent return to the sunny side of the street.

As conceived by creators Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, Sue isn't the smart one or the popular one or the spacey one or the tomboy. She isn't troubled or spoiled, neither sassy wiseacre nor geeky savant. She doesn't sing, she doesn't dance; she harbors no hidden talent or cherished dream that will propel her to the head of or beyond the ravening pack. She is in fact perfectly happy to wave cheerfully as the pack passes her by, and then go back to dancing to "Kung Fu Fighting" in the backyard. It is impossible not to love and admire her for this.

As fine a physical comedian as a verbal one, Sher gives Sue a goofy grace that is much harder to achieve than the eye-rolling cynicism so often forced on characters this age. More important, the young actress seems blissfully unconcerned about damaging her hotness quotient while she masters her craft. Sher isn't a newbie — she's already been in the business for 12 years, with recurring roles on "Sons & Daughters" and "Weeds" — but it isn't every 19-year-old who can handle a role this groundbreaking.

Because Sue Heck, it turns out, was the herald of a new and unexpected turn in television — the rise of the cockeyed optimist. For almost two decades, a merry band of cynics and the jaded, headed by anti-sun god Larry David, ruled supreme. As we have been reminded far too often in recent days, "Two and a Half Men," an exercise in cynicism so meta it may well have self-destructed, remains our highest-rated comedy.

There were glimmers of hope — Steve Carell's boss on "The Office" was nowhere near as dark as Ricky Gervais' version, and on "30 Rock" Tina Fey gave producer Liz Lemon just as much "little old ant" tenacity as single-gal neuroses while Jack McBrayer's Kenneth all but stole the show with his cheery eccentricities. But the twin debuts of Sue on "The Middle" and Ty Burrell's Phil Dunphy on "Modern Family" officially marked a fork in the comedic road.

Studies have shown that the happiest people are the ones who perceive the world as being just a little better than it is. Phil, like Sue, is the embodiment of this infuriating yet enviable ability to self-delude and Burrell, with his elastic joints and quicksilver expressions, is a comedic master of the wise and gentle fool.

A season later, "Parks and Recreation" arrived, with Amy Poehler being the first comedic lead to clear the perkiness bar set by Mary Tyler Moore 40 years ago. And Leslie Knope is not even the sunniest person on the show; Rob Lowe's Chris completely outstrips her, and Chris Pratt's Andy gives her a run for her money.

Is it any wonder that even the drama side of things is lightening up just a tad? Showtime took a break from its abusive-and/or-mentally-ill-parents template this season to give us a straight-up comedy in "Episodes," in which an optimist and a cynic take on Hollywood, while with its Sunday dinners and family values, "Bluebloods" is a far cry from the blood 'n' gore procedurals that once dominated the networks. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) of "Grey's Anatomy" has gone from semi-suicidal perpetual whinger to resilient wife and super-surgeon, and for a few episodes it seemed that even Hugh Laurie's über-cynic, Dr. Gregory House, had found some peace of mind. (But then Cuddy dumped him and he went back on Vicodin, so maybe that's pushing it.)

Which is not to say that sex, violence and black comedy are not plentiful on TV; they are. But right over yonder, you will see a break in the clouds, a few rays of sunshine that make no apology for being nice.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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