Someday I’d like to understand why product placement is such a dealbreaker for so many television viewers. Are they just so worried about the artistic integrity of a medium supported by commercials that any appearance of brand-names—you know, like the ones we throw around in real life—automatically sullies what could be a good, pure auteurist vision? I doubt it, so let’s move to the terra firma of Linda Holmes’ take on "Hecking it Up," this week’s episode of The Middle for NPR’s Monkey See blog.
“In case you missed it, last night's episode of The Middle can briefly be summed up as follows: ‘Passat Passat Passat Passat Passat.’
There was a lot more to the show than that, of course. For starters, I'm fairly certain that they said "Passat" way more than five times.
Nice of Holmes, one of my most valued writers/podcasters, to allow that maybe The Middle had more going on than naked shilling this week, but she keeps repeating this idea that the episode hit the word “Passat” especially hard. “Nobody says "Passat" that many times in half an hour, even if they work for Volkswagen,” and for a closing tag, “I'm pretty sure that I still haven't said "Passat" as many times as the show did.” Well I did the math. The Middle says “Passat” exactly five times. In an episode that was all about the joys of getting a brand new car. Quelle horreur!
If you really dig into the material, you’ll see that The Middle referenced the car specifically (not just nice things or the feeling of German engineering but The Passat5) 31 times. Just five of those included the model. Obviously the big complaint is product placement, but I’ve never understood the related and oft-tweeted carping that, say, an episode of Glee about ballads overuses the word “ballad.” Of course it does! That’s the subject! Please don’t Ctrl + F my use of The Middle here.
But what bothers me most is this weird requirement that television be free of consumerism, which is about as anti-reality as it gets. If Holmes thinks the Hecks went overboard, it’s a good thing she wasn’t with me the week I got my Rav-4. Rav-4 Rav-4 Rav-4 Rav-4. I'm increasingly frustrated by the evaluative component of criticism (it's enough to describe what The Middle is doing and how without then declaring some parts good and other parts bad), but if you were put off by the Hecks' fawning treatment of the car, from my anti-consumerist standpoint, that strikes me as a good thing. Don't tell the Hecks, but it's just a car. It doesn't matter if the authors intended a little satirical bite there. What matters is what the audience sees there (presuming the perspective can be intelligently defended).
Holmes' piece is just the latest manifestation of a complaint so common it's been satirized on television for decades, and I wrote about all this during The Modern Family iPad Debacle of 2010, but to the legions who don't want to be sold to—and somehow think the commercial impulse is discrete and extricable from everything else that goes into a piece of popular entertainment—well, I'd suggest moving to Sao Paulo but that would cost money.
What's really annoying about product placement is the huff-puff that follows. No matter how seamlessly it's integrated, product placement is treated with such kneejerk disdain—if you can recognize it, you hate it—that it overshadows everything else. As I've argued, The Middle is the show of the Great Recession, a television program powered by the nervous energy of barely making it to payday. It's equally focused on family sitcom classics and its exurban setting, but its most distinguished characteristic is how honestly it deals with strained finances, where other lower/lower-middle class shows like Raising Hope and 2 Broke Girls are more cartoonish (if equally sincere about being poor). "Hecking it Up" gives our heroes a taste of the high life, which in quintessentially Middle fashion was always going to be a fleeting fantasy. The car makes an appearance at the end of the first act and gives Frankie the confidence and Sue the near-death experience to pursue better lives for themselves. And at the end, they discover that they do have opportunities; they just rarely turn out the way they hoped. Arguably half-assed product placement fits The Middle to a T. You could set your watch by how often the Hecks strive to do the right thing but settle for the good enough. It's not (always and solely) moral failing. It's this economy, the Midwest, and the state of class mobility in America. It's life.
How was that in any way ruined by product placement? Thankfully Holmes suggests nothing was ruined. She just wanted something less distracting. Fair enough. I'm certainly not saying the product placement on The Middle was a shining example of integrity (structurally speaking). But not only did the Passat not distract me, it seems to me perfectly required by the narrative. When I woke up the next morning, I had no idea what kind of car the Donahues bought. But I did know that Sue and Wrestling Mat made up in it, and that Frankie willed some measure of personal success into fruition because of how it made her feel, and that The Middle had something valuable, sensitive, and a little incisive to say about windfalls. Yet here we are stuck on the surface. I guess the point proves itself. Product placement sure is a distraction.