Some families soar with eagles. Others are content to scratch around with the turkeys. The Heck family of fictitious Orson, Ind., fall into the latter coop.
The Hecks—mom Frankie, dad Mike and their three kids, Axl, Sue and Brick—are a strictly working-class clan living in flyover country. They're not the sort to jet-set from New York to Los Angeles and back again. They're not even the sort to drop the extra dough required to upgrade an anniversary dinner from the buffet place to that new restaurant with the tablecloths. They're too busy wrestling with the modern-day dilemmas most of us wrestle with: You know, trials like paying bills on time, keeping house clutter from catching fire and whipping together school costumes for the kids at the last minute.
A typical American family, you say? Of course not. There is no such thing, really, and the Hecks are more atypical than most.
The Heck's youngest child, Brick, is a socially awkward lad who makes up for his poor friend-making skills by being really, really smart—though he does have a strange habit of repeating himself in a whisper. (In a whisper.) Axl swims in sarcasm, walking around the house without a shirt and chugging milk straight from the jug. He's also been known to bring home the wrong sorts of girls to meet the parents. Then there's perpetually sunny Sue, who clumsily tries out for all things extracurricular and fails spectacularly each time, usually with an injury. But to her credit—and the family's dismay—she retains her positive outlook and just keeps on trying.
Frankie's jobs (at a used car lot at first, now at a dentist's office) keep her busy and exhausted. So quarry foreman Mike is the, um, rock of this otherwise flighty family. Together they herd their motley flock while striving to better their lot in life. Well, that is, until striving gets too hard. Then settling into the Heck version of "average" doesn't seem like such a bad thing.
The churchgoing Hecks are dysfunctional. And they certainly aren't good role models as they fill their lives with occasional crassness and bad attitudes, a few mild profanities … and lots of white lies. Parenting is often reduced to ineffectual shouts and pleas. So in many ways their "average" is a little too much so. Working just a bit harder toward excellence definitely wouldn't hurt these guys one little bit.
And yet within their household chaos there beats a big heart. Mike and Frankie care. Despite crazy work hours, their kids' irregular schedules and generally frantic life maintenance, they want to be the best parents they can be. They don't always try to be the best parents they can be, but at least they want to be.
"The Waiting Game"
Sue waits anxiously for a college acceptance notice, with Frankie and Mike rooting hard for their daughter to have something go her way for a change. Frankie finally decides to pray for Sue, telling Mike, "We should go to church. Is church open right now? Never mind, I'll pray right now." Budding novelist Brick throws Axl (at home from college) out of their shared room and manages to write two whole sentences. Axl relishes his chance to sleep in the family dining room.
When the family catches Mike singing in the car ("Are you fun behind our backs?" Sue gasps), they mock him mercilessly … leading him to stab their newly acquired dining room table with a fork. References are made to the time Frankie passed gas while at the Donahues'. Frankie and Mike sip beer. Characters say "h---" and "jeez," and they misuse God's name. We hear about (but don't hear) a "colorful collection of curse words" Frankie let loose.
Dad swerves and sends the family's boat careening into a ditch … because he got distracted while driving by a group of volleyball-playing bikini girls. Mom pretends to be a high-power surgeon who has lots of lives to save … just so she can cut in line at the power company. Sue decides to cut class for the very first time in her life … to have all that fun everybody tells her she should be having.
But the Hecks all learn their lessons … and how! We're told that Dad never again looks at another woman, and the incident ends up serving as a positive moment of bonding with Axl. Mom comes face-to-face with that insidious problem linked to telling a lie: That one lie always leads to another. And Sue has just about the worst day of her life. Fun? Hardly. She's literally sick from the charade. She loves school, she yells. Why would she ever want to skip?
We do see those bikinis, for the record. And while we're left with the "assurance" that Dad is determined to keep his eyes averted in the future, Axl certainly won't be doing the same.
"Mother's Day II"
Last year Frankie screamed that she wanted to be left alone on Mother's Day, so this year she's getting her wish—though the fact that Mike and the kids forgot to get her a gift also drives their decision to steer clear. At first Frankie's thrilled when the clan leaves the house, but she winds up doing random chores instead of relaxing, and—wouldn't you know it—Mike and the kids have fun at a cultural center she's always wanted to see.
To appease the now-sulking Frankie, Mike decides to take the family on a "do-over" trip to replicate all the excitement she missed. No fun's to be found, though, since the center's special Mother's Day activities are history. They end up having a terrible time and a very public fight during which Mike appears to lob a major profanity toward Frankie in front of the children.
Other language includes "h‑‑‑" and "d‑‑mit" along with several misuses of God's name. A bottle of "hooch" is joked about. And Axl pressures girls into going to prom with him, saying he doesn't want to go with someone who's ugly.
Frankie and Mike find themselves buried in self-inflicted debt when their "No payments till 2009!" credit comes due. Now they owe $650 on a VCR they just sold at a garage sale for two bucks. And when the dryer dies simultaneously, strapped for cash doesn't begin to describe the family. To keep their heads above water, Frankie buys slightly expired meat and other "off" groceries that the family struggles to eat and keep down. Still, Frankie acts as beleaguered cheerleader—with Mike's support—as the family struggles and relentlessly trusts that things will work out.
Eventually, they all realize that family gets them through trials.
Frankie cons a little boy into checking out a library book for her when she can't pay a $189 fine. Her colleague lies about her whereabouts when she's late to a meeting. Axl lies about attending a church group when he's actually making out with a girl—which his father casually dismisses as his son's new hobby. Brick lies to a neighbor in order to use her dryer. Language includes "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑" and exclamations of God's name.