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.
The slightly more detailed synopsis involves the Heck family being given care of their family friends' brand-new Volkswagen while the latter were out of town. What followed was an unusually dense product-pushing episode that didn't even bother attempting to be subtle. Watch as mom Frankie can't bring herself to just park the car in the garage, so inviting is its handling! Witness intellectually overcurious son Brick's delight in trying to stump the computer navigation system! Thrill to dad Mike's discovery of the Passat's overwhelming comfort as he takes a nap in its quiet luxury!
In short, there was more product placement in The Middle's mere 30 minutes — which included traditional Volkswagen advertising during commercial breaks in addition to the in-show content — than there was in all two hours of the American Idol that aired opposite it. (Which, if you know anything about American Idol, is frankly shocking.) It was so ham-handed, in fact, that the show seemed to go out of its way to avoid using Frankie's job at a car dealership as the context for showing off the features of a sponsor's car. Perhaps Volkwagen doesn't want to be associated with the soul-deadening hamster wheel that is Ehlert Motors? It is unclear.
It's hard to get too worked up about the conspicuous caressing of products on television anymore, not after Heroes lovingly lingered on the Nissan Versa for episodes at a stretch or Days Of Our Lives stopped cold for a heart-healthy (and delicious!) (and super-fun!) bowl of Cheerios. But The Middle can't even use the same excuse as, say, Modern Family, which defended its infamous Phil-wants-an-iPad episode (which ABC later said Apple hadn't paid money for — it just cooperated and provided the devices) on the grounds that Phil is the type of character who would really, REALLY want an iPad. Nobody says "Passat" that many times in half an hour, even if they work for Volkswagen.
The Middle is a good show. A very good show, I'd argue — say, maybe I will at some point in the future. It knows exactly what it is, it knows exactly who its characters are and it knows exactly what tone to take. And that's why shoehorning a sponsor so awkwardly into an episode sticks out so much. It's not that I expect The Middle to be above product placement in this day and age. I just expect it to be better at it.
And I'm pretty sure that I still haven't said "Passat" as many times as the show did.