As a rule, The Middle isn’t a series that has gone out of its way to fill its fictional universe with big-name guest stars. Recognizable guest stars? Oh, hell, yes. But to calculate the occasions when the show has brought in someone big enough to actually use as a selling point for casual viewers (“Look who’s stopping by The Middle this week!”), you can use your fingers… and, honestly, you can probably keep one hand tied behind your back, since the list basically consists of Betty White, Ray Romano, and Whoopi Goldberg.
No, when it comes to its guest cast, The Middle tends to be populated by well-chosen utility players, the kind of actors who come in, project an aura of familiarity to the viewer (“Oh, hey, it’s what’s-his-name who used to be on that other show!”), get the job done capably and in a comedically sound fashion, and then travel on to their next destination.
Keegan-Michael Key, however, falls somewhere between the two domains: He may not be on the level of Betty White quite yet, but given how many people have watched Key & Peele sketches on YouTube (I mean, good lord, “Substitute Teacher” alone has pulled 44 million views), he’s undeniably a major “get” for the show. But even with the steadily increasing profile of his own series, Key’s continued to prove himself to be of those aforementioned utility players, turning up in one-off appearances on Wilfred, The League, How I Met Your Mother, and Super Fun Night.
I don’t know how often fans of The Middle and fans of Key & Peele cross on the demographic flow chart, but as someone who’s a fan of both shows, I don’t mind saying that this was about as perfect a meshing of the two comedic sensibilities as I could’ve hoped for. As Reverend Deveaux, the guest minister at the Heck’s church, Key’s character is an outsider to the community, which means that he’s given the gift of being able to play the part without having to change his comedic style. Granted, this means that there are a few moments during the proceedings where it feels less like Keegan-Michael Key guesting on The Middle than it does a Key & Peele sketch with the cast of The Middle as guest stars, but given how well it plays, it turns out that’s not actually something to complain about.
The premise of the episode, entitled “The Hungry Games,” revolves around the Hecks getting a Squatters coupon for King Henry’s, the local all-you-can-eat buffet, which gives them the opportunity to grab a table when they arrive and stay there all blessed day. When you consider Frankie’s tendency to bring home fast food and claim that “dinner’s ready,” you can understand why everyone in the family is ecstatic at the thought of being able to gorge themselves on a veritable smorgasbord.
Unfortunately, when Frankie feels that the family ought to go church first, ostensibly to thank God for the coupon, the family’s planned feast begins to fall apart. It’s a shame, really, given that even Mike’s on board with going to church, assuring the kids that Reverend Deveaux, who’s in town from Cleveland on a minister exchange program, blows Reverend Hayver, out of the water, but when the squabbling between Axl and Sue about where she wants to go to college extends into the church services, Mike gets so frustrated trying to shut them up that he throws a hymnal at them and accidentally bounces it off the head of the woman sitting in front of them. As a result, before they can make a run for it at the end of the service, the Rev pops over to the Heck’s pew and cheerily asks the family, “Can I see you for a moment?”
As it turns out, the Rev’s been briefed about the Heck family, but now that he’s actually seen them in action, he’s convinced that they are, as apparently described by Rev. Hayver, a family in crisis, and he wants to do whatever he can to help them pull things together. Meanwhile, the Hecks are all starving and excited about the buffet, and Mike and Frankie just want to wrap things up, so they try to rush through assurances that all is well. Frankie assures the Rev that they’re always having fun together (the look on Brick’s face when Frankie says this is priceless), Sue backs her up by excitedly discussing a game she’s created called Twizzlestick, and it’s looking good for still getting to King Henry’s in time to get a table.
Just as they’re about to head out, however, Brick suddenly decides that he needs to vent about the fact that he sometimes feels invisible, resulting in the Rev wanting a one-on-one chat with the lad. And while it turns out that all he really wanted was for someone to buy him the wintergreen toothpaste he’d been asking for (a joke which pays further dividends later in the episode when he discovers that he doesn’t actually like wintergreen), it leads to Sue opening up and admitting to getting drunk (except not really, because all she did was take one sip of alcoholic lemonade and spit it back out again) and twerking, leading to her own private tête-à-tête with the Rev. And then when that’s over (which can’t come soon enough for the Rev), it’s straight into Frankie and Mike sitting down for a chat.
In the end, the Rev really is trying to do right by the Hecks, but he’s in over his head, because they’re never going to conform completely to the perfect family he’s trying to turn them into. Still, he hits enough of the right notes that he causes Frankie to burst into tears about what a wonderful husband Mike is, and after wrapping with them, he’s fully prepared to bring it on home by talking to the entire family together. But, no, there’s no need for that. First of all, Axl’s not having it, because he’s freaking starving, but as it happens, he actually doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the status quo as it is, and he delivers a surprisingly eloquent speech to explain how he feels. It so charms the Rev that he praises the whole family and sends them on their way.
Axl’s comments are far enough away from what Frankie and Mike have come to expect from him that they later congratulate him on pulling together such a perfect pile of B.S. to get them out of there, but they couldn’t see his face as he was leaving. We could, however, and we knew he meant every word… and if you want proof that Axl’s maturing, look no further than the fact that, over dinner, he admitted that he meant it. There was a time when he would’ve just shrugged it off, but not anymore. The kid’s growing up.
So will we see Reverend Deveaux again? Hard to say. I guess it depends on how long that minister exchange program lasts. But if Key comes back to The Middle, he’s going to have a heck of a high standard to live up to, because this episode was pretty fantastic.
- As gross as the idea of Brick spooning up a bowl’s worth of Thousand Island “soup” may be, I still appreciate the gag: If you’ve been raised in a household where the idea of eating greens is deemed a laugh riot, then maybe you wouldn’t necessarily recognize salad dressing.
- Although Sue’s twerking scene may have been the go-to moment in the commercials for the episode, I was almost as entertained by her shenanigans in the kitchen when she was enjoying the opportunity to tease Axl for a change.
- I gotta say, I wouldn’t have taken the Heck kids for Burn Notice fans.
- Like Brick, sports analogies don’t work on me, either, and generally, neither do sports references, but as it happens, one of my best friends circa 1987 was a diehard Cleveland Browns fan, so I actually got that one. (I also enjoyed the idea that the Rev was good friends with Bono at some point, although given the religious connection, it instantly brought to mind the old punchline, “Oh, that’s God. He just likes to pretend he’s Bono.”)
- “A handful of Chex Mix and a plum is all I’ve had to eat for the past 96 hours!”
- Sue’s confessions were wonderful (“I voted twice in the Teen Choice Awards!”) as was the Rev’s shock that she wasn’t in middle school, but I think I laughed hardest at his sudden change in availability (“Uh, well, you know, the door is semi-open…”) and his telling her to “save some stuff for Reverend Tim-Tom!”
- My wife’s single biggest laugh of the night: Mike dismissing having hit the poor woman in the head with the hymnal because he didn’t hit her hard. (“She popped right back up!”)
- I just love the fact that Axl has a backup plan which involves getting “a cheap Mexican face transplant.”