As someone who treasures his old, beaten-up VHS copy of Hands on a Hardbody more than mere words can express, I can’t tell you how giddy I was when I first read the title of this week’s episode. Granted, I would've been excited about any series paying tribute to that brilliant little documentary, but the idea of The Middle tackling the premise…well, I don’t know about you, but I didn't have any problem imagining Orson, Indiana taking the place of Longview, Texas. More importantly, if you’ve got to pick which member of the Heck family is most likely to win a Hands on a Hardbody contest, there’s really just no other way to go than with Sue Heck: she might not be the coolest kid in school, and she’s certainly not the greatest athlete, but she’s damned sure not a quitter.
The episode’s about more than just Sue and the contest, though: in addition, not only do we get the return of Norm Macdonald as Rusty Heck (a gift which, as I wrote on Twitter while I was watching the episode, is “like going to Disney World a week early!”), but we’re also given a storyline which provides Frankie and Axl with the opportunity to do some incredibly awesome mother-son bonding. Parallel evolution is something that happens between sitcoms every once in a while, but it’s particularly amusing to see the same premise – being surprised to learn that your parents actually used to be interesting – turn up on The Middle just under 24 hours after it was utilized on the season finale of The Goldbergs. In this case, though, it’s both parents who end up being seen with new eyes by episode’s end.
You know it’s going to be a good episode for devoted viewers when the very first moment involves a callback to a previous episode…or two episodes, in this case, since Mike’s helped Brick with his spelling-bee prep work in Season One (“The Bee”) and in Season Three (“The Concert”). Even after all this time, Brick still doesn’t have what you’d call a killer instinct when it comes to competition, but this is clearly as close to a sport as he’s going to get, so Mike’s making the best of it and seems to be enjoying the opportunity to connect with his kid. Unfortunately, the opportunity for some quality father-son time starts to fall apart when Mike steps onto the front porch and finds his brother Rusty using the garden hose to brush his teeth.
We learned about Rusty’s divorce during the Hecks’ Thanksgiving dinner, but this is the first time we’ve seen him since then, and it’s apparently the first time Mike or anyone else in the family has seen him, either. You’ve got to give the guy credit for not looking for charity until reaching the point where he’s sleeping in his car and trying to surreptitiously wash himself in his brother’s front yard, and even then he’s offering to pitch a tent in their backyard and bathe in their pool rather than ask to stay in their house. Okay, yeah, he probably made the offer because he knew full well that it’d inspire them to invite him to be their guest, but as it turns out, the invite only came about because Mike misread the look Frankie was giving him. Having made that error, however, Mike’s stuck having to bring Rusty along on the drive to Chicago to Brick’s spelling bee.
Rusty hasn’t really been on the show that many times, but he’s been around enough to know that his instincts are always wrong and that at some point he’s going to do something that’ll horrify everyone else. Given his big business plan to sell counterfeit NFL shower curtains where the team names are missing a letter, it’s clear pretty early on that he hasn’t changed much since we saw him last, but during the drive to Chicago, he and Mike fall into a big brother / little brother back-and-forth that we’ve never really seen before, with the two of them regaling Brick with stories of their childhood that leave the lad grinning from ear to ear. Even well into the spelling bee, they’re still smiling and laughing, with Rusty seemingly having a ball with his bro, but there’s never any doubt that the other shoe is destined to drop…and, boy, does it drop.
Maybe it’s not realistic that an uncle would ask his nephew to throw a spelling bee in order to help him win some money – and lord knows I’ve established in the past how much more I prefer it when The Middle hews closer to reality – but there is something realistic about the end result of Rusty’s actions, with Brick accepting his uncle’s unscrupulous behavior by viewing it as “classic Uncle Rusty.” Just about everyone’s got at least one relative whose actions they shrug off by saying, “Yep, that’s him,” no matter how awful they might be. Mike might be pissed off, and rightfully so, but given the established distance between Orson and Chicago, it’s clear that Brick got an earful of “classic Uncle Rusty” stories during the drive, so for him, this is just another one to add to the pile.
Meanwhile, Axl’s wrapping up his first year of college, but he can’t check out of his dorm room until he figures out where his desk went…or, rather, he can check out, but he won’t get his $200 deposit back, and you know damned well that Frankie’s not going to allow that to happen. As such, she heads up to the school and helps Axl scour the place in search of the desk while also having some tense but funny interactions with his R.A. At some point, however, she and Axl split up and search independently, and when she stumbles upon him playing beer pong, she’s just about to lose her mind when she realizes that one of their playing surfaces is, in fact, Axl’s desk. Unfortunately, the assembled partiers aren’t willing to give it up until their game’s over…unless, by some miracle, Frankie’s able to meet the beer-pong challenge presented to her.
We don’t really get to see “cool Frankie” come out to play very often, probably because that would serve to negate just how far into mom-dom she’s fallen over the course of her life to date, so it was pretty amazing to watch her kick ass at beer pong. Again, it was a bit more over-the-top than it probably needed to be, but it’s a side of her character that we see so infrequently that I didn’t mind it a bit. Right around this time last season, Frankie was infuriating Axl by showing up at a graduation party and being the antithesis of cool, and now she’s showing him that, in fact, she actually is pretty cool. Yes, the end result is that they’re both pretty hung over the next day, and, no, it’s not exactly top-notch parenting to get drunk with your underage son and his almost-certainly-also-underage friends, but it’s a moment that neither of ‘em will ever forget.
And so we bring it back to Sue, who’s beside herself with excitement and secure in her certainty that she can and will win the Hands on a Hardbody contest. At first, it seemed as though this was going to be a case where we’d see a little too much “sad Sue” for my liking, and I maintained that concern through the point where she was both sunburned and bee-stung. Things started to turn around, though, when Darrin made the scene – their back-and-forth about what they’d be doing if she was actually able to take her hand off the car was both hilarious and sweet – and when it got down to just Sue and her yoga-instructor opponent, the whole thing transformed into something I wasn’t at all expecting. Even knowing how great Eden Sher is in this role, she turned in a new side of Sue, displaying a surprising amount of defiance as she let loose with her detailed explanation about how much she’s overcome over the years and why she would accept no other outcome than victory. Granted, I don’t know how much of a victory it really is when your opponent shrugs and says, “You can’t beat crazy,” but, hey, who cares? SUE HECK WINS!
Well, sort of. This is a contest run by Mr. Ehlert, after all, so of course there’s fine print which states that she doesn’t actually win a car but, rather, a car trip…to Disney World. But this is Sue Heck we’re talking about, a girl who’s had a Disney fund on her shelf for quite some time now, so she’s actually more excited about that prize than she ever would’ve been about the car. And even though I knew she was going to win the trip – because ABC, in their infinite wisdom, released the plot synopses for this week’s episode and the season finale simultaneously, thereby giving away the ending – I still found myself getting a little choked up when she found out she was going to Disney World…because, really, how can you not be happy when Sue Heck wins?
- While prepping for this episode, I refuse to believe that The Middle’s writers didn’t have a way too in-depth discussion about which misspelled NFL team names would be the funniest.
- It was short and it was sweet, but this may have been the best utilization of Brad all season. (“Bee, bee, BEE!”)
- Rusty’s spelling tip: memorize the consonants first, then insert the vowels. If it sounds confusing, that’s only because it is.
- Darrin’s “don’t” vs. “donut” moment was also pretty brilliant.
- I didn’t know until tonight just how much I needed to see a Kangaroo Boxarama.
- Frankie to Brick: “I’m sure you tried your best.” Mike to Frankie: “He didn’t.”
- Lastly, the most depressing thing about this episode is something I only discovered when I went to download a header photo for my review: in the original cut, Dr. Fulton (Dave Foley) and Dr. Goodwin (Jack McBrayer) were contestants in the Hands on a Hardbody contest! To my way of thinking, there is only one thing they can possibly be saying to each other in this moment: “Doctor.” “Doctor.”