Given that we’re in the midst of counting down the final few weeks of the traditional TV season, it’s somewhat of a surprise to find The Middle giving us such a strong episode this late in the game. Not that you’d ever really expect full-on dreck from this series, but I’ve always just imagined sitcom writers working out the season finale well in advance while coasting on fumes for the last few episodes before that. I still don’t think I’m completely off-track with that theory, but even if it’s true, this week’s installment definitely didn’t feel like a space-filler. If anything, it felt like a reward for fans who’ve been following the show for awhile.
First and foremost on that front, there’s Sue and Darrin, whose reconciliation a few episodes ago has led him to spend more time over at the Heck’s house, which in turn means that the rest of the Hecks are having to deal with his increased presence…and when I say “the rest of the Hecks,” I mostly mean Mike, because he’s the one who’s stuck enduring most of the cutesy chatter, thanks to having enacted a “no boys in your room” rule with Sue.
Eventually, after one too many moments of feeling like his couch is no longer his own, Mike’s tolerance wears out, and he declares that, fine, she and Darrin can be in her room, just as long as the door’s open. Great plan, except that leaving the door open means leaving them audible throughout the house, thereby defeating the purpose of getting them away from him in the first place. Finally, the love birds take up residence in the basement, but Mike’s concern over the silence leads him to peek into the bowels of the house, where he spots Sue and Darrin making out, although Sue’s sweater getting caught on Darrin’s watch results in things looking way worse than they actually were. (Watching them try to pretend that they were just casually playing pool is pretty funny, but the scene jumps to hilarious with the visual gag that Sue’s sweater is, in fact, still caught on Darrin’s watch.)
It’s been interesting to watch the development of this relationship, with Frankie and Mike suddenly taking it very seriously because they’re realizing that it’s for real this time, but Mike’s having the most trouble with it, having to deal with his instinct to be protective of his little girl while not wanting to find himself stuck in an awkward situation where he has to actually discuss the reason why he’s being protective.
The scene between them this evening was particularly sweet, and I think it’s the first time we’ve really gotten any sort of acknowledgement that Sue has any sort of sexual awareness whatsoever, but it’s much more than that: she’s actually got a game plan for how she wants things to go down whenever she does take that step. (While a roaring fireplace is pretty standard, it’s so very Sue Heck to have concocted a scenario where a Christmas tree is part of the landscape.) As a dad with a daughter, I know I’m probably more partial to the Mike-and-Sue scenes than a proper critic ought to be, but surely anyone can appreciate Mike’s refusal to be protective of his daughter as well as his closing admission that he’s ultimately more worried about himself than he is her, which—although said in a joking manner—was probably about as much of a soul-bearing moment as we’re likely ever to get from that big galoot.
It’s hard to really describe Axl’s presence in the episode as a storyline, per se, since he only appears via computer screen, but in addition to the fact that his comments are consistently entertaining, the reasons for his onscreen appearances are either referencing ongoing storylines (trying to secure an apartment for him and Hutch next year) or just Axl being Axl (leaving his notes at the house), so he doesn’t feel nearly as shoehorned into the episode as he might’ve. As for the idea of Brick being part of a book club with a bunch of gray-haired gals—it’s silly, yes, but it’s fun, too. For one thing, given his age and what a voracious reader he is, it seems oddly reasonable that Brick might end up as the youngest member of a book club… but, again, my opinion on this matter may be colored by the fact that my daughter is 8 and is perpetually frustrated that she can’t find kids her own age who want to discuss books like she does.
Ultimately, though, the Axl and Brick storylines both exist as much to play off of Frankie’s storyline as anything else. Every mom reaches a point where she feels the need to blame all of her problems on her kids and husband, claiming that she wouldn’t be as frazzled and forgetful if they weren’t constantly hitting her up with their issues every time she turns around. Whenever Frankie first hit this point, it was clearly long before The Middle actually premiered, but after she spends the better part of a week convinced that someone’s stolen her car when, in fact, she just parked it on the other side of the building and forgot (as Axl says, “It was an inside job…very inside”), she realizes that something’s got to change.
Actually, she realizes it after being roundly mocked by her entire family, an embarrassment which inspires her to enact office hours, declaring that she’ll only deal with their problems during that brief daily window, so they’d better get their issues in to her in a timely fashion. It’s a great idea initially, causing her to reach such a state of serenity that she can actually remember the lyrics to Air Supply’s “All Out Of Love” again, but–big surprise–it’s all gone wrong by the end of the episode, causing her mental state to deteriorate back to where it was to begin with. No, wait, it actually deteriorates even farther back than that, setting up a brief but beautiful moment where she’s so distracted on her way to work that she unthinkingly drives to Ehlert Motors. That was a lot of work to recreate that set for a 10-second shot, not to mention corralling Brian Doyle Murray and Chris Kattan for cameos, but it was worth it. What a great, unexpected laugh to wrap things up.
Yeah, I know, there’s still a bit more to the episode, with Brick bitching about how the old ladies don’t appreciate his beloved Planet Nowhere as much as they should. But that’s just gravy. The Ehlert Motors bit is how things should’ve ended. That would’ve been perfect.
- I’d argue that no part of Brick’s storyline offers laughs any bigger than the opening moments between him and Frankie as she stands just outside the closet. Her general shock that he even has five friends, his snappy comeback to her concern that the house isn’t clean enough for guests (“But if we have to wait for that…”), the way the closet begins to collapse like it belongs to Fibber McGee just after she says she at least wants to get things a little more organized… all of it was great.
- You’ve got to love Axl’s pride over giving college his all and “doing solid C-level work” for his trouble. Given that his psych notes appear to consist almost entirely of drawings of dragons and random woman-fish combos , I’m not sure how his grades are even that high.
- “Going to church every Sunday is reeeeeeeally paying off.”
- “Helen just lost her husband, so don’t play any Duke Ellington in the house.”
- “There’s an elephant in the room, and its name is menopause.”
- There are a lot of little revelations about the kids this episode… or maybe they were mentioned before and I’ve just totally forgotten. But it seems like I would’ve remembered a very specific detail like the fact that Sue has scoliosis appointments on a regular basis or that Mike and Frankie once opened a credit card account under the name “Axl J. Heck.” On a related note, if the writers are reading this, I don’t actually need to see an episode where Sue goes out for Miss Teen Orson. Just knowing that she’s applying is plenty for me.
- I know it was stupid, but I still laughed at Darrin not being able to remember the difference between skipping a grade and being held back.
- Lastly, if the Fibber McGee reference above didn’t give it away, I know way too much information about pop culture from the early part of the 20th century. My knowledge of trivia goes back so far that I actually laughed out loud when Brick said that he was off to attend a performance by the Kay Kyser Big Band Experience. Jesus, how old were those ladies? Because here’s a clip of Mr. Kyser way, way back in the day, so you can see that there aren’t many folks from his demo left among the living.