You know how when you watch The Middle you sometimes find yourself saying, “Oh, man, I can so relate to that”? Well, I can say with confidence that I have never before related to any of the series’ storylines quite as profoundly as I did to one contained in this week’s episode.
But we’ll get to that in a bit.
There’s confusion and uncertainty infiltrating the lives of all three Heck kids this week, but it’s Sue who has her world rocked to its very core when she finds that her beloved Reverend Tim-Tom has found love with the guitar-slinging, spiritual-song-singing Reverend Tammy, played by guest star Casey Wilson. The look of uncertainty that slips onto Sue’s face when Tammy takes the stage is quickly replaced by one that’s equal parts confusion and annoyance, as if she knows she doesn’t like what she’s hearing and seeing but can’t quite pin down why she’s feeling that way… or, more likely, she can’t bring herself to admit that she does know why she’s feeling that way. (Let’s face it: She’s been a smitten kitten for the Rev for ages now.)
After repeatedly bitching about Tammy to her family, complaining about her voice (“extremely grating”) and her smile (“so fake”), accusing her of “trying too hard” and “saying the words but not really meaning it,” and summing her up as a “spiritual shrug,” Sue decides to swing by the church to talk to Tim-Tom and tries to break it to him as gently as possible that she’s not happy with the changes he’s made to his act. Unfortunately, he immediately steers the conversation toward selling her on what Tammy brings to the table. The way Sue cuts her eyes when Tammy bops up and tells her that “Timothy’s told me all about you” shows her contempt for this interloper, but when Tim-Tom and Tammy lock lips, it’s really game on for Sue, to the point where, when Tim touches her shoulder on his way out of the church, she gives Tammy a catty look that says, “Ha! You’re not the only one he touches! So there!”
No matter how sweet Tammy tries to be with her, Sue refuses to acknowledge the validity of anything she has to suggest, complaining about the generic nature of the advice and the fact that “it’s not really very Sue-specific.” When Tammy tries to break into song, Sue physically stops her from playing, claiming, “I’m just not the kind of person who responds to singing as a way of solving your problems.” Approaching maximum annoyance, Sue decides to approach Tim and tell him flat out what he thinks about Tammy, but when she overhears Tim and Tammy having a tiff and soon realizes just how much Tim really cares for her, she can’t help but get misty when Tim and Tammy make up by singing a song together. We can only hope that this means we’ll get another Casey Wilson guest spot somewhere down the line.
Axl’s trying to enjoy what’s left of his spring break at home, bouncing on his bed and playing some semblance of basketball with Sean, but his heart’s not really in the game. His attention’s far more focused on his phone, or, more specifically, on the text or call that he hasn’t yet gotten from Cassidy about getting together and hanging out while they’re both home from college. Thankfully, before Axl can look needier than he already is, Cassidy breaks her silence and gives him a call, and after a couple of weird, unintentionally homoerotic comments, Axl invites his ex to head over and see him. She’s as cute she ever was, and the conversation between them remains as stilted and awkward as ever, but it’s cool, ‘cause (also as ever) all they really want to do is kiss, anyway.
In fact, it’s the same situation throughout spring break, and when Mike comments on the long hours Axl’s been spending with Cassidy, Axl uses it as an opportunity to discuss with his dad the fact that, because of how little talking has been going on, he doesn’t know where their relationship stands or what she’s thinking. Mike, ever the helpful dad, replies by asking, “Who the hell knows what anybody’s thinking?” The answer: “Definitely not Axl.” When Cassidy closes out their time together by giving Axl a painting she’s done, assuring him that “it kind of says everything about how I feel” about their relationship, she admits that she knows art appreciation isn’t exactly Axl’s cup of tea, but she takes him at his word that he totally gets it, even though he clearly doesn’t. So when she says, “Happy trails,” is it for the long haul? Only Cassidy and the writers know for sure, but either way, it’s a nice way of leaving things open for her future return.
And so we come to Frankie’s story, where a day already made rotten by having to clean the oven manages to get even worse when she’s hauled off to jail in handcuffs—with Brick paying very little attention to what’s happening to his mother (“If you’re going out, get cereal”)—and, after being fingerprinted, finds out that the reason she’s there is because of failure to return library materials. Not unreasonably, her mind goes straight to Brick as the reason why she’s being put behind bars, and once she finally gets out of custody and gets back home, she finds to her frustration that no one even realized she was gone, thanks to Brick forgetting to actually tell anyone that she’d been arrested. While Mike can’t get past how ridiculous it is that they’d arrest someone for library fines, Frankie’s pissed off that seemingly no one answered when she tried to make her one phone call. (I laughed out loud when everyone made excuses except for Brick, who merely asked, “Hey, whatever happened to my phone?”)
After cleaning off the stink of jail, Frankie sets off on a quest to find the missing book—Stormy Moon, a title that pointedly does not ring a bell with Brick—and, in short order, drafts everyone in the house to participate. In the end, it’s all for nothing: They can’t find the book, and they decide to throw themselves on the mercy of the court, but only after Frankie confirms that that’s really a thing. Mike’s incredulity about the cops hauling someone off in cuffs for library fines resurfaces again, which Frankie uses as an excuse to go off on a tangent about all the real crimes being committed which are far more important than some kid’s book that no one can even remember. Unfortunately for her, this gives the judge an opening to reveal that, in fact, it’s neither a kid’s book nor a sci-fi book but a tantalizing tale about the sensual desires of a lonely housewife. The evil eye Brick gives his mother for all of her false accusations is utterly warranted, but at least he gets a happy ending out of the deal. (He gets to read the book.)
There were some flaws in the episode here and there—the biggest being that surely Cassidy knows Axl well enough by now to realize that, no matter what he might have claimed, he was never going to have a fucking clue what her painting was saying about their relationship—but as a whole, it was still a lot of fun, and while it wasn’t quite as good as seeing the family in the car, the round robin of accusations between the Hecks is likely to go down as one of my favorite scenes of the season.
- Being a Virginian, I cheered when I saw the Carbon Leaf poster on Axl’s wall. My wife and I have been fans of those guys since the first time we heard “The Boxer.”
- The best part of Frankie’s deep oven cleaning was, inevitably, the sight of the scorched quilt. That’s the easiest sight-gag callback the show has in its repertoire, yet no matter how many times it makes an appearance, it always gets a laugh.
- “So Mom went to the slammer. You all thought it’d be me first, but it was Mom. That’s hilarious!” Sure, Axl. And I bet your mom feels exactly the same way.
- “Sue? Long day.”
- “You do not want to mess with me. I already have a record, people. I’ve got nothing to lose!”
- When Axl was lying on the floor and complaining, “I just found the sunbeam,” was he referring to an actual sunbeam, or was he talking about the loaf of bread he was using as a pillow? (Maybe it wasn’t a loaf of bread, but it sure as hell looked like one.)
- “I will kill you.” Apparently, there are some things that pie won’t fix.
- Hey, Brick’s made some new friends… sort of. “I mean, they don’t invite me to do stuff. I stand near them, and they don’t ask me to go away.”
Okay, so this is where I get back to that bit from the opening paragraph.
This past summer, just after the Television Critics Association summer tour wrapped up but right before I flew home to Virginia, my wife and I were fortunate enough to be able to visit the offices and set of The Middle. It was right before they started filming for the season, but we were still able to tour the set, and we also got a chance to pop by the writers’ room, where I was greeted with applause and praise for spending as much time discussing the episodes of the series as I do. Like Llewellyn Sinclair on The Simpsons, I don’t take praise very well, so I’m sure I was blushing all the way as I thanked them, but my wife—who never fails to be thrilled when someone appreciates the hard work her honeybunny does—saw this as an opportunity to talk me up further.
I don’t remember exactly where the conversation turned, but in short order, the topic had shifted from my reviews of the show to how much our life resembles that of the Hecks, and then before I knew it, my wife was telling a story about this one time the sheriff’s office came to our house on a Friday afternoon and left a summons that—after spending an entire weekend fretting about what we possibly could have done to warrant the sheriff’s office coming to our house—we eventually discovered had been issued because of outstanding library fines. (Apparently, due to a combination of late fees and a lost disc from a book-on-CD, my account had crept just over $50, which is the point when the sheriff’s office gets involved.)
As soon as my wife finished the story, you could have heard a pin drop in the writer’s room, with everyone looking at each other. Suddenly, someone—I can’t swear who it was, but given the writing credit on tonight’s episode, I could easily believe that it was Robin Shorr—said, “Uh, you do know that anything that’s said in the writer’s room is fair game for an episode, right?” Clearly, they were not kidding… and I couldn’t be more glad that they weren’t.
With that said, however, I did still check with the TV Club Powers That Be to make sure it wouldn’t be considered a conflict of interest for me to review this week’s episode, since I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t partial to Frankie’s storyline. In the end, the consensus seemed to be that all would be well if I just ‘fessed up to my connection to the storyline within my review...which I have now done. Honestly, though, I think my history of covering this show is enough to confirm that I would’ve loved it even if it hadn’t been ripped from the Harris family’s headlines.
Oh, and speaking of the Harris family, I’ll close by offering you a look at the thank-you note my daughter spontaneously wrote to “the people that work on The Middle” after watching tonight’s episode and recognizing Frankie’s storyline. She’s something else, that kid...