The Middle: “The Carpool”
B+

The Middle: “The Carpool”

B+

The Middle

The Carpool

Season 5, Episode 12

Who knew that Hot Tub Time Machine was such a bastion for astronomy facts?

Not that I actually went back and re-screened it to be sure, but I can readily accept that Axl’s tastes in cinema would lead him to watch that particular film 27 times, so if that’s the ostensible reason why he’s suddenly become a savant in astronomy on this week’s episode of The Middle, then fair enough.

It’s really a finger-slap war between Axl and Hutch that kicks off this week’s episode (a scenario which I wouldn’t have minded seeing a bit more of), but once their shenanigans lead into Hutch’s astronomy class and the instructor puts the interloping Axl on the spot with a question about black holes that he’s actually able to answer off the top of his head, he impresses a young lady named Zoe enough for her to ask him to start a study group. Given Axl’s notoriously raging hormones, it’s perfectly in character for him to decide that Zoe’s idea is fantastic, despite the fact that he’s not actually in the class. Given his mother’s tendency to obsess, it’s also not genetically unsurprising that he gets so caught up in the process of trying to impress Zoe that he ends up putting far more effort into studying astronomy than any of the classes he actually is taking.

While it’s ultimately the weakest storyline of the episode, mostly because you know from the start that it’s eventually going to end with Axl having to admit that he isn’t actually in the class, we still get some enjoyable moments out of the scenario, including fellow study-group member Aaron repeatedly calling Axl “Gym Shorts” and the eventual realization that Zoe’s only been using Axl for his brain. The best comedic showcase for Charlie McDermott, however, came via Axl’s interactions with Hutch after a few dozen energy drinks. Great stuff.

Elsewhere in the episode, any storyline that brings Mike and Sue together is always one fraught with a mixture of sweetness and sadness: you know he’s a dad who loves his daughter, but it’s always going to be somewhat of a struggle for him to find a way to express it properly, and any eventual breakthrough is going to come with the realization of how many opportunities he’s missed to express that love in the past. This is territory the series has tackled before, but Neil Flynn and Eden Sher always turn in such poignant performances that it’s an area that’s always worth delving into again.

It’s not entirely surprising that Mike can’t remember the exact name of the place where Sue works (“I know it’s potatoes… We’ve eaten her funky potato rejects for weeks”), nor where it’s located, given his tendency to just want to tune everyone out and enjoy a brief respite from noise, and it was nice to take a quick, rare trip to the quarry this week in order to be reminded that he’s driven just as crazy as work as he is at home. When he’s gifted basketball tickets for the office’s safety record and struggles to find someone to take to the game, however, Mike’s instinct to tune out his daughter backfires on him, as he doesn’t realize that she’d really like to go with him. Even when she finally gets his attention, he’s doubtful that she’s serious, and as a result, he feels like he’s doing her a favor when he finds someone else to go instead.

Turns out he was wrong, as Frankie informs him after he gets back from the game, resulting in a great scene where husband and wife discuss their respective theories of spending time with children of the opposite sex. Mike’s whole Ice Capades argument is fantastic, but even though he walks away from the discussion feeling that he’s won the round, the conversation stirs something in him, leading him to think through how many times he’s dismissed Sue’s efforts to have shared daddy-daughter experiences in the past. In short order, he’s awkwardly asking Sue if she’d like to go have a burger with him. The way he has to work her past her expectations of the situation is hilarious – if, again, equal parts sweet and sad, starting with her initial question (“Dad, why are you talking to me?”) – but it’s worth it all to get that final conversation in the restaurant, where he’s really listening to her. Yes, we know, he’ll still end up backsliding from his good intentions, but he’s trying. That’s something, anyway.

The teaming of Frankie and Brick this week was definitely very, very heavy on Frankie, even though it wouldn’t have happened without Brick: when the bus drivers at his school go on strike, the parents have to start carpools to get their kids to class. Frankie’s history for being incredibly undependable is so long-standing at this point that even the incredibly good-natured Bill and Nancy are desperately trying to avoid being teamed with her, but she muscles her way into the group nonetheless, and we’re off and running with a typically hilarious – and way too familiar to too many families, I suspect – look into a mother trying and failing to keep organized in the face of everything else going on in her world.

There are so many great aspects of and moments during the course of the carpooling scenes that I can’t begin to list them all, but let’s start with the fact that Frankie fails to live up to expectations literally from the very beginning, as it takes several minutes for her to even realize that the honking horn she’s hearing outside is Nancy waiting for Brick, who hasn’t even gotten out of bed yet. Every night is a battle to get Brick to sleep on time and subsequently get him to wake up when he’s supposed to (being devoted to reality shows can be a real problem), so getting him out the door on time for Nancy and Bill is almost impossible, but Frankie getting out the door in a timely fashion, too? Don’t be ridiculous. The other kids in the carpool were fantastic, particularly if you’ve got a kid about that age and are familiar with the importance of being able to attend No-Tardy Parties and the like. My only real complaint was that, after all of that strong material, it all came groaning to a close with Frankie having no sense of spacial relations and getting the car stuck beside the garbage truck.

Still, we got those final moments of Mike and Sue chatting at the restaurant. That made up for a lot.

Stray observations:

  • “I’m jazzing up breakfast with a banana!” Sure you are, Brick.
  • The offhanded comments about Rusty don’t make up for the lack of a Norm Macdonald appearance, but they do help ease the pain a bit. Same with the gags about both Mike’s dad and Frankie’s dad.
  • Sue and Frankie microwaving pancakes and reading People Magazine sounds like a surprisingly fun night…well, for Sue, anyway.
  • Sue’s face on Mike’s “World’s #1 Dad Mug” made me laugh very, very hard.
  • I love the fact that Mike had such an instant response for why he has no interest in divorcing Frankie for a younger woman: “God, no, she’d want kids!”
  • Remember, kids: if you’re bad enough at something, people will ask you not to do it anymore.