The Middle: “The Jump”
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The Middle: “The Jump”

It’s never pleasant when a show delivers an uneven episode, but when it happens on the heels of one of the best episodes of the season, boy, it really smarts. What makes “The Jump” particularly difficult to watch, however, is that its cardinal flaw is found in its use of something which has previously been one of its greatest strengths.

The opening moments of the episode offer a bit of a red herring, giving us the momentary impression that it’s going to revolve around the Hecks’ money problems by delivering a hilarious exchange between Mike and Frankie: Mike asks Frankie if she can find somewhere other than the food budget to cut corners, to which Frankie replies that there are no more corners to cut, snapping, “We’re living in a circle here!” It’s a great line, but it’s the only time economics ever really comes up in conversation. Instead, the topic shifts to more important matters than money. You know, like Sue’s decision to try out for the volleyball team, for instance.

Since the beginning, one of the great hallmarks of The Middle has been the way it’s taken Sue Heck, someone who could easily be portrayed as a complete loser, and made her into someone viewers almost can’t help but root for, but tonight’s episode just seemed to hit all the wrong notes, starting with the decision to have her try out for yet another sports team. It isn’t as though it’s out of character, but it’s a story that’s been done so many times now that you can’t help but wonder, “Is this really necessary?” When Mike and Frankie get the call that Sue’s actually made the team, it’s more than a little surprising to everyone, hence Frankie’s repeated requests for confirmation that they’re absolutely, positively talking about Sue Heck. They are talking about her, as it turns out, but the reason why she’s made the team has nothing to do with her athletic prowess and everything to do with the school attempting to avoid a lawsuit because the gym floor caved in beneath her in the middle of her try-out.

Given how much legitimate emotion fans of The Middle have felt after hearing the words “Sue Heck wins,” it’s hard to stomach the silliness of Sue having to fall through the floor to earn a spot on the team, only coming up victorious after the ball repeatedly bounces off her head and over the net. It’s also surprisingly sad to discover that both the coaches and the players have given Sue the mocking nickname of “Floorboards” behind her back. Yes, it becomes a rallying cry of sorts by the end of the episode, but by the time that moment comes, things have descended too far into silliness to earn anything more than a shrug.

Axl is slightly better with his storyline, as every college kid inevitably has that come-to-Jesus moment when they suddenly realize that they’ve got no one to blame for their fuck-ups but themselves. Given his academic track record in high school, it’s not exactly a stretch to believe that Axl could end up flunking three out of four classes in his first semester of college (although I was highly distracted by wondering how it would affect his scholarship, something which was never addressed), but he knows his little brother has a better head for figures than he does, so he invites Brick to visit him at college, only to rush him through a campus tour and then set him down and beg him for help with his studies. Scenes where Axl and Brick are teamed up tend to be strong, and this was no exception, thankfully, with Axl actually showing a glimmer of maturity by admitting to Brick that he actually does kinda need the guiding hand of his parents. Here’s hoping this truly was Axl’s come-to-Jesus moment, as I couldn’t help but think of Haley’s expulsion from college on Modern Family, and I really, really don’t want to see The Middle go in that direction with Axl.

It’s not what you’d call a hard and fast rule, but there’s a certain amount of precedent for Frankie’s storylines to end up as the least effective of any given episode, owing mostly to the fact that she gets so wound up over various goings-on that her reactions no longer feel real, and The Middle is always at its best when it’s hewing close to reality. In this episode, though, Frankie manages to keep it real through a series of small touches that add up to a greater whole, starting with the decision to paint her fingernails blue. When her effort to do something a little bit fun for a change earns nothing but teasing from her family, Frankie begins to realize just how much teasing she has to endure and grows increasingly upset about it, with things hitting a fever pitch when the family can’t stop laughing at her after she bends down and prepares to give Sue’s jumping meter a go, only to find herself unable to get up. Needless to say, hilarity ensues for everyone who isn’t Frankie.

While seeking solace in her car, Frankie finds herself in a position to save the life of a dog, an act which results in her taking the pooch home, naming it Colin Firth, and deciding that it cares about her more than her family does. In turn, Colin Firth shows unconditional love to Frankie and little more than contempt for anyone else in the family, and when they suggest that the dog needs to go, Frankie responds by bursting into tears and delivering a slightly hysterical but nonetheless affecting speech about how the dog is the only creature in the house who loves her, appreciates her, and listens to what she has to say. In the end, everyone apologies to Frankie, and Colin Firth ends up sticking around, although I don’t think we ought to expect to see him significantly more than any other animal that’s lived in the Heck house in the past.

With one solid story, one that’s not bad, and one that’s pretty dire, let’s hope that “The Jump” proves to be an anomaly in the midst of an otherwise strong season.

Stray observations:

  • I can get behind freezer-leftovers night. I’m not so sure how I feel about expiration-date soup night.
  • The chemistry of the cast was really evident during the teasing scenes. They felt completely off the cuff and were easily my favorite moments of the episode.
  • We have a Dave “Gruber” Allen sighting! More scenes of Axl in that dude’s class, please.
  • I don’t have an explanation as to why it’s funny, but the idea of a Florence Henderson Library is definitely funny.
  • Best Brick / Axl exchange: “Can I tell them we saw a girl in a bra?” “Tell them nothing, Brick!”
  • The line unspoken by Brick but nevertheless implied: “If the Slushee’s not blue, I will send it back.
  • Sometimes I feel like Axl is painted as a bit too dumb, but I still laughed at the idea that he doesn’t know a syllabus from a protractor.
  • “‘Dad, we need toilet paper,’ said no one ever!” 

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