The Middle: “A Christmas Gift”
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The Middle: “A Christmas Gift”

The Christmas season has come to Orson, Indiana, and with it come the usual holiday headaches, not all of which are caused by overindulging in eggnog. For instance, only some of Frankie’s are the result of her not-terribly-latent alcoholic tendencies. They’re certainly to blame for the Christmas Eve open house that ends up being held at the Heck house, however, an idea borne out of her drunken conversation with Mike, who, at this point, is well established as the designated driver of their marriage, on their way home from a holiday party. Given that he didn’t have that much fun at someone else’s party, Mike has little to no interest in enduring similar torture in his own home.  

“Sorry, I forgot,” says Frankie. “Our house is where fun comes to die.”

Hey, close enough for jazz. But despite Mike’s unabashed disinterest in the idea, Frankie gets home and goes straight onto the computer to invite their friends and neighbors to this spontaneously-concocted shindig. Come the dawn, she barely remembers having done so, but it’s too late to stop now: She’s already had 20 people respond and say that they’ll be there. "I swear, we should put a breathalyzer on that computer," mutters Frankie. (Is that actually a thing? If not, we really should get the boys in the A.V. Club Labs on that post-haste…)

Unable to back out at this point, Frankie attempts to embrace the idea of the open house, but she’s got one major concern: the big-ass hole where the Heck’s dishwasher once resided. That’s okay, though, because Mike’s secretly bought her a nice dishwasher, which he plans to surprise her with come Christmas morning…theoretically, anyway.

Okay, time for a personal aside. I don’t know about the rest of you, but this was one of those episodes where the Frankie / Mike dynamic was so freaking close to the one between my wife and I that I once again had the momentary suspicion that the producers of The Middle have hidden cameras in my house. So did my wife. She was quick to point out to me (as if I hadn’t already been aware) that I am prone to buying gifts, then building up an idea in my head about how the gift-giving is going to go down, only to grow progressively more frustrated when the process doesn’t occur in the manner which I’d planned.

This is, of course, exactly what happens to Mike over the course of the episode. He buys the dishwasher, hides it in Sue’s closet, and is all ready to install it in the wee hours of Christmas morning as a surprise for Frankie. Unfortunately, in the days and hours leading up to his planned time of installation, he’s forced to endure a steady stream of nagging from Frankie about how badly they need a new dishwasher. Rather than ruin the surprise, Mike accepts the nagging, figuring that it’ll all be worth it when she gets the dishwasher on Christmas morning… except that, in the end, Frankie nails him with such a ferocious eggnog-fueled barrage of insults during the open house about, bemoaning his cheapness as well as his many years of crappy gifts and drugstore Christmas shopping, that he can’t take it anymore.  In the midst of all their friends and neighbors, he brings out the new dishwasher, offers a far-from-enthusiastic “Merry Christmas,” and stalks off to the bedroom with his beer… as well he should have.

Mike loves Frankie. Frankie loves Mike. These things are undeniable. But whereas Mike usually realizes he’s fucked up with Frankie almost immediately after having done so, Frankie tends to be so obsessed in her perceived victimization that she almost never realizes that she’s the guilty party until well after the fact, letting Mike feeling like shit for ages before offering an apology.

Yes, Mike eventually got his apology, but in typical Middle fashion, it hardly mattered: After all of his efforts to surprise Frankie, it turned out that he’d bought too big a dishwasher, anyway.  

All right, I know, I’ve once again started out focusing solely on Frankie and Mike, leaving the kids’ storylines undiscussed. Let’s take care of that right now, shall we?

Brick and Sue are tied together this week, with Brick obsessed with the scientific inaccuracies of the Bible and a general unwillingness to simply accept its contents on faith. As a disciple of the right Reverend Tim Tom, Sue simply can’t stand for that sort of mindset, so she requests that the Rev give Brick a good talking-to, which he does. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. This frustrates Sue to no end, but even after giving it a second shot, Tim Tom comes up short.

The whole storyline was great, though it pretty much had me from the get-go just by virtue of Brick’s questions. ("But what about the burning bush, or Moses parting the Red Sea? Wow factor, yes, but believability? Eh.")  Plus, I always love an appearance from Rev. Tim Tom, and his Jesus Christ / Justin Bieber analogy was hysterical. All told, however, my favorite part was probably just the fact that Brick ended the episode not by coming around to Sue’s way of thinking. He conceded that the Bible was a pretty awesome book, but he wasn’t willing to say that he believed any of what she or the Rev were peddling. Better yet, this was accomplished without Brick being dismissive of their beliefs. Everybody wins!

Lastly, you’ve got the Axl / Bob storyline, which… well, let’s face it: we all knew where that was going at almost every point, didn’t we? As soon as Axl called Bob “bro,” we knew Bob would make too much of it. When Bob showed up at the open house, we knew he’d glom onto his new “bro”… although, admittedly, I didn’t expect that incredibly creepy bit of cock-blocking. Good God, the man was practically committing statutory rape with his eyes. But I knew Axl would get frustrated, and after he spotted Bob losing his shit in the yard, I knew Axl’s conscience would get the best of him and he’d feel obliged to talk Bob down. Look, I like Chris Kattan, and I think Chris Kattan’s funny, but, frankly, even though I wondered where Bob was for the first part of the season, now that he’s been showing up semi-regularly again, I’m more convinced than ever we’ve seen pretty much all there is to see of Bob.

All told, this was a pretty solid Christmas episode. Not as good as the Thanksgiving episode, mind you, but two out of three storylines were strong, and even if Axl and Bob’s bits were predictable, it’s not like they were legitimately unfunny. I’ve got to say, though, that if I were Mike, I don’t think I’d let Frankie near the eggnog ever again… or anything above 0.5% alcohol content, really. Even at her most sober, she can still be kind of bitchy, but when she’s drunk, she’s downright intolerable.

Stray observations:

  • “I ate a snowman cookie, I read a Sports Illustrated in the bathroom... I think we did what we needed to do.”
  • After Frankie says "ugh, no" to the idea of renewing their wedding vows, that is not Mike Heck laughing. That is Neil Flynn laughing. Not only did it make me smile so wide that I actually had to rewind it and watch it again, but it left me wondering what happened to inspire that legitimate laugh from Neil. I mean, Patricia Heaton’s “ugh, no” was funny, but there’s got to have been more to it than that.
  • I loved that neither parent was willing to discuss the Bible with Brick, and that Axl hadn’t actually read it yet, but he had big plans to do so when he’s closer to death, “like all old people.”
  • Sue’s volume- and pitch-adjusted scream needs to be on Eden Sher’s Emmy reel.
  • “Hey, there’s a lot of episodes of Glee that don’t make sense. But I still cry.”
  • “‘Get Your God On.’ What does that even mean?”
  • I don’t care who says it: The words “Eh, what are you gonna do?” are never not funny.
  • Axl’s reverse psychology to show Bob that he’s actually kind of awesome: “You’ve got this career going, you’ve been to Disneyworld…”
  • “I’m unofficial Sergeant at Arms of his fan club, and I’m doing all I can.”
  • “Wow, JB and JC. That is blowing my mind!”
  • “Well, I gotta be moving on. I’m needed up in Chesterton. A couple of girls up there think they're vampires. This Twilight thing has gotten out of hand…”

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