The Middle: "Back To Summer"
A-

The Middle: "Back To Summer"

As sitcoms dabble in serialization, the temptation is to go bigger and better with a season finale, just like the dramas do. More conventionally, it could be treated like just another episode, ideally better than average for the show and perhaps bringing in all the themes from the season. I tend to like serialization, but I'm not actually sure that having a big dramatic finale is actually a good idea. The first season finale of Community threatened to turn a light running romantic plot into the dominating force of the show – and was swiftly retracted in the second season's premiere. Also, Parks & Recreation's apparent need for a dramatic finale left a somewhat dubious taste in my mouth after an otherwise superb finale.

The Middle, based on its premise, actually seems like it should have a more dramatic finale than a show like P&R. Instead of the repetitive timesink of working in an office, characters in a family sitcom have the inherent milestone of the end of the school year (has any TV show ever had kids in a year-round school?). On the other hand, it seems to be workplace – or at least adult-oriented – sitcoms which have been more experimental and more serialized recently, making The Middle look downright conservative at times.

However, in this case, The Middle's tendency to play it, ah, right down the middle works to its advantage. What we have in tonight's episode is in no way earth-shattering, but it plays entirely to The Middle's strengths with very few of its weaknesses. Every character seems to be done just right, with their quirks raised to the highest possibly level without getting annoying, as Axl can with his laziness, Sue with her shrieking, and Frankie with her insanity. Those things were here in the episode, but they were understandable and even sympathetic.

As the school year comes to an end, Frankie starts to celebrate prematurely, which of course triggers three separate crises for each of the kids. Axl has a community service that he didn't want to do and may prevent him from moving on. Brick was supposed to be keeping a journal all year, and didn't. And Sue deserves the award for perfect attendance – but the school thinks she was absent one day.

Two of these storylines worked well for me personally. I was much like Brick in school – a smart kid who simply wasn't compelled to do things that were boring. And the most boring thing of all...was a journal. I hated journals. Even beyond hate, I couldn't do them. If asked to write a page-long journal, I wrote half a page. If asked to write half a page, it was barely a paragraph. And a whole year? Go Brick. Way to smash the state, and ruin those journal fascists.

I'm also with Axl here. Not that I think community service is a bad thing inherently, I just always hated it when schools asked me to do things outside of schools. It was probably a shyness issue with me, which may not be the case with Axl, but still, I'd have done exactly the same thing as Axl. Sue's branch was much less personally relatable for me, but it's probably the best of the three due to Eden Sher absolutely nailing it, culminating in a recording of her attendance at school in the day in question, accidentally and cheerfully destroying an entire band rehearsal. Last year TV Club gave Ron Swanson an award for Best Fall, but I think Sue Heck may end up winning that this year.

Still, as good as Sue is in this episode, I think Mike may actually be the MVP. He's usually the straight man and the glue that holds things together, but his comic timing seems even better than normal, reaching Michael Bluthian proportions with half-aside lines like “seemed like a good fit” and “Thanks buddy, I'd have enjoyed that!” He's also got the most touching line in the episode, when Axl says “You must have a really sucky life.” “Yes, I do.” That seemed to me to encompass the essence of The Middle, even as the episode itself veered towards a more conventional sappy ending at Sue's graduation.

Stray Observations:

  • “I put my health and the health of countless others at risk!”
  • “I blame myself partly.”
  • “I'm standing here with a ball of twine in my hand and I don't know why.”
  • “You kids are lucky, you don't have dads.”
  • “You HAD to buy the tiki torch.”

More TV Club