Given last week’s decidedly Frankie-centric installment of The Middle, it’s not entirely surprising that we’d get an episode tonight that was more or less completely kid-focused. But before we dive too deeply into discussing the various trials and tribulations of Axl, Sue, and Brick, let’s first make note of a universal constant that was once again proven this evening: There is no TV show that Dave Foley cannot make at least a little bit better with his presence. I mean, the man obviously can’t fix the funny in everything, as he’s been forced to prove time and time again (most recently with CBS’s How to Be a Gentleman), but, go on, don’t tell me you didn’t find yourself feeling a momentary surge of giddiness when he rolled into the room—almost as if he’d been waiting!—and introduced himself as Brick’s new school therapist. I’m just going to go ahead and put this out here right now: Even after only this one all-too-brief appearance, I’m already on board for a Chuck Fulton spinoff, where we follow him as he travels from school to school, listening to kids’ problems and dispensing heartfelt advice and pharmaceutical solutions even as he’s kicking their asses in hacky-sack.
Look, a man can dream, can’t he? Oh, all right, fine, let’s go ahead and look at the episode as a whole.
Although the Axl and Sue storylines tied into each other in a nice, natural fashion due to the football link between them, Axl’s ongoing failure to determine which cheerleader he was actually dating and which one was just the other’s bestie may have been silly fun, but it felt very much out of the Sitcom 101 playbook. Still, it was just about worth it for the very first scene, when Courtney and Debbie continued their perpetual refusal to remember Sue, despite having met and held conversations with her on several occasions. (“Axl, you should know: There’s a sad girl who’s lost in your house.”) Oh, and the brief return of Weird Ashley was pretty awesome, too. See you at prom!
Although some might suggest that Sue’s efforts to secure the ostensibly vaunted position of team mascot were a little over-the-top—specifically the way she wandered around the house wearing a cardboard box on her head so that she’d be able to perform to the best of her ability while wearing the costume—I would counter that Sue has precisely the kind of personality that makes her a perfect mascot candidate. The rather pitiful P.A. announcement that the school was extending auditions, a decision clearly intended to try and avoid having to deal with Sue’s tireless enthusiasm, had me a little nervous, as did the final moments of the football game, because you never can tell when they’re going to pull the rug out from under Sue or when they’re going to allow her a victory. Thank God it was the latter this time, because that shot of Sue inside the mascot head…okay, sure, she looked downright psychotic, but you know she was having the time of her life.
In discussing the Brick storyline, I feel obliged to start with a brief sidebar comment. The last apartment I lived in before I moved in with my wife was directly across the street from an apartment where several mentally disabled individuals lived, and one of them—I shit you not—would regularly go “hoop!” for no apparent reason. I offer this information because it’s not impossible that I could’ve thought Brick’s new tic was a little funnier than others did, but for my part, I laughed at every single “hoop!” For that matter, I also thought it was pretty hilarious that everyone in the family heard it but, until it was brought to their attention, they were convinced that it was either the smoke detector or their cell phones. Same with the broad but still funny methods Frankie and Mike used to try and get Brick to stop going “hoop!” The out-of-nowhere revelation that Brick now has to say the Pledge of Allegiance 20 times before going to bed seemed a bit too close to real OCD to be that funny, but I still chuckled.
I’m less confident about the ongoing comedic value of bringing the bunny into the picture, however, and I can tell you exactly when I started to lose confidence: when we saw him bare his CGI-sharpened teeth. I did laugh quite a lot during the creature’s mad dash for freedom, but most of that came from Sue mopping her way across the kitchen, doing a crazed dive across the kitchen table, and then leaning precariously in order to grab the phone and answer it with a perfectly casual “Hello.” Frankly, the biggest comedic value of the pet discussion was Frankie’s flailing efforts to assure Brick’s teacher and therapist that her son absolutely, positively doesn’t have serial-killer tendencies. Does anyone want to lay odds on the status of the bunny come next week’s episode? Given this show, it’s not impossible that they could make him into a running gag, but it seems equally probable that next week could kick off with the revelation that he’s already dead. It’s just too close to call.
Not that “Bunny Therapy” wasn’t funny, but The Middle tends to be at its best when it’s hewing closer to reality, and—to bring back the phrase used to describe Axl’s storyline—tonight was more about having silly fun. There’s nothing wrong with that on occasion, obviously, but it’s not where this show’s true strengths lie.
- I beg to differ with Frankie’s opening narration observation that mayo goes with everything. Is it really that much more popular a condiment in Middle America? Maybe it’s just an East Coast thing, but I barely used the stuff growing up. It’s mustard all the way for me, baby.
- Axl’s biggest complaint about his sister’s presence: “You’re Sue-ing up the place!”
- Eden Sher has clearly taken some sort of comedy class that has taught her how to execute the perfect bad cartwheel.
- Dave Foley’s best line delivery occurs when he responds to Frankie’s fear that the school system is going to be prescribing drugs to Brick: “Whoa, easy Mom, we’re not allowed to go there…first…anymore.”
- Derek’s official tagline for the ladies: “I’m kind, and I always show up on time.”
- Both Sue and Axl had great reactions to Brick being given a bunny, but Axl’s was the best. (“Now get me a car!”)
- Frankie: “Why is the bunny loose, Brick? It was your responsibility!” Brick: “I think you just answered your own question.” True, that. Same with Mike’s gleefully annoyed jab at Frankie: “If you’d just gotten a goldfish, he’d be dead already.”
- Mike’s best line by a landslide: “I need to know I can go into my bathroom without there being hot cheerleaders in there. Yes, I’m that old.”
- Next week: Brooke Shields returns as the Hecks’ sexy white-trash neighbor, Rita Glossner, and I had a blast playing Random Roles with her, so look for the obligatory Middle notification when the piece goes live on Wednesday morning.