The Middle: “Heck’s Best Thing”
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The Middle: “Heck’s Best Thing”

Fact: If I thought I could’ve gotten away with it, I would’ve just transcribed every single one of Norm MacDonald’s lines and called it my blog for tonight’s episode.

Yes, that’s just how much I enjoyed seeing the return of Uncle Rusty to The Middle. Immediately after his appearance in last year’s Thanksgiving episode, I’d started crossing my fingers that we’d see him again before too long, and when I talked to MacDonald back in April and asked if he’d be interested in reprising the role, he immediately lit up and said, “Oh, that’d be good! I used to write with the guys that wrote on that show (on Roseanne). I liked the actors on there, and Patricia Heaton’s great. So, yeah, definitely, I’d do that again.”

And so he did. But his wasn’t the only storyline in tonight’s episode, so let’s not rush right into Rusty. First, let’s talk about the saga of Sue, Frankie, and The Wizard of Oz.

Shocker: Sue didn’t make the lacrosse team. To say that this is less than shocking to Frankie and Mike is unnecessary, as evidenced by the fact that both of them are quick to confirm that their daughter did, indeed, have the foresight to leave the price tag on her new helmet. Fortunately, Bob gives Frankie a suggestion to help raise Sue’s spirits: Have her try out for the community theater’s production of The Wizard of Oz. As per Bob’s assurances, Sue makes the cut… and, somewhat surprisingly, so does Frankie, whose offhanded singing while waiting to pick up Sue is overheard by the director, played by former Sunnydale mayor Harry Groener, and earns her a place in the population of Oz.

Only one problem: Not long after Frankie gets in, Sue gets kicked to the curb because she’s got crazy eyes. (It’s a fair cop.) As Groener says mournfully, “The theater, she is a cruel mistress,” but she ain’t half as cruel as Frankie, who, even though her daughter’s gotten the axe, can’t bring herself to quit the play, and as a parent, I’m hard pressed to blame her. She’s having the time of her life, telling Mike, “Nothing has made me this happy in years!” (His dry retort: “No offense taken.”) Can you really blame her for moaning, “Why do I always have to make the sacrifice because I’m the mom?”

Well, yeah, you can a little. I mean, this is hardly the first time she’s complained about getting the short end of the straw as a result of parenthood. Still, her point is well taken.

After giving Sue all the time in the world to change her mind, even attempting to explain her position by offering it between the lines of a story about an experience with her own mother, Frankie finally just throws caution to the wind and, emboldened by receiving semi-permission from Mike, outright lies to Sue and goes to practice without her. Once again proving that he isn’t always the dimmest bulb in the Heck house, Axl catches on well before Sue does and eventually feels obliged to spell it out for her, leading to a hilarious confrontation scene between Sue and Frankie. (“Hello, mother…”) In the end, Frankie feels so bad that she helps broker a deal where Sue still gets to help out with play, albeit under the stage where no one else can see her, while Frankie puts on an emerald green dress, fixes her hair and make-up so that she looks suspiciously like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, and sings her cotton-pickin’ heart out.

Is it time to talk about Rusty yet?

Almost, but not quite. First, we should probably spend a single sentence to sum up Axl’s storyline for the episode... and here it is: After being grounded and losing video-game privileges for being even more of a dumb-ass than usual, he learns to flick coins with remarkable precision. That’s it. That’s all Axl gets this week. Normally I’d complain about a storyline this thin, but as it meant more time for Norm MacDonald, I’m gonna let it pass. (Sorry, Charlie, it's nothing personal.)

Okay, now it's time to talk about Rusty.

It’s Grandparents and Special Friends Day at Brick’s school, and with Frankie’s parents away on a Cyber Seniors Computer Cruise, Brick’s only option is to pursue Grandpa Big Mike and see if he’d be up for attending. Alas, he’s down at the Red Roof Inn that’s closing up shop in Traverse City, picking up 40 toilets, so the gig falls to Uncle Rusty. From the get-go, it seems relatively unlikely that Rusty’s going to be a man of his word, especially since he can’t even come up with Brick’s name, and, indeed, he proceeds to let the lad down, which is actually a little bit surprising. I mean, he said outright that he was looking for a reason to put on pants!

After a stern lecture from Mike, Rusty decides to try and fix his damaged reputation with Brick, swinging by the school several days late (not to mention in the middle of a test), taking him out of class, and spending the afternoon with him. Bowling, beer sipping, and truck driving ensue. Mike is even more pissed off, reaming Rusty for being a shitty uncle, not to mention a less than spectacular sibling. Brick clearly has no problems with the way his day has gone, but Rusty takes Mike's comments to heart, pointedly turning up in the audience for The Wizard of Oz at the end of the episode.

What I take from this: It’s time to cut Chris Kattan loose and bring Norm MacDonald onto The Middle as a regular.

Random Norm MacDonald quotes:

Okay, seriously, I really could just offer up Norm MacDonald quotes for the rest of this write-up, but I promised myself I’d limit it to my five favorites, so here they are:

  1. “Coffee’s bad. Cigarettes are bad, too. I’m gonna go have both, but let me be a cautionary tale for you.”
  2. “Who has a wedding on a weekend?”
  3. “They tell you you’ve gotta learn your ABCs, but what they don’t tell you is you gotta learn ‘em backwards while balancing on one foot with a flashlight in your face while some guy you went to high school with calls you a punk on account of he became a cop and you swerved a little and hit a fire hydrant.”
  4. “Worst case scenario: We all die. But that’s gonna happen at some point, anyway.”
  5. “‘Dad let we drive, us turned out okay.’ That what you were looking for, Grammar Police?”

Stray non-Norm MacDonald observations:

  • I loved Sue's immediate shift from her failure at lacrosse to her attempts to make the drill team. But I loved Frankie's quickly delivered (and utterly false) assurance about the coolness of the drill team even more.
  • "At least Charlie’s grandpa talked to me for awhile. Did you know President Obama’s not a U.S. citizen?”
  • During the scene in Brick's classroom, my 6-year-old daughter loudly demanded to know who the woman was teaching the class. "That's not Brick's teacher! Brick's teacher is a boy!" Either Chord Overstreet needs to make his way back to The Middle, or Brick's change in teacher needs to be addressed. So says the 6-year-old.
  • That's two Aunt Ginny references now since Frances Bay's death. It makes me sad.
  • Is Axl's coin-flicking skill destined to be the Middle equivalent of Pennycan? One can only hope.

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