I like The Middle for two reasons: It's pretty good at generating laughter, and it honestly explores the American family mythology. Much of that family mythology has been generated by sitcoms from Leave It To Beaver to The Brady Bunch to The Cosby Show, and The Middle seems to fit in perfectly with them. But when it works, as with the Valentine's Day episode, it shows both the silliness of the American mythology, while justifying it on the grounds that, silly as it is, ritual is important. Tonight's episode isn't extraordinarily funny, though it was often charming. It does, however, take another great American myth, the family vacation, and explores it with love and honesty.
Sue wins a trip for four to New York City, just as the Hecks are feeling in the doldrums from too much winter. The “family vacation in New York/Hawaii” is a pretty classic sitcom plot, but unlike most, the vacation here isn't the point of the story; it's the trip. This episode seems to come from the same place as the Louie episode where he takes a flight to Birmingham. For something that's supposed to be a convenience, air travel is kind of a massive pain in the ass. There are far fewer masturbation jokes in The Middle, though.
In order to make it a trip for five, the Hecks have to scramble and get a discount ticket, which means leaving early in the morning and causing mass chaos. Then there's the hassle of flight security and avoiding those goddamn checked baggage fees. On the one hand, the show does a very good job of showing all the ways that, even when traveling, a blue-collar family tries to scrimp and save. On the other hand, no mention of the Hecks' jobs or schoolwork is given: They just have a vacation, so they take it.
After the predictable, if moderately amusing, airport bits, the bulk of the episode takes place on the plane itself. I'm not sure if it was a deliberate choice by the show's producers or it just kind of happened that way, but the family vacation episode turns out to also be a bottle episode. Several different problems start up: Frankie starts annoying the other passengers by organizing them so that her family can sit together; Brick forgot his books at home; Mike has never flown before; Axl is mean to Sue, as an older brother should be; and finally, the family has access to a single first class seat that they take turns in.
The problems are exacerbated by a snowstorm that forces the plane to circle above New York for eight hours, until they're forced to land in Pittsburgh. It is, by most any standard, a disaster, and when the family is offered a charter bus to go to snowed-in New York or go home, it triggers a debate. The boys want to go home. It's closerand less blizzardy. The girls want to go on, but they seem to be losing the debate, until Sue gives a speech about how even when she wins, she loses, and Axl plays the Good Big Brother role by changing sides. It's an obvious moment, but it's one that still manages to work for me, as I was a grumpy older brother with an overexcitable younger sister myself. It's a charming moment, and it redeems an occasionally broad episode.
The Funny Bits:
- Everyone wants to be in the family with the new car, including Frankie, so she says “We’re stuck being us, so you may as well get on board.” Seems to be the series' theme in a single line.
- “We never should have had the extra kid. Odd numbers always trouble.”
- There's a LOT of yelling in the first act.
- “For 25 dollars a bag, it’ll fit.” Yeah, I've been there.
- “I did not know you were not allowed to say suck it to security.”
- “And being silent wouldn’t make you any less of a woman.” Gender-based sniping is the first resort of the family sitcom.
- “Hi! Whatcha typin’?” Sue makes friends with her neighbor in first class.
- “Just push your seat back and relax.” “Oh yeah, that’s better.”
- “People look to tall people in emergencies. We’re the lighthouses of society.”
- “Can you just take one picture of me with the menu?”
- “He better not be on this plane. Cause if he is, you are in big trouble.”
- “Wow! Even when I win, I lose!”
- “We are a very lucky family. Lucky we have no money to travel.”
- I liked how the entirety of the New York City bits took place under the credits.