The Middle: “Life Skills”
B+

The Middle: “Life Skills”

B+

The Middle

“Life Skills”

Season 4, Episode 11

Ever since the two eldest Heck kids reached a point in their educational endeavors where they began attending the same school, we've seen several plots revolve around how desperately Axl loathes the idea of even being in the same building as Sue, so it's hardly surprising that he would let out a howl of horror when, at the beginning of 2013's first episode of The Middle, he discovers that she's going to be sharing a Life Skills class with him.

It's also quite understandable, however, not only because of their disparate personalities (as Mike observes when the kids announce their new scholastic situation to their parents, “Clearly, you two shouldn't be in the same room...ever”), but also because of their decidedly different approaches to academia, so, naturally, it warrants another howl from Axl when his intense focus on creating MegaShoeLace results in him being paired with Sue on their class project. While she's freaking out from the first day that they haven't started their project yet, he's telling her to leave him alone 'til the day before it's due, a statement which leads to a pronouncement so wonderful that I can't wait until the Stray Observations section to offer it up:

“It's true, Sue: teachers are lazy. They know it only takes a day to do a project, but if they gave us assignments every day, they'd have to grade 'em every day. They don't want it, we don't want it...it's an unspoken agreement. Who are you to mess with the American educational system? We're not number one in the world for nothing. Suck it, China!"

(Of course, the best bit is his casual clarification that China's second-place position is “why they've got to make all our stuff for us.”)

Yes, Sue ends up doing the bulk of the project, and it's not entirely surprising that Mike and Frankie, while annoyed at Axl for not helping her, clearly treat the situation as one which was inevitable. Plus, let's be honest: the amount of twitching Sue would've done while waiting until the last second to pull together the project would've been painful to watch, anyway. As it happens, we get a glimpse of what that might've looked like when she accidentally grabs the bag containing Axl's Kitchen Floor Hoops materials, leaving her with no project to present. That's when things take a turn which is somewhat surprising, more than a little bit unrealistic, and yet remarkably satisfying, with Axl showing off skills which reveal how a kid with limited smarts can use his social status to successfully make it through high school. Normally I balk a bit when the show leaves reality behind, but there's still something in this hyper-reality that, for good or bad, speaks with a certain degree of accuracy to how far popularity can get you.

While his brother and sister are busy battling it out, Brick finds himself experiencing his first official run-in with the school therapist, Dr. Fulton, allowing us to enjoy another appearance by Dave Foley. Setting aside a Kids in the Hall joke which is so stunning in-your-face that it basically shocks a laugh out of you, Foley's fantastic during his interactions with Atticus Shaffer, encounters which ultimately prove far more effective than Shaffer's wide-eyed interactions with his classmates (although they're still pretty amusing, too). The best bit, though, is inevitably their final conversation of the episode, where Brick makes an incredibly valid point about the importance of interacting with adults and, having declared Dr. Fulton to be one of his few friends, brokers a deal to stick with their sessions to help him keep his job, just as long as he shifts them to take place during gym rather than his library time.

Elsewhere, Mike and Frankie enjoy an often slight storyline, albeit one familiar to many a policyholder, about the agony of dealing with their insurance company after a branch falls onto their car, smashing the windshield to smithereens. For much of the episode, the premise exists mostly for visual-gag purposes, with regular cutaways to poor Frankie driving without a windshield during the dead of winter (I suspect I'm not the only one whose mind immediately went to the end of “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson”), but the visit to the offices of Indy Union Home Life offers a few jabs at the loopholes within the “act of God” aspects of insurance policies. While it's not that unrealistic to expect homeowners to trim their branches so that they're not hanging over their driveway, it is very realistic that neither of the Hecks paid enough attention to the trees in their yard to notice that their vehicle might've been in danger. On the flip side, however, the conclusion of the episode, with the church offering up their van for the Hecks' use until they can afford to get their windshield fixed, may be sweet, but it also may be the single most convenient and out-of-nowhere plot development we've ever seen on this series. True, there's no reason to believe that it's going to become a trend, but because of that, it sticks out like a sore thumb in the midst of the rest of the final acts we've seen in this season's episodes.

Stray observations:

  • Interestingly, although it's been a topic of discussion in the past on The Middle about how disconcerting it can be for two siblings to find their social circles colliding (most notably when Axl's classmate Darrin took Sue to his prom), it's clear that no one really cares about Sue being in Axl's class except for Axl.
  • It was nice to see Gina Hecht as the Life Skills teacher, although I'll still always think of her as Jean DaVinci on Mork and Mindy.
  • Is it me, or were those scenes of Dr. Fulton stalking Brick actually rather creepy?
  • “Look, if this is gonna turn into a whole thing, I'm gonna need cookies.”
  • “I didn't have a girlfriend until I was 30. But this is no time to bring up Shelly.”
  • “You're weirder than you've ever been. It's just that all of a sudden the school seems to care.” Frankie speaks to Brick's sudden need for a therapist.
  • As of this writing, there still is not an actual KickinItTeenStyle.com. I cannot tell you how much this saddens me, and I have to believe that it saddens the creators of The Middle as well. Imagine how many more teen viewers would be watching the show right now if the network had cared enough to create that web presence for the series. Sigh...

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