If The Middle’s got one thing working for it, it’s the calendar: It seems like any time the series has an off week, there’s always another holiday-themed episode right around the corner to bring things back up to par.
Continuing the ongoing trend of treating these occasions like sequels, 2012 brings us “Thanksgiving IV,” and it’s another family affair for the Hecks, with a couple of bonus guests thrown into the mix to keep things interesting. Frankie’s ongoing efforts to keep up with the Joneses—or, as is the case here, the Donahues—resurface when she pops into the grocery store to stock up for the family’s Thanksgiving dinner and decides that she can one-up Nancy by inviting a couple of members of the U.S. Marine Corps to join the family at its table. Mike’s already annoyed enough that Frankie’s parents are going to be invading his personal space, and he makes a very good point that it’s not like they live a life that outside observers really ought to be witnessing, but it’s not like he can do anything about it, anyway, since she’s already signed them up… and wisely, what with the limited number of Marines available. (“It’s right there in the motto: ‘The few, the proud…’”)
Before we get to discussing dinner in too much detail, let’s first look at this odd little C-story (at best) involving Brick’s obsession with a book about the making of the film version of Erich Segal’s Love Story, even though he’s never seen the film nor does he have any particular interest in seeing it. I’m not saying that this doesn’t officially veer into the ridiculous when he decides that what he is most thankful for is the chart placing of the theme to Love Story, but right up to that point, this was another case of seeing a disconcerting amount of myself in the character of Brick. Believe me, my mother will tell you without hesitation about how I spent most of my childhood studying the collected works of Fred L. Worth, fascinated by the minutiae of radio shows like Fibber McGee & Molly, and foisting countless facts upon her, to the point where she would finally say with exasperation, “Pick one more, because that’s the last one.” So, basically, what I’m saying is that, even as slight as it was, the absurdity-meets-reality combo of Brick’s storyline won me over easily.
Mind you, it was also a convenient way to tie in the various love-story aspects elsewhere in the plot. To start with the oldest of those stories, the sparring between Frankie’s parents—played once again by Marsha Mason and Jerry Van Dyke—was full of funny lines, though Van Dyke’s easy joke seems to have been the most Tweeted of the bunch: “I married Mrs. Right. I just didn’t know her first name was Always.” (Personally, I got the biggest laugh out of Mason’s during-dinner comment, “You know, they hide from him at the bank…”) Frankie might’ve gotten excessively overwrought about their bickering, but I’m sure many folks who were full-fledged adults when their parents got divorced could relate to the way she delivered the word-for-word description of her mom and dad’s first date as a way of saying, “You love each other, remember?” And they do, of course.
If you want to complain about the speed at which the Axl / Cassidy relationship went from tutor to girlfriend, feel free, but it worked for me. Last week, we saw him getting weirded out about his feelings for her, and this week, thanks to misinterpreting Mike’s advice (“Don't ever let fear stop you from going after what you want”), he acted on those feelings, giving Charlie McDermott the chance to deliver a monologue that could earn him an Emmy nomination if the Emmys gave a shit about The Middle. No, Cassidy didn’t reciprocate Axl’s feelings right away, thanks to her stupid jerk boyfriend at Northwestern, but by the end of the episode, she’d come around. Look, I don’t think any of us needs to see Sad ‘n’ Mopey Axl for any longer than we did tonight. He’s obviously hilarious in small doses (“To what end, Mom? To what end?”), but any longer than that, and he would’ve gotten annoying. Plus, how could the show possibly leave him sad about a girl when he’d just experienced the medical miracle of having his toe heal faster than expected, thereby saving his scholarship? It was extremely effective, however, to use Sue as his spiritual salvation, rising above her stolen mascot head and—as Thundering Chicken Bear—reminding her brother that his greatest strength is to act without thinking. It was an unexpected (and stress-inducing) bonus to have him clear his brain to the point that he ran in the wrong direction, but he came through in the end, not only earning his scholarship after all but also getting the girl. Way to go, Axl… and, of course, way to go, Sue, too. I think it’s fair to say that they’re even again at this point, given the smile she earns from him after the game’s over.
Before this game is over, let's return to that Thanksgiving dinner for a moment, shall we? The idea of inviting a couple of Marines over to the house may seem crazy for someone like Frankie, but it reminded me of some friends of ours who tried to have people over to their house every weekend that they possibly could, because it meant they always had a reason to keep the house clean. I'm not saying you should need an reason to keep your house clean, but I'm saying that it's just the sort of thing that would inspire Frankie to actually get the place spic and span for a change. I'm not sure I've cringed more at a scene this season than I did when she launched into the Pledge of Allegiance, though. That was pretty rough. All told, one of the best Thanksgiving episodes of the series, to date... but if I was one of those Marines, I believe I would have left before pie, too.
- It wasn't for the AV Club, but for those of you who've been asking for an interview with Eden Sher, I did just have a lovely conversation with the fearless young comedienne, which you can find here. I think you'll dig it. Lots of Middle talk, obviously, but we also talk about her work on Weeds, Sons And Daughters, Party Down, and, yes, even The Middleman. Frankly, though, I can just about guarantee that you'll fall in love with her before you've even finished the intro.
- Some might argue that Frankie’s desire to one-up the neighbors only kicks in when it’s convenient to a particular plotline. I would counter that the desire is always there, but she can only be bothered to act on it when she miraculously finds the energy to get off the couch. (I think we’ve seen how rarely that happens.)
- Mike gets a lot of good lines, but I’m still partial to one from the early moments of the episode: “Don’t say my name and think you can make me do stuff.” A close second, however, is his observation to Frankie that her parents have been together for 50 years and that she should “just be happy they’re not starring in a Dateline: Unsolved Mystery.”
- Another great Axl moment: telling Cassidy that maybe she should “tutor people on how to ruin the world’s greatest moments,” then yelling outside of the tutor center to get a more appropriate response to the news that he’d be playing in the big game after all.
- Also, I can totally hear Axl asking the doctor, “Can I kiss you on the mouth?”
- Weird Ashley alert! (“Can I bring my snake?”)
- Sue’s got it bad this week (“I am literally a chicken with its head cut off”), but it’s nothing compared to poor Brad, who tries to leap to her defense by declaring a Dance Fight, only to get his ass kicked while he’s on his tippy-toes. I’m with him: who does that?
- Best visual gag: Sue wearing her paper-constructed mascot head and asking, “Does this say ‘chicken’ to you?”
- "And I thought the end of Love Story was sad!"
- Lastly, when Aunt Edie said, “Merry Christmas,” my daughter burst into a fit of giggles, turned to me as I sat with the laptop, and said, “Type that!” So I have.