While it’s not unheard of for a series to make it to the 100-episode mark without earning much in the way of Emmy recognition—still only one nomination to date, and it was for Outstanding Makeup for a Single-Camera Series (Non-Prosthetic)—and none whatsoever from the Golden Globes or… wait, is this right? The Middle hasn’t even been recognized by the People’s Choice Awards? We’re through the looking glass here, people…
Except we’re not, really.
The fact that The Middle is, at least relatively speaking, underappreciated by the masses has been completely beaten to death—I’m as guilty of it as the next critic, if not even more so because I write about it as often as I do—but if ever there’s going to be a time to set aside one’s annoyance about the series perpetually flying under the radar and simply celebrate its wonderfulness, then the 100th episode must surely be it.
In a nice touch to tie the celebratory nature of the episode into a plotline, it turns out that Orson, Indiana just so happens to be hitting its centennial. As you’d expect from the home of Little Betty Snack Cakes, the Demolition Derby for the Homeless, and the world’s largest polyurethane cow, this is kind of a big deal…well, to everyone but the Hecks, anyway. Actually, make that everyone but Frankie and Mike Heck: Brick’s been inspired to enter the contest to compose a new slogan for Orson (the winner gets to ride in an old-timey fire truck for the Orsontennial Parade and the honor of having their slogan in place ‘til the next centennial), Axl’s been reunited with his fellow members of BossCo—now with college knowledge!—and is trying to make some money off the idea of having a velvet-roped V.I.P. section for the parade, and Sue goes through a multitude of emotions when she thinks she’s been named to the float committee. But Frankie and Mike? They can’t even be bothered.
You can imagine, then, just how excited they are to discover that, in a strawberry margarita inspired haze during a Fourth of July get-together, Frankie giddily volunteered to drive a float in the parade—a suggestion readily signed off upon by an equally intoxicated Mike (“Whatever, baby!”)—and even went so far as to boldly demand “the biggest float ya got!” Unfortunately for them, this proves to be an ask-and-ye-shall-receive situation, as they’re handed the keys to the highly unwieldy big ass cow float, a behemoth that necessitates that Frankie ride in the front, Mike in the back, both scrunched into uncomfortably tiny spaces, communicating via walkie-talkie so that Frankie can tell Mike where he needs to steer. Good times, right?
Actually, it does prove to be a good time, at least temporarily, starting when Frankie decides that maybe there is some merit to joining in the Orsontennial. Okay, granted, at first it was probably more about being swayed by Nancy Donahue’s brownies than a desire to answer the call of civic pride, but she’s clearly caught up in the sentimentality before long, and, even more surprisingly, so is Mike. No, they’re not really thrilled about being drafted to spend the night outside, sleeping beside their float to keep it safe from the Glossner kids, but they do it anyway, and before long, Frankie and Mike have drifted into reminiscing about how they first came to settle in Orson. It’s a conversation that rivals anything we’ve ever seen in the car—and if you’re a dedicated viewer, then you know what high praise this is—but, more importantly, it’s a comfortable back-and-forth between a couple who’ve been together for more years than either of them would care to count, know either other’s good sides and bad, and can get away with being sweet and sarcastic to each other in the same sentence. That’s not TV, that’s reality. I mean, that’s about as real as a wife yelling at her husband that she can’t answer the phone because she’s pooping… and if you’ve got a significant other and you’ve never been on at least one side of that particular exchange, then you need to seriously reevaluate the comfort level of your current relationship.
As all of this husband-wife bonding is going on between Frankie and Mike, the kids are each in the midst of their own issues. The slogan contest plays to Brick’s strengths as a reader, inspiring him to come up with no less than a hundred possible slogans (and inspiring Mike to ask, “What’s the first one? That’s my favorite!”), but he soon dismisses them all, goes back to the drawing board, and finally emerges with one that’s both personal and provides a sense of historical context: “Orson: The Heartland’s Hidden Gem.” It’s so clever, in fact, that the judging committee doesn’t get it, instead going with the supposedly snappier “Orson: Why Not?” Brick loses his shit, as well he should, and deems the whole affair a perfect example of the dumbing down of America, a stance he maintains right up until he’s thrown a free shirt bearing the new slogan in Sans Serif… but, really, who among us isn’t a sucker for a good font?
Meanwhile, after Sue moves past her exclusion from the float committee, she decides to pay a visit to Angel, Darrin’s new squeeze, and find out as much as she can about this woman who’s won her ex’s heart. As it turns out, Angel’s been wanting to spend some time with Sue, too, although her interest is more in doing whatever she can to repair Sue’s hair than anything else. (Whether you think she succeeded or failed, you have to admit that the cut to Sue’s new ‘do was a great visual gag.) Sue leaves the encounter concerned that Angel’s not good enough for Darrin, that she doesn’t appreciate him for the right reasons, and she takes it upon herself to try and make him jealous, using… Brad? That the plan doesn’t pan out the way she intends is a given, but blaming Brad for his fabulousness would be like blaming the sun for shining, and it hardly matters in the end, as circumstances lead Darrin to save Sue from death by flaming cow, thereby convincing her that there is yet hope for them to end up together.
Axl may have the least of the episode’s storylines, but the mere existence of the V.I.P. area results in too many great moments to dismiss it. They range from the sublime (Axl repeatedly stealing chairs out from under Brick to fill the area) to the ridiculous (Sue and Brad sitting in the area and singing “Summer Loving”), but the real beauty comes with the cow float going up in flames as a result of its head hitting the extension cords that BossCo has hung across the parade route. If pressed to pull out the funniest line of the night, I’d seriously consider going with Axl’s delivery of the words, “Well, that was definitely our fault.”
To bring it back to Frankie and Mike, the time they spend in the belly of the beast is effectively a continuation of their casual late-night conversation, growing increasingly more frantic as they make their way down the parade route. In the course of their doomed expedition, we get yet another reminder as to why they really don’t have many friends (they’re easily annoyed and very quick to talk behind people’s backs, the latter tendency proving to be particularly problematic when they’re chatting with each other via walkie-talkie on an open channel), but their chatter serves to underline the reasons why their marriage and so many other marriages across the centuries have survived: They love each other, and they’ve been together so long that they can say whatever the hell they want to each other because they know that nobody else is likely to put up with their shit. So, yeah, they do start yelling back and forth. They’re angry and annoyed at each other, but when push comes to shove and someone yells “fire,” Mike’s out of the cow like a flash, rushing to Frankie’s aid. Looking back, it’s an easy laugh when Sue says she’d hoped that she and Darrin would have a relationship like her parents, only to cut to Frankie and Mike sniping back and forth at each other, but given that, in the end, Mike saves Frankie and Darrin saves Sue, I’d say there’s a way better chance of Sue having her wish come true than there used to be.
The 100th episode of The Middle could’ve been a gimmicky extravaganza designed to finally raise the profile of the little sitcom that could, but that’s just not the show’s style. It’s never been Modern Family, nor has it ever tried to be. As such, The Middle’s big celebration consisted of one major nod to the past (God knows I don’t want to see Frankie go back to selling cars, but it was pretty great to see Brian Doyle Murray again) and several little callbacks to past episodes, which the show is constantly doing, anyway. I will say, though, that there was one callback that made me smile wider than any of the others: Frankie plopping down several bags of fast food and yelling, “Dinner!” 100 episodes later, and that gag’s still as funny now as it was in the pilot.
You’ve got to admire a show with that kind of consistency.
- The performance of “Teeny Place” took the Ron Cougar Mellancamp gag one step too far into silliness for me, but I cannot deny the brilliance of securing the fourth-best John Cougar Mellencamp impersonator in Indiana as the Orsontennial’s big concert attraction. I also liked the fact that, although Nancy obviously believed the booking to be a coup of sorts, she still recognized that the crowd was a little too excited and felt the need to clarify that it was not actually the real John Cougar Mellencamp performing.
- With all due respect to the network that has kept the show on the air for 100 episodes, I’ve got to say it: If The Middle was on CBS, there would be a website for the Orsontennial, and I’d like to think it would include the history of the town as related by Brick, featuring all the details about how prostitution was rampant back in the day.
- As much as I hate the unnecessary abbreviation of words, Brad won my heart when he told Sue, “I know you’re saying stuff, but I can’t stop staring at your hair. It looks amaz. I’m so jeal!”
- “No one said we could use punctuation!”
- “Unless you’re a pie, get out of my face!”
- I demand the immediate casting of someone awesome—but not too high-profile—to play Rockin’ Phil Lisson.
- Almost as bad as the dumbing-down of America is the realization that we’re only a generation away from losing the last of our population who would utter the words, “I wouldn’t want people thinking I’m fancy.”
- It’s a tiny moment, as so many of the great moments on The Middle are, but I loved the fact that Axl and Sean were aghast at the performance of “Summer Loving,” but an enthralled Darrin just stood there eating popcorn.
- Lastly, just to touch on that whole "The Middle isn't Modern Family" one more time, has anyone noticed that the difference between the shows and their approaches also extends to how they're being rerun? USA has blanketed every available 30-minute slot on their schedule with Modern Family, to the point where I'm already almost tired of it (and, as I've said before, I do love the show), whereas ABC Family is doling out The Middle in bite-sized marathons, just enough to raise its profile but not enough to make anyone sick of it. Seems pretty perfect to me.