This was an episode of television. It was probably even a good half-hour of TV. Taught lessons, wasn't offensive, occasionally funny. It's also almost completely resistant to any kind of week-to-week criticism. I really can't think of anything particularly grabbing about the episode. Sue's struggle with puberty and self-image was probably the most typically discussable aspect of the episode, though it fell into pretty predictable paces. We know what kind of shows are usually written about, because they can find willing writers and lots of fans: genre shows, serialized dramas, quirky comedies. The Middle is none of those things.
But as our Box Populi series suggests, that's not really what television usually is. ABC canceled a ton of shows this week, including things like V and No Ordinary Family which, theoretically, are the shows that should be easier to write for. The Middle wasn't merely renewed; it's been renewed for months. It wasn't in any danger. It shouldn't have been in any danger, either. This is the kind of show that stays on television for years, gets syndicated, and eventually fades away. Or moves to Nick at Nite. There's certainly interesting stuff going on in The Middle. But some weeks, like this one, it's just part of a mass of television.
As a critic, this makes me feel bad. Part of my ego suggests that I'm smart enough that I can turn any discrete unit of popular culture into something interesting. Perhaps I'm not enough of a technical expert to do that with television (where I might be able to do with games, for example). But it also may be telling about the medium that its most popular products are some of those most resistant to weekly analysis. It reminds me somewhat of music history and criticism, which, as our Steve Hyden has pointed out, loves to focus on certain niches (like punk) while ignoring the songs that people actually listened to at the time. Part of that may well be that some things are particularly interesting to write about, particularly what's new and exciting. Community may be the easiest comedy to write about thanks to its genre experiments, but if every show did a zombie episode, suddenly that ease would disappear. While The Middle may not aim for the toughest targets, it generally hits what it's aimed at.
This week, there are three plots for each of the kids. As mentioned, Sue's having self-image issues, thanks largely to suddenly hitting puberty. She's moody, mean to her mom, hates herself, and can't follow through with what she wants to do. It's fairly well-handled, although I'm not certain that Moody Sue plays to the character's earnest strengths. Axl trying out to be a lifeguard is about as trifling as it sounds, although it does put Axl in the odd position of being the good kid, after several weeks of the primarily joke being his total inability to empathize.
The bulk of the episode is spent on Brick and his irrational fear of bridges. Frankie and Mike decide that it's time to break him of it, but he resists, effectively. While it's initially set up as a battle of the sexes with Frankie trying to be feminine and nurturing while Mike's being masculine and tough, the show cleverly moves past that in a couple of montages. Their initial division falls apart after a few minutes with Brick, as his stubbornness reduces the both of them to an almost identical set of desperate parenting techniques.
The episode ends with most everything falling into place, although not entirely satisfactorily, in spite of the Heck parents' best and least efforts. It's kinda smart, and kinda cute, but never at a dangerous level of either.
- Sue going through puberty will be odd, since the actress playing her is closing in on 20 years old.
- “What, you don't think I beat Shaun?” “Nope! I really don't!”
- “C'mon, Brick, don't you want to be cool?” Frankie's at arguably her sane best in this episode.
- “I don't even put on a swimsuit without at least two margaritas.”
- “We should write a book!”
- “So what do you think? Should we have kids?”