The Middle: “The Ditch”
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The Middle: “The Ditch”

You can’t necessarily guarantee you’re going to be getting something wonderful when an episode of The Middle starts off without any sort of opening narration from Frankie—that rule only remains consistent for episodes that start off with the whole family in the car—but it’s still a unique enough occurrence that it was momentarily startling. As it happens, what we ended up getting was something that was slightly more than 75 percent wonderful, which is still a pretty decent score. Shame about most of that Frankie storyline, though.

The aforementioned opening spotlighted Brick’s adventures through the refrigerator as he quested for that elusive item—in the Heck house, anyway—known as the healthy snack. Given that his options included eating grape jelly with a spoon, sucking on lime juice, or eating a container of yogurt which didn’t seem to pass the smell test, one can only presume that he accepted Frankie’s rationalization that a bottle of olives was his best bet, since at least they’re a vegetable, “two if you count the thing in the middle.” (Actually, I think both are technically considered fruits from a botanical standpoint, but if I’m right, then I’m vaguely embarrassed that I even remember it, so let’s just move on.)

The reason for his healthy snack: to help him power through the middle school placement test. Once he actually arrives in class to take the test, however, there’s been a change in plans, at least as far as he’s concerned. Seems that Brick’s decided that he won’t be going on to middle school, for reasons he doesn’t immediately divulge, but his adamant stance causes his teacher—Sam Lloyd, who’s sadly underused in what one presumes is his last appearance (unless budget cuts have caused him to work shifts at the middle school, too)— to call in the school counselor.

Once again, Dave Foley hits it out of the park as Dr. Fulton, using all the tricks in his arsenal to get Brick to explain why he’s suddenly decided not to go to middle school, including furry, chatty hand puppets and singing him a song. Finally, Brick gives it up: He’s concerned about the difficulty in adjusting to the difference in the handles on the water fountains, which is about as Brick-ish a reason as he could possibly have. Moreover, though, he’s going to miss Dr. Fulton, which would sound sappy if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s well established that Brick basically has nothing in common with anyone he goes to school with, so Dr. Fulton probably is his only real friend… or, at the very least, he seems to be the only person in the school who goes out of his way to talk to Brick, so, hey, close enough for jazz. Discovering that the doc’s still gonna be with him on Tuesday and Thursdays, Brick cheerily heads back to take the placement test, which he promptly bombs (at least as far as getting into the honors program goes) as a result of having not paid enough attention to know that he wasn’t allowed to fill in the circles with anything other than a No. 2 pencil. Beautiful.

Sue’s storyline involved her own school-related rebellion, one that was so completely unlike her that there was never any chance that it wasn’t going to go horribly, horribly wrong, but that’s what she gets for letting Axl get her all riled up. His riffing on the motivational posters was genius, though, although the real highlight was when she informed him that “the most powerful weapon in the world is education,” only to step out of shot and reveal those very words on the poster she’d been standing in front of.

As someone who invariably had everything fall apart at the seams whenever I tried to do something vaguely rebellious as a teenager, I related to Sue’s failed efforts to enjoy a skip day almost as much as I did Frankie and Mike getting a cut-off notice from the power company. The fact of the matter is that if you’re not naturally inclined toward breaking the rules, then skipping school is just not worth the fucking hassle, because all you’re going to do is desperately try to cover all your bases so that you can get away with it, and when you’re not doing that, then you’re just sitting around being incredibly conscious of the fact that you’re skipping school. And of course the day you skip is always when something awesome happens, because that’s what you get for skipping, or at least that’s what someone like Sue would be telling herself when she learned about the acapella concert and the free ice cream. (God only knows how she handled missing out on Katie Couric, but I’m sure there was plenty of self-flagellation involved.)

It’s too late in the game for an Axl storyline to not involve some sort of reference to his impending departure for college—surely there’s no doubt that he was lingering in Sue’s room because he’s beginning to realize that he’s even going to miss her a little bit—so it was nice to see him spend a little one-on-one time with Mike. If there was a single bum note in their scenes together, it apparently didn’t bother me enough to register. The father-son bond between Axl and Mike has always been there under the shared genetic predisposition toward not sharing their feelings, but this was a great way to see their mutual appreciation of each other through manly means, like checking out girls and solving mechanical difficulties. Also, the sight gags of the boat driving alongside them and Mike being covered in mud were both laugh-out-loud funny.

And so we come to Frankie. Sigh. Look, there’s no denying that Patricia Heaton is a gifted comedienne, but it’s remarkably easy to forget that when she’s tasked with showing the worst attributes of her character and trying to make them funny. Moving her way up the line by spinning increasingly reprehensible lies about being a doctor made me want to dislike her rather than laugh at her, and then to wrap up the scene by having her maintain the lie to the power company made it even worse. But the biggest comedic sin of all? Having her try to pay half of the power bill with her Kroger card. This is not a show that leaves reality behind on a regular basis, but, man, it was completely out the window by that point, and, frankly, the only reason I’m going to deign to discuss the goings-on in the office—because, dear God, the slapstick dentistry scenes were beyond painful—is because of Jack McBrayer. A little McBrayer goes a long way, I realize, but his brief dentistry vs. firefighting monologue was a thing of beauty.

Man, I really wish Frankie’s story hadn’t sucked. If you took that out of the equation, you’d probably have my favorite episode of the season.

Stray observations:

  • Caveat: I was reviewing off an advance screener tonight so that I could catch a screening of Star Trek Into Darkness and didn't want to be up until the wee hours writing my Middle review after getting home. I just re-watched it on my TiVo, though, and while I don't think any of the jokes I cited were omitted from the final version, there's at least one gag in the aired version that wasn't on mine: the explanation about why Curious Cat is wearing a post-it. Now it all makes sense.
  • I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a moment of Zen, because, seriously, he really was underused, but I did like the way Sam Lloyd so emphatically clarified the ways not to fill in the circles on the test.
  • “Dad, don’t forget my lucky hat!” “If it’s in our house, it ain’t lucky.”
  • Sue’s brave yet foolhardy decision to spontaneously portray Frankie with a British accent may have been one of my favorite Eden Sher performances of the season, owing mostly to the facial contortions she delivered to express that she didn’t know why she’d gone that route, but God forbid she should change accents now and have them see through the façade, so she clearly had to just power through and commit to it 100%. And, boy, did she. Bravo.
  • I don’t want to quote every single Dave Foley line (although I could and am, in fact, fighting the urge to do so), but as the son and the husband of teachers, I particularly loved Dr. Fulton’s reaction to the suggestion that they should call Brick’s parents: “Sure, let’s call the parents. I mean, what do we even need a school therapist for? I mean, what do they need any of us for, for that matter? Is that what you’re trying to do, Martin? Put us out of a job? What, you don’t like insurance? 68 days off every summer? We’ve got a sweet gig here. We need to look out for each other."
  • “Also, I have secret agent kittens in my closet.”
  • Mike on the bikini girls: “It was a large group. You look at a large group of anything: gazelles, ants, RVs…”
  • I’m glad Dr. Fulton’s obsession over Shelly is going to be a recurring aspect of his character. Also, his single best line reading was his dismissive description of asbestos. (“It’s a silent killer.”)
  • If Sue hadn’t gotten the washer to start working again, I might actually have cried.
  • Okay, it’s not actually a bum note, but I did keep wondering, “So why exactly is Axl out of school but Sue and Brick aren’t?”

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