The Middle: “The Drop Off”
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The Middle: “The Drop Off”

B+

The Middle

“The Drop Off”

Season 5, Episode 1

As the summer comes to a close, so begins the process of getting the kids back to school, and while that’s always been a major chore for Frankie and Mike in the past, this year is starting out as an exception. Why? Because Axl’s going to college, baby, and he couldn’t be happier to get the heck out of the Heck house. The same can’t be said for his mother, however, who—as has been well established over the course of The Middle’s run—has never dealt well with the major “my baby’s growing up” moments of her children’s lives.

Well aware of her propensity toward public embarrassment, Axl does his best to move forward with a proposal to just have his dad do a drive-and-drop-off and be done with it, but when Frankie starts throwing around the phrase “iconic moment” every time she opens her mouth, it becomes clear that he’s stuck with the plan as it stands: the whole blessed family is going to be taking the 42-minute drive to East Indiana State. As ever, Brick doesn’t really care what’s going on and is literally just along for the ride, but Sue’s a bit more stressed out about her forced participation, owing to the fact that she’s anxiously awaiting word on whether or not she’s been selected as Junior Peer Leadership Supervisor, a position which—as I’m sure we all know—is the surest way to end up on the fast track to serving as recording secretary. It’s clearly a very serious situation for Sue, who actually gets frustrated enough about being forced to ride along that she asks Frankie, “What did you ever get him a car for?” Still, she relents to her mother’s request (as if she ever really had a choice), just as long as she can keep her cell phone with her at all times, lest she miss out on a congratulatory call.

Despite only being 42 minutes away, the trip to East Indiana State ends up taking the Hecks five hours, which sounds like a lot of time unless you’ve ever participated in a road trip with your family, in which case it’s surprisingly true to life. Part of the blame can reasonably be placed upon Axl, who decides that two plastic bags can hold everything he’ll need to survive at college, even though the bags contain precisely nothing referenced on the school-sanctioned list of things students should bring and despite the fact that Frankie specifically gave him money to buy things that were on the list.  (In fairness, given the reaction of his dorm-mates, the list clearly should’ve included an inflatable palm tree and a bag of sand.) Sensing an opportunity to play Mom one last time before letting go of her little boy, Frankie drags Axl into the store to buy him all the college essentials—that really was a pretty sweet shower caddy—along with a few things for herself and, to ensure that both of her sons get a storyline, a cell phone for Brick…but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Inevitably, “The Drop Off” feels very much like a continuation of “The Graduation,” by virtue of the fact that Frankie is always going to struggle a bit when she’s struck by the realization her kids aren’t quite so little anymore, and Mike’s always going to help bring her back from the abyss. It’s all part of the parenting process. So is being proud of your kids, which is why, when Frankie’s presented with an opportunity to tell someone, anyone, about her son going away to college on a scholarship, she takes it, no matter how much it may make her son cringe. (The evening’s best combo of physical comedy and one-liner came when she was bragging to the saleswoman about Axl, who promptly knocked himself flat by running into a sign, forcing Frankie to quickly clarify of the scholarship that it was “not academic.”) But Axl’s utter ignorance of what he’s about to get himself into, best exemplified by expectations of being handed an envelope of cash upon arrival and getting to pick “the best bedroom” if he beats his roommate to the dorm, reveals that he’s really not any more ready for this transition than she is, even if he may think he is. Still, he’s clearly already got people to party with, so even if he is only 42 minutes away, there’s no question that he’s going to get the full college experience.

The Sue and Brick storylines felt like somewhat perfunctory excursions at times—Sue really, really wants to be part of something! Brick’s really, really irresponsible!—but, really, how much can you do with the characters when A) the entire episode is structured around Axl, and B) they’re more or less limited to the confines of the car for the duration of the episode? But now we’ve got a new social activity for Sue, who had some great moments as she worked through trying to reproduce her essay after it was stained by Frankie’s purse freshner, and Brick…well, what can I say? He’s still Brick. I wouldn’t say there was any real forward momentum for the character yet (although I’m led to understand that that’s coming sooner than later), but I think I still laughed every single time he managed to lose his phone, so I’m fine with it.

Best of all, we got a chance to spend some time with the entire family in the car. I’ve said on several occasions that you can’t go wrong with a scene that features the whole Heck clan in the confines of their vehicle, and this was no exception. Not only that, but we got the bonus plan, with Jerry Van Dyke offering a brief guest appearance via voiceover as Grandpa Tag. The way it came about was good, with Brick calling him up because of his new cell phone’s friends-and-family plan (“I don’t have any friends, so…”), but the payoff was even better, with Tag revealing that he and Pat had given Axl a savings bond some years ago, one that Frankie and Mike had spent—sorry, I mean they diversified his portfolio—during desperate times, not realizing that all of their times would be desperate.

By the end of the episode, with the family returning home and Frankie still hearing echoes of Ax lint he house, only to realize that she’s actually hearing Axl, it’s pretty clear that any fans who feared we wouldn’t be seeing as much of Charlie McDermott with his character going off to college needn’t have spent the summer worrying. Now we just have to see how things go once Sue and Brick get back into the swing of academia. Looks like we’ve got another fun season ahead of us, and I for one can’t wait to see where things go from here.

Stray observations:

  • Although I’m an older brother, it never occurred to me to rip one last fart in my sister’s room before leaving for college. It’s times like this you wish you had a time machine…
  • Someone really ought to track how many schools are prompted to initiate “Mix It Up Mondays” in the wake of this episode.
  • I love the fact that Axl preferred to steal Brick’s toothbrush rather than buy one. But what I loved even more was the fact that Brick still wanted his toothbrush back, anyway.
  • Dismissing the idea of buying shower shoes because “I’ve already got athlete’s foot” was classic Axl.
  • There was something wonderful about Brick feeling the need to clarify that he’d found the top half of a squirrel.
  • Boy, from the back, Kenny sure did look like Harry Knowles…
  • My wife and I were fortunate enough to visit the set of The Middle this summer, and while we were there, we saw the inflatable palm tree in the office. Executive producers DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler unabashedly teased us and said we’d have to wait and see how it played into the episode. (My daughter was convinced the Hecks were going to use it to create a tropical vacation at home, since they clearly couldn’t afford to go anywhere, which is actually a pretty good theory for an 8-year-old.)
  • Anyone want to share their favorite going-away-to-college memory? My first night in the dorm, I was awoken by the following sounds from the hallway: THUNK. “Shit!” THUNK. “Shit!” THUNK. “Shit!” Curiosity finally got the best of me, so I opened my door, peeked out, and saw a very drunk gentlemen stumbling down the hall with a lengthy piece of bamboo, attempting to use it to lift ceiling tiles into the air in one piece. Unfortunately, he consistently misjudged how hard he was thrusting the bamboo upward, resulting in an ongoing series of fucked-up tiles. (Our hall’s damage bill that semester was not insubstantial…and it was split between everyone on the hall. My parents were less than pleased.)
  • So in conclusion, I love America.