The Middle: “The Friend”
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The Middle: “The Friend”

There are a lot of perfectly valid reasons for not revealing to your parents that you’ve got a significant other, most notably the fact that you don’t have to deal with the constant barrage of questions from your mother and—to a far, far lesser extent—your father about things like how you two met, what your new sweetheart is like, what their parents are like, and countless other answers which you can’t readily provide and don’t matter to you, anyway. If there’s one good thing about coming clean about your relationship, though, it’s that you no longer have to skulk about, grabbing kisses on the sly, and as we see in this week’s opening moments, Axl and Cassidy are taking full advantage of this new change of status. And, really, can you blame them? It’s not like you need to have exhibitionist tendencies (although given how often Axl wanders around the house in his boxers, he’s clearly got ‘em in spades) to simply enjoy not worrying about being seen.

Funnily enough, and probably not coincidentally, how people are seen—or, in Sue's case, not seen—would seem to be the major theme running throughout this week’s episode.

Sue, for instance, discovers that, even though she’s put her heart and soul into making the Wrestlerettes a viable school-spirit entity, people from the principal on down are utterly unaware of their existence… like, to the point where the so-called real cheerleaders feel obliged to step in and offer their school-spirit distribution services. Mike, meanwhile, enjoys his blissful under-the-radar existence and finds it jarring when he realizes that Frankie’s not only trying to make friends for him but, indeed, is once again revealing the details of his life to complete strangers…by which, of course, I mean their neighbors, but you have to remember that we’re talking about a guy who, when Frankie tells him that their new neighbor is on the phone for him, is convinced that it’s actually a salesperson because “that’s what they tell you to get you on the phone.” And why does Frankie spew out all of these details in the first place? Mostly because she wants to make sure that people realize that what they see isn’t necessarily everything there is to know. And to bring this whole thing full circle, a discussion with Brick leads Axl to start wondering what Cassidy sees when she looks at him and worries she might not be seeing everything about him that there is to see… because, y’know, he is his father’s son, so he’s not exactly the most outwardly emotional guy in the world.

At this point, I should probably admit that I am now and always have been really bad at identifying themes in art, as my high school literature grades handily confirm, so it’s possible that I’m completely imagining this thru-line connecting all of the plots. But it sure seems like there’s something to it. Still, it’s probably best if we also talk about the episode in less philosophical terms, just in case.

So, yes, the Hecks have new neighbors: Jeff and Colleen, who look suspiciously like David Koechner and Gabrielle Carteris. Shockingly, Mike has no interest in meeting them or in checking out their stuff (“What’s the point? We already know it’s better than ours!”), but Frankie can’t resist, so she scampers over to their house bearing saran-wrapped potato chips on a plate, a dish which I will absolutely be bringing to every pot luck I attend from now on. Although her reaction is surprisingly muted when she sees how dramatically Nancy Donahue has shown her up on the food-preparation front, it’s probably because she’s so giddy at the general lack of darkness and dankness in her neighbors’ home. Mike, however, sucks away most of her good mood as soon as she walks back in the house, immediately fearing the worst about her enthusiasm.

Mike: You didn’t invite ‘em over, did ya?
Frankie: No, Mike, I didn’t invite anybody over.
Mike: Attagirl.

He’s right to be concerned, of course: Frankie sees so much of her husband in Jeff that she can’t resist cornering him and trying to sway him into inviting Mike out for a beer. (Maybe it’s because I just re-watched “Pregnant” a few days ago, but I was instantly reminded me of Louis C.K.’s bit about the inherent weirdness of trying to make new friends when you’re over 40.) Mercifully, Jeff interrupts Frankie’s verbal diarrhea about how Mike’s got recluse tendencies and his dad’s a hoarder and lets rip with the prefect credo for virtually every character David Koechner has ever played: “Listen, Frankie, I’ve got one rule in life: I’ll have a beer with anyone.” And so he does. And not only do they have a great time, but they even make plans to do it again. But then Jeff makes the mistake of referencing that the evening was Frankie’s idea, and that’s when things start to spiral out of control.

As great the initial moments of Frankie and Mike’s post-beer discussion may be, particularly when he describes her evasive response to his accusation as “a Frankie yes,” her insistence on trying to salvage Mike’s newfound friendship quickly transitioned from well-intentioned to absurd. That’s not to say that it wasn’t in character for her to go completely against Mike’s request to stop talking about him to anyone, but surely there was a less ridiculous way to go about alienating the neighbors than having her leave hours and hours of messages on Colleen’s cell phone voicemail, a gag which I could’ve happily seen retired after Swingers.

This was an isolated problem in an otherwise awesome episode, however, as the other storylines were pretty damned great. The cluelessness of the cheerleaders at Sue’s school never fails to score a few laughs (“Wait, I don’t think ‘founded’ is a word, is it?”) and it’s always fun to see the Wrestlerettes together again, but watching the auditorium slowly but surely transition from laughing at their routine into being caught up in their unabashed enthusiasm was a moment that had to have made all of the Sue supporters out there stand up and cheer just like her classmates did. As for the Axl-Brick storyline, that managed to keep me guessing from start to finish. While it seemed like they were heading toward Brick developing a crush on Cassidy based on their mutual appreciation of the Planet Nowhere series, he ended up playing Henry Higgins rather than Cyrano de Bergerac, helping Axl strengthen his relationship with Cassidy. While other shows would’ve had the character deliver half-remembered facts about art and literature, Axl recites the information more or less impeccably, and when Cassidy admits that she’s fine with the status quo between them, Axl replies with a heartfelt speech that continues Charlie McDermott’s apparent competition with Eden Sher to see who gets the show’s first acting nod at the Emmys.

Yep, you just take out Frankie's frantic phone call, and you've got another excuse to say that this is The Middle's best season to date. Not that I haven't said it before, but as the weeks pass, it seems less and less likely that anyone who's actually watching the show is going to argue the point. Not that I'm not willing to listen, you understand. It's just that with the all of the evidence in my theory's favor, I'm increasingly hard pressed to imagine anyone taking a contrary position.

Stray observations:

  • Although I neglected to mention when French Stewart popped up as Axl and Sue's principal last time, I won't make that mistake this go-round. He's still being underutilized, but I laughed when they suddenly entered his second scene at the gym as he said, "And that's why you should always wear socks" (I need closure on that warning, dammit!), and I found his body language when the cheer-off was declared to be inexplicably hysterical.
  • Brad's still pretty undeveloped, but his disappointed shake of the head at the news that people were still posting pictures of their butts on the bulletin board was sublime.
  • I understand all too well the dangers of being led around by one's hormones, but surely Axl and Cassidy didn't have to make out on the couch while Brick was sitting on it.
  • Great moments in male bonding: Mike and Jeff being unable to high-five each other due to their respective arm injuries and deciding, "What do you say we just sit and drink more beer?" By the way, if Neil Flynn and David Koechner look particularly comfortable together at any point, it's probably because they've been longtime members of an improv group called Beer Shark Mice. More details about that when my interview with Flynn runs.
  • Axl's non-sentimental line of the night: "We've got plenty in common. We both think I'm awesome."
  • Brick's line of the night: “Ah, I knew this day would come: a day I’d become more to you than something to Indian burn, whip a towel at, or force to smell your farts.
  • Of course Brick thought Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus was a science-fiction book. And, on a related note, of course Weird Ashley’s got a regular night where she buries things she’s found during the week.
  • Anyone else groan when Axl decided it might be a good idea to try and have a conversation with Cassidy?
  • Getting Axl to learn facts by getting treats was a little over the top, but it was nice to see Atticus Shaffer provided with the opportunity to give the origins of his own name a shout-out.
  • "We can do this! This is the moment we’ve been waiting for our entire lives!" "The Rapture?" "No, Ruth. But that’s a biggie, too!"

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