Although The Middle has consistently maintained a solid track record of delivering spot-on observations about the lifestyle of lower middle-class families, there have certainly still been episodes which had fantastic A-stories but were dragged down by disappointing storylines elsewhere in the proceedings.
Not this week, baby.
Now, if you’ll recall, the last time we had a new episode of The Middle was April 11. That very morning, ABC’s publicity department sent out an email which completely ignored that night’s episode (a move which can’t have thrilled the producers, given that the show was coming off several weeks of reruns) in favor of informing everyone that the May 2 episode of the show—with very special guest star Whoopi Goldberg!—was already available for advance screening. This was clearly intended to start the big Whoopi buzz as early as possible, but… is it wrong to say that I didn’t care?
Don’t get me wrong, I like Whoopi just fine, but she’s just spent so much more time being herself over the past several years that it’s surprisingly easy to forget that she’s still a gifted comedic actress as well.
Y’know, actually, now that I think about it, it’s really not that surprising at all. I mean, it’s literally been over half a decade since the last time we got to see her properly strutting her stuff on a sitcom, and while those two episodes of Everybody Hates Chris were good, 2006 was a long damned time ago. So long, in fact, that it never occurred to me that she’d offer anything to The Middle beyond a small bump in the ratings courtesy of loyal viewers of The View. Who knew that her decision to take on the role of Sue Heck’s guidance counselor would turn me back into a Whoopi Goldberg fan?
Sue’s storyline really could’ve been tragic: She learns that she’s made so little of an impression at school that even after all of the hard work she put into the Wrestlerettes, apparently no one outside of their membership is even aware of their existence, thereby leaving her absent from the yearbook yet again. But when the yearbook adviser makes a desperate attempt to get Sue the hell away from her (“Look, you’re clearly having thoughts about things…”) by steering her toward the school’s bored-out-of-her-skull guidance counselor, Jane Marsh, things go in an unexpectedly cheery direction. Rather than loathing her job and trying to avoid dealing with kids at all cost, Ms. Marsh possesses limitless enthusiasm but has simply been forgotten or ignored by everyone around her… y’know, kind of like Sue. The moment Marsh smiles and reveals a mouth full of braces, it’s clear that the two are kindred spirits, which no doubt explains why Sue takes the advice imparted to her—“Your past never has to define you. Yesterday’s gone. What do you want to be tomorrow?”—and latches onto it like a frigging pitbull.
It was so perfectly Sue for her to come up with the rose-colored plan to change her name to Suki, adopt new physical and personality traits, and start high school life anew, and once again, Eden Sher proved up to the task of making us love this poor clueless teenage girl despite all of her unbelievable naiveté. Even at its most ridiculous, such as when Sue made the announcement that Suki would be right-handed, Sher sold the moment beautifully. Similarly, although the idea that an entire school—students and faculty both—would believe that “Suki” was some odd strain of Asian flu was kind of ridiculous, it was redeemed by the episode’s complete commitment to the gag, from the morning announcements to the bottle of hand sanitizer on Marsh’s desk, which she abruptly makes disappear when she realizes her mistake. The ending of the storyline, with Marsh taking a stand and making herself known to the faculty at long last, seemed like it might go schmaltzy, but the last shot, where we see how Sue finally made it into the yearbook, nipped that in the bud nicely.
Okay, that’s our big story of the week. Now let’s do a quick jump to the smallest of the other stories: Brick’s battle against the Presidential Fitness Test. Although it’s a funny enough concept to have warranted much more screen time, everything we did see worked like a charm, from Brick’s failed attempts at pushups to his attempts to phone the President to the abrupt but perfectly acceptable end moment where he realized he could make people laugh without them actually laughing at him. There can be no question, however, about which moment was the funniest. Axl’s attempt to demonstrate a pull-up on the back of the bedroom door may well be the most perfectly executed piece of physical comedy I’ve seen on a sitcom this year. I’ve watched it three times now, and I still laugh just as hard each time.
Lastly, we’ve got the big fight between Mike and Frankie about the bed, a storyline that was arguably strong enough to carry its own episode. The use of the title cards and occasional switches to black and white were a nice change of pace, but the goings-on between husband and wife were so clearly based in reality that it was almost painful at times… the pain, of course, coming from trying not to laugh too hard at certain lines because your wife’s sitting next to you. Having been through the process of buying a bed with my spouse, an event that was preceded by months of hemming and hawing over the matter while both of us perpetually rolled to the center of the mattress, I can personally vouch for the authenticity of much of this material.
Basically, if The Middle is looking for an episode to send to the Emmy voters, this is the one. It’s just that good. What a way to come back for the final run of episodes for the season. Let's hope the ones that follow are as strong.
- “People in crack dens have nicer mattresses than we do.”
- Mike had many great lines tonight, the first of which came when he assured Frankie that Aunt Ginny would want her to spend her inheritance on booze, but I got a big laugh out of the look he cut Frankie after he assured Sue that they’d put a lot of work into coming up with her name.
- I think that yearbook coordinator may have worked at my high school. At the very least, ours had the same attitude.
- “I know what it’s like to feel like you don’t exist. Nobody knew who I was in high school, either. And I was the only black kid!” Best Whoopi line of the night.
- Least surprising revelation of the episode: Sue has a “hang in there, baby” poster.
- It says something about Brick’s psyche that he only repeated the word “tobacco” after referring to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. I don’t know what it says, but it definitely says something.
- I felt a lot of Brick’s pain tonight, by the way. Not only could I probably only do about a fourth of a push-up, the 600-meter walk-run was the goddamned bane of my existence. In fact, just typing its name has made me a little twitchy. (I was not a svelte child. I did not run well, and I wasn’t a stellar walker, either.)
- “Axl, what you and the President fail to understand...” Another laugh-out-line.
- If you single kids take away one lesson from this episode, it should be this: never, ever tell your wife she’s acting like her mother. No good can come from it. Ever.
- Lastly, please tell me that I’m not the only one who all but cheered when Jo Anne Worley popped up as one of Sue’s teachers. I met her a few years ago, and she’s still just as Jo Anne Worley as she ever was, as you can see here.