The Middle: “The Last Whiff Of Summer”
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The Middle: “The Last Whiff Of Summer”

B+

The Middle

“The Last Whiff Of Summer”

Season 4, Episode 1

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Those who spent last season watching The Middle come into its own as a full-fledged star of ABC’s Wednesday night lineup must have been pretty pissed on Sunday night as they watched its sitcom sibling Modern Family take home award after award. Not that this hasn’t been standard operating procedure for the adventures of the Heck family since the series debuted in 2009, but, still, it can’t get any easier to accept being almost completely ignored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Oh, sure, the show did finally pull its first nomination this year—in the category of, um, Outstanding Makeup for a Single-Camera Series (Non-Prosthetic)—but is that really enough to keep the cast and crews’ spirits high?

Are you kidding? This is, after all, the show that gave us Sue Heck. They probably held a goddamned parade for those makeup artists, as well they should have. Recognition is recognition, and The Middle deserves whatever acknowledgement it receives. The problem is simply that it deserves much, much more than it gets.

With that said, there were some concerns when word broke that this season would be starting off with another hour-long installment, something that didn’t pan out all that spectacularly when the show tried it last year. The overlong feeling of that particular episode, however, can probably be blamed on ABC wanting to utilize special guest star Ray Romano as much as humanly possible. This time around, The Middle wisely played to its strengths, keeping the focus 100 percent on Frankie, Mike, Axl, Sue, and Brick. As a result, the episode serves as a wonderful welcome back to the Heck family.

Although officially entitled “The Last Whiff Of Summer,” presumably a reference to the smell of death in the Hecks’ car that “reactivates” during the warmer months of the year, this episode could just as easily been called “How The Hecks Spent Their Summer Vacation.” Just like every other family in America, the family members didn’t manage to accomplish nearly as much as they’d originally planned, but it wasn’t for lack of both Frankie and Mike having good intentions to have—wait for it—AN AMAZING SUMMER!

Big surprise: it turns out teenagers and adults define the word “amazing” very, very differently.

Caught up in rose-colored recollections of the summers of their youth, Frankie and Mike do their best to keep the kids from vegetating in front of the TV or any other device with a video screen, a decree that results in a chorus of groans, by suggesting a variety of inexpensive alternatives, the most exciting of which involves bouncing a tennis ball off the house. Trying to find a happy medium, Frankie and Mike then pitch the idea of the whole family going to a drive-in movie, a concept that completely blows the minds of all three children. (“Why would we drive somewhere to watch a movie when we could just watch one here?”)

Although it’s clearly the most awesome drive-in movie theater ever—we can only dream of an actual establishment that would offer a triple feature of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Fiddler on the Roof, and Serpico—the kids end up spending a big chunk of their time loitering in the nearby playground, indulging in one of the most dangerous sibling discussions known to man and asking the question, “Which one of us is Mom and Dad’s favorite?” When the kids actually pose the question to Frankie and Mike, she produces a baffling but brilliant bullshit response about infinite love. Mike, meanwhile, just answers the question outright: It’s Axl.

Despite Mike’s perfectly reasonable explanation for his answer, the revelation leaves Sue first  dumbfounded, then horrified and angry, but she quickly turns her lemons into lemonade, as she so often does, and declares that she is officially on a quest to make this The Summer of Sue and Dad. As it turns out, this proves to be a far harder quest to complete than she’d expect. Right about the same time, Frankie and Mike discover that Axl failed an English class last school year, putting him in a position where he has to make up the class in summer school or else fall out of the running for a football scholarship, much to his dismay. This also means that all of Mike’s focus falls onto Axl, leaving Sue to decide that she needs to act out and be rebellious to get her father’s attention. Meanwhile, in a decidedly lesser storyline, Brick is spending his summer growing a tomato plant. Yes, really. Look, I told you it was lesser, so let’s just move on, shall we?

And speaking of moving on, that’s exactly what summer continues to do throughout the episode, with very little in the way of specific dates being offered except for the Fourth of July, a day which will doubtlessly be remembered forever by Frankie as The Day My Kids Told Me I Was Their Second Favorite Parent. Ouch. There are some particularly funny details in the stories told by the kids in their defense, though my personal favorite was Frankie’s pitiful excuse for why she was late picking up Sue from Wrestlerette practice (“I fell asleep!”). In the end, Mike shrugs off his victory as being because she nags them more than he does, leaving Frankie to try to do whatever she can to win the top spot, which is how Brick cons her into taking everyone on a three-hour drive to the fair in order to enter his tomato into a competition. Shockingly, the final Heck family road trip of the summer ends up going about as poorly as almost everything that preceded it, but then the fireworks start exploding overheard, and everything seems right with the world.

Yes, you’re right, it is a pretty pat ending. For all the evolution The Middle has done over the course of its past three seasons, it still seems to try a little too hard to wrap everything up in a neat bow at the end of each episode, often leaving questions unanswered in favor of offering a moral to the preceding story. But Frankie’s right: It really is impossible to stay mad during fireworks. We’ll let it slide this time, partly because it’s so good to see the Hecks again, but mostly because there are some really great moments in the episode.

The generation-gap stuff felt a little forced at times, particularly the idea that Frankie would ever think that she could sell her technology-addicted kids on the simple pleasures of running through a sprinkler, but the kids’ reaction to the concept of a drive-in struck me as pretty spot-on. As ever, Eden Sher’s work as Sue is hysterical, and between her efforts to capture her father’s attention, her attempts at teenage rebellion, and the pitiful performance as she waited for her family to realize that she was lost, I’m still left stunned that she hasn’t been recognized by the Emmys for her talents.

All in all, “The Last Whiff of Summer” is a strong return for The Middle, particularly because it goes out of its way to remind viewers that the real key to the show’s success is focusing on the interaction between the core members of the cast. This doesn’t exactly bode well for fans of Chris Kattan and Brian Doyle-Murray, but for fans of the Hecks, it looks to be a good omen for the season ahead.

Stray observations:

  • Poor Atticus Shaffer. Puberty's a bitch on the voice.
  • Okay, I've got to give Eden Sher a bit more praise, because her delivery tonight was laugh-out-loud funny on several occasions, including her initial reaction to the sight of Brick digging a hole in the front yard ("You didn't kill another pet, did you?") and her failed attempt to hide her glee when she asked her parents, "What's going on? Is Axl in some kind of trouble?"
  • That was great comedic timing on Axl's use of the word "oxymoron." He and I had the same reaction at almost the same moment: "Hey, he just used that correctly!"
  • Our Sue's growing up: She's shifted her allegiance from Justin Bieber to One Direction.
  • Nice callback to Frankie's past forgetfulness when it comes to bringing food along on family trips.
  • "You can pretend like you're leaping into another dimension!"
  • "Oh, like you've never accidentally driven your car into a demolition derby before?" When Axl did that, all I could think of was the Simpsons' close encounter with Truckosaurus.
  • Am I the only one who couldn't help but smile during the closing montage of Sue's scrapbook? Great summer, wingnut. Thanks.

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