Since I started watching The Middle a few months ago, most of the focus has been on non-Axl characters. There have been a few episodes where he's almost an afterthought, and, compared to the other members of the Heck family, he rarely shines. I had thought that part of it might be the actor, Charlie McDermott, or perhaps the two-dimensionality of the character. That lack of depth may still be a problem, but tonight's episode indicated pretty clearly that McDermott has the comic chops to stay with the rest of the cast.
The main storyline of the episode involves Axl leaving his socks everywhere, pissing Mike off enough to punish him, which Mike does by grounding Axl from the season-ending basketball game. He and Frankie feel bad about it, and try to figure out a way to convince Axl to make up for it, and Axl stubbornly, obtusely, bizarrely, and quite amusingly misses the point, over and over. The comedy is really broad, in keeping with both the show and the character, and McDermott somehow makes Axl's idiotic exasperation work most of the time. When his grounding becomes public knowledge, Axl milks it, shouting “Basketball's my only ticket out of this hellhole!”
Which is good, because otherwise this is a fairly down episode of The Middle. Its normal, cheerful over-the-topness normally works well for it, but tonight it seems like it's aiming for universality and missing. It doesn't help that the jokes, other than Axl's and a few wardrobe-based lines for Brick, fall pretty flat. Without the normally zippy writing that makes The Middle fly by, all we end up with is its wisdom, which trends towards the saccharine in this episode. Patricia Heaton stops only a tiny bit short of literally saying that “things aren't important, family is!” to wrap things up. She really didn't need to narrate it, since every other piece of the narration leads you there by the nose.
It's unfortunate, too, because the episode actually began promisingly with the tradition of the older cousins' worn-our-clothes arriving for Brick. The Middle's biggest strength and main selling point is its non-judgmental portrayal of lower-middle class monetary struggles, and Brick's dismay at having to wear increasingly insane hand-me-downs strikes both a comic and a sympathetic chord. Turning the episode into a more generic family-learning-lessons plot didn't necessarily do the show justice, though there was still some fun to be had.
- Though the written jokes weren't all that great, there were some fun visuals. A flashback to Mike “teaching” Axl how to play basketball by swatting all his shots away is probably the best of them.
- “Mom? Who are the Village People?”
- “How'd you get that from that?”
- “Mom...help me?” Axl's desperate monologue, with several different directions of manipulation, is probably the highlight of the night.
- “Since when? You undermine me all the time.”
- “Mom? Who's Liberace?”
- “We can teach him other lessons?”
- “If you wanted me to come up with it on my own, you should have told me.”
- “Go, you fool!”
- “This him?”