The Middle: “The Name”
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The Middle: “The Name”

Confession: I was actually a little surprised to learn that there was a new episode of The Middle airing this evening. Not because it wasn’t adequately promoted by the network—I didn’t actually see any ads for it, but I’m sure they were out there—but because a few weeks ago I was the recipient of a promo packet including next week’s episode, and when I received it, I reasonably presumed, “This must be the first new episode after the four-week break!”

It was not. Now that I’ve seen the actual first new episode after the four-week break, however, I find it more bizarre than ever that they decided to send out the episode that they did…or, rather, that they didn’t send both episodes together, since, as we now know, the one they sent me was actually the second part of a two-part episode.

For now, though, let’s pretend that I haven’t seen Part Two and just talk about Part One, shall we? It’s just easier that way. Besides, even taken as a self-contained entity, “The Name” is still relatively slight as episodes of The Middle go.

Things kick off with a more-frazzled-than-usual Frankie fretting about her impending exam; so much so, in fact, that her sister Janet (Molly Shannon) calls to chat with her and immediately decides to come stay with the Hecks for a week, offering to help with the cooking, the cleaning, getting the kids to school, and, oh, did she mention the cleaning? Frankie’s gratitude is palpable as she assures Janet, “I have never loved you more than this moment,” but as with most sibling relationships, the love was not built to last.

While Frankie’s trying to study, Axl’s trying to work out what’s going on between him and Cassidy now that her ex-beau, Cliff the college student, has come back in the picture. It’s a slow build, starting with an unannounced pop-by to return a book just in time to be invited to stay for dinner, then continued when Cliff drops by the high school in his sweet ride (Axl, meanwhile, is on his bike) to remind Cassidy that their earlier obligations to Habitat for Humanity have rolled around. In both instances, Axl is struggling to be the bigger man and seem unbothered by Cliff, but when he sees Cliff helping Cassidy to saw a board, his jealousy flares up. Unfortunately, his efforts to assist Cassidy with her hammering prove shaky at best. He’s right to be pissed, but it takes a non-conversation with Mike to realize that he’s being an idiot. Too bad he discovers it too late…or does he?

Elsewhere in the episode, Sue and Mike are kept more or less occupied by a combination of Sue’s failure to pass her driver’s test and a desire, one which is spurred on by her aunt Janet, to finally get around to changing her middle name, which—like her first name—is also Sue. It’s a pretty lazy storyline, one which consists of little more than Sue contemplating a variety of name possibilities, finally settling on “Lily,” enduring false starts and long lines at the courthouse to make the change legal, and then realizing that, since Sue means “Lily,” nothing’s changing, so why bother switching names at all? So she doesn’t. Slight stuff, to say the least. In fact, the only person whose storyline is slighter is Brick, whose entire existence in the episode revolves around the eating of popsicles and an assignment to build a bridge out of popsicle sticks for one of his classes.

The Frankie/Janet plot gets the most screen time, which works out well, as it has plenty of emotional resonance. We’ve seen Janet before, and her personality remains approximately the same, but putting her knee-deep in Frankie’s world really spotlights the difference in the siblings’ personalities and, more specifically, their organizational preferences: Janet wants to help “fix” Frankie’s world, but Frankie’s used to living in broken surroundings and just wants to study. It finally reaches a point where Frankie can’t stand listening to Janet’s plans for the future and unleashes all the complaints she’s been holding back, causing Janet to burst into tears and run off. When Frankie comes to apologize, Janet reveals that things ain’t so great back at the homestead, either, admitting that her daughter Lucy, a.k.a. the scourge of Brick’s life, is an awful, awful child and is currently at a fix-it camp for spring break. In short, both sisters’ lives are kind of fucked up, so it all evens out.

Stray observations:

  • The various conversations going on while Frankie was trying and failing to talk on the phone to Janet were about as true to life as these things get, but none more so than Frankie’s assurances that she didn’t have Mike’s keys, only to sheepishly find them and pass them over. Oops. Also, HA!
  • “It’s amazing how your kid can be completely unhelpful and horrible to you, but he goes over to somebody else’s house and…” Yes. This. And it also goes for your kid at school. Or maybe that’s just my kid. We’ve never had a single complaint from any of her teachers, yet meanwhile she’s screaming at us on a semi-daily basis lately.
  • I realize that Sue’s been stressed about driving since she first got behind the wheel, but somehow I still thought she’d take it harder when she didn’t get her license right away.
  • Lots of great looks tonight. My favorites: Brick’s look when Janet headed toward him for a hug, and Axl’s horrified expression when Frankie mentioned that she was busy because she was “pushing a person through my legs.”
  • Axl: “Whoa, this actually looks good. Where’d you order from?” Brick: “You made it here? Our kitchen can do this?”The Heck kids on dinner a la Janet.
  • I want to be best friends with someone named Coco Gesundheit. I don’t know why, I just do.
  • Don’t worry, Axl. You’ll develop a taste for coffee eventually.
  • I don’t believe I laughed harder tonight than I did when Brick explained why Frankie didn’t remember helping him with his project: “You said you’d help me, then you went to the bathroom and never came back.”
  • “Tough day at the do-what-ever-you-want plant?” Seriously, Mike is my hero.
  • Rather than explain in detail the reason why this review is going up slightly later than usual, I’ll just say that, given the chance, I probably would’ve shipped my kid off to Camp Tanuturum last night. Unlike Janet, though, I haven’t been bitten or punched...yet.

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