Tonight's episode of The Middle may not have been the laugh-out-loud funniest installment that the series has given us this season, but it was a particularly strong effort in terms of spotlighting the relationships within the Heck family, be it husband and wife, parent and child, or brother and sister. Also, it had a particularly awesome guest star. But we'll get to that.
Brick's desire to possess his very own pair of night vision goggles brings him into discussion with Frankie and Mike, who assure him that, although buying stupid things is every person's God-given right, that doesn't mean that they have to be the ones whose money is being spent on the stupidity. Having blown all of his money on books, Brick's hardly in any position to go on a spending spree, but give him credit for trying to make back a few bucks by asking his parents if they'd like to buy any of his books. When that fails, however, he decides to do the next best thing: get a job delivering the local newspaper. This goes about as well as you (and Frankie and Mike) would expect, which is to say not very well at all.
Meanwhile, what seems to be shaping up to be the best day of Sue's life—she's just cheered her heart out, her boyfriend's won his wrestling match, she's finally getting her braces off—suddenly goes horribly, horribly wrong: Matt's being forced to move to Zionsville with his family, which sends him and Sue into a long-distance relationship, something that neither of them particularly wanted. The way Eden Sher's voice cracked as she tried to rationalize that things would work out was so sad that I almost teared up myself, but who can blame her? This is our Sue. She deserved happiness, but it doesn't look like things are going to work out quite as she planned, especially now that she's been diagnosed as suffering from an unprecedented underbite overbite and has to wear her headgear for the long haul. But Sue is nothing if not absurdly optimistic, so she convinces herself that a long-distance relationship will endure between her and Matt. (Thank goodness for Sherri, huh?)
Meanwhile, as Axl practices his sweet pick-off moves for baseball, he's still managing to pay attention to Sue's situation, eventually confronting Sue to tell her she's that she's shaping up to have her heart broken in a big way if she believes that she and Matt are going to keep their relationship going forever. At first, I thought the whole point of his rantings was because he was feeling jealous of Sue's accomplishments, but, no, I think he really just loves his sister and doesn't want to see her get any more hurt than she already is. But don't let it get out, because it'll only spoil his reputation.
Admittedly, several of this episodes storylines proceed to follow almost exactly the same path that you expect, with Brick being awful as a paperboy and Sue's long-distance relationship with Matt quickly entering a downward spiral, but they're delivered with such comedic aplomb that they're still enjoyable even if you can guess where they're going. In particular, the bit about Brick missing an entire day of school and still not being finished with his paper route was doled out perfectly. As for the discussions between Mike and Frankie in the car while helping deliver Brick's route, they were slight, but they were about such trivial, ridiculous things (batteries and frosting, of all things) that they felt very real.
Oh, but who are we kidding? The best part of the episode was the guest appearance by Lou Grant...oh, sorry, I mean Ed Asner. Except I don't, really, because it's not like there's any question which of Asner's past performances the part was intended to emulate. I won't even waste time quoting my favorite lines from the scene, because I basically loved everything that came out of Asner's mouth. I wish there was some way to bring him back every where, but in the meantime I'll just take comfort in the knowledge that being too scared of the guy to quit the paper route means that, technically, he could come back anytime the show wants an excuse to work with him again.
If I have one big complaint about this episode, it's that it seems like such a waste to end Sue's relationship with Matt so soon after it started, especially since we got so little time with them in between. Not that there isn't plenty of comedy to be mined from future dating experiences, but, dammit, I just want to see Sue happy. Is that so wrong?
- Since tonight's episode was called “The Paper Route,” I feel that I should, in the spirit of full disclosure, admit to you that not only did I, too have a paper route, but it's arguable that it's one of the reasons I'm writing for the AV Club...or anyone else, for that matter. For two years, I delivered the now-defunct Ledger-Star, the afternoon edition of the (mostly) still-thriving Virginian-Pilot, and having earned no complains during the course of that time, I ended up earning a scholarship which proceeded to pay for my first two years of college.
- Matt on his family's big move: “My dad's already there. I didn't say anything because I guess was hoping my dad would get fired or something. He's not a dependable worker.”
- “This must be love: you smell so bad right now, but I don't care.” Oh, Sue...
- “Whoa! What'd they do to you?” Nice parenting, Mike.
- “I'd like to remind you that we never did find that gerbil.” Seriously, what the hell kind of place are they running over at Casa de Heck, anyway?
- “That was a really good pick-off move, Axl. I didn't see that coming at all!” Again, Sue finds the bright side in everything, later deciding that her headgear was the only thing that saved her from a more serious head injury.