There aren’t many family sitcoms that reward their fans with callback jokes quite as often as The Middle does, but if you’ve been watching the series with any semblance of regularity over the course of 2013, then you probably got a kick out of the opening of this week’s episode, which finally answered the question, “When in the hell are the Hecks going to give back the van their church loaned them?” Given that the sermon featured a lot of barely-between-the-lines comments about charity, giving back, and that sort of thing, the writing was pretty much on the wall that they’d have to surrender the vehicle sooner than later. Not that they didn’t still try to slip away quietly after the Sunday service and drive the van home anyway, mind you, but when you’re met at your vehicle by the Rev and two of his most intimidating deacons (or ushers or vestry members or whoever they were supposed to be), your options are a bit limited, really.
And so the Hecks begin the long walk home, hauling with them all of the crap they’d accumulated in the van since early January, and Sue begins to moan in earnest about how she can’t possibly go back to riding the bus again, asking, “How big a dork am I going to look like?” With Axl off at college, the silence that follows this straight line is deafening…but not for long, as it turns out, since Mike, Frankie, Brick, and Sue enter the house to find Axl sitting on the couch in his typical attire of nothing but boxers. Although he makes time to deliver a sneering response to Sue’s rhetorical question about her dorkery (which earns a finger snap and a “there it is!” from Brick), the real reason Axl’s come home is to get a bit of peace and quiet while bitching and moaning about what an awful roommate he’s got at college. Yes, after all of Axl’s years of being an insensitive, inconsiderate lout around the house, Kenny is giving him a taste of his own medicine, which explains why the only response his complaints receive from any of his family members is a withering “Really.”
In an effort to solve her sudden lack of transportation, Sue works out a typically over-elaborate plan to make two cars work within a three-car family, the best bit of which comes on Tuesdays, when “Brick will have to drive, but only for one block.” It’s a nice effort, but it was never going to pan out. On the other hand, Frankie offers a solution that our ever-childlike Sue hadn’t considered: she’s old enough to get a job and pay for her own car. Given her instant ecstasy over the idea of entering the workplace, it seems a little hard to believe that she hadn’t been basically counting the days until she was old enough to get her first job, but I’m going to allow it, mostly because the stuff surrounding her gig as a potato seller was pretty hilarious, particularly the profound mood swings she suffers through in an effort to try and sell customers on how great the tuna and cheese potato is. (There’s another clip for Eden Sher’s Emmy reel!)
Somewhat less effective, however, was Axl’s effort to rid himself of his red-headed roommate. Anyone who’s ever been to college knows how much comedy there is to be mined from being stuck with a rotten roommate, but Kenny, bless him, is little more than a pencil sketch…and one done from the back, no less. It’s always a good gag to not show a character’s face, but when you don’t even hear his voice, I can’t imagine there’s much more comedy to be mined from this particular living arrangement. Well, you know, aside from the new wrinkle that Kenny’s got himself a fellow gamer as a girlfriend, but that’s less funny than creepy, really.
On the other hand, though, Brick’s struggle with switching classes was pretty great. Every parent dreads getting a call from the school about their child, but Frankie and Mike have gotten them so consistently that they were just enjoying the change of pace in not getting one….until, that is, Frankie opened her big, fat mouth and jinxed ‘em. I can’t say I’ve really been tracking the best TV principals over the years, but I have to believe that Rachel Dratch delivered one of the most realistic interpretations of the profession in recent memory. Watching her snippily shut down Frankie and Mike as they attempted to be lighthearted was an unexpected pleasure, as was the strange revelation that Brick hadn’t attended his classes in quite some time, even though he’s been going to school every day and, indeed, is coming along swimmingly in Spanish. Surely none of us truly believed that Frankie was going to come out the episode with a win in her column, but sometimes it’s just fun to squirm a bit as she gets all fired up for a fight, only to have the other person deliver the killing blow…and, damn, did Dratch deliver it. BOOM!
Okay, so the episode had some flaws. Still, it was nice to more or less let the parents step aside in favor of giving the three kids the predominant storylines this week. Let’s just hope Axl ends up working through his issues at school. I know he’s always going to be a major presence, but after this week, it’s hard not to start up a bit with wondering, “How can we miss you if you won’t go away?”
- “Spying on people’s houses? That doesn’t sound very Jesus-y.” I’m betting Patricia Heaton really enjoyed getting to deliver that line.
- Are walking scenes the new car scenes? It’s too soon to say, but there were several funny one-liners as the family strolled home from church, including Mike’s comment about how it’s convenient that they’re being semi-excommunicated during football season and Brick musing that it might be worth considering going the Christian Science route, given all the good things he’s heard about their library.
- I love that Mike is wearing a belt that he found on a park bench.
- Seriously, how many middle school principals do you think stood up and cheered in their living room after Rachel Dratch’s first scene?
- I know it was silly, but I still loved the Sophie’s Choice gag. (In fairness, corgi vs. beagle is a hell of a decision.)
- Okay, dads, raise your hand if this exchange between Sue and Mike sounded a little too familiar to you: “Hey, Dad, guess what?” “Good, honey!”
- I realize that, yes, at some point the teachers of the classes Brick was attending probably should have wondered, “Who is this kid?” But, hey, it’s still early enough in the year that I can accept that the teachers hadn’t yet memorized every kid’s name.
- Lastly, just to keep the 100+-comments train rolling on (two weeks running!), anybody else got a crappy college roommate story to share? I won’t say that my roommate was crappy, or that he thought I was, but our pairing only lasted for a couple of hours. He’d moved his stuff into the room first, and his original claim was that he walked in after I’d moved my stuff in, decided that it wasn’t going to work, and promptly found himself a spot in another dorm with his frat buddies. Later, he downplayed it considerably and said that he’d always wanted to move in with those guys. Eh, either way: I still ended up with my own room for my junior and senior years of college, so I ain’t complaining.