Tonight's episode felt like the distilled essence of The Middle. It normally pokes gentle fun at institutions while ending up in favor of them, yes, but “The Prom” went straight to the source and actually had a kinda cool, slightly irreverent reverend come in and dispense the proper wisdom to set things right. It's pretty much as square as it can possibly be, and yet it's got enough charm and humor that it's quite likeable.
There's also a surprising amount of continuity from the last couple of episodes, as each of the three plots relates directly to events in recent episodes. Last week's episode included Axl texting the wrong girl about the prom, and the his storyline tonight deals with the fallout from that once he discovers that he accidentally invited Weird Ashley out. Brick's friend makes a brief early appearance, joining Brick in putting on “shows” that initially delight, but quickly bore. Sue's plot reaches back a tiny bit further, dealing with her addition to the school news team and her attempts to parley that into being cool.
Axl's storyline is the most important of the episode, as his attempts to weasel out of going to the prom with an uncool girl are met with hostility by the parents. The Middle effectively and subtly conveys a lot here: the generation gap between the texting son and his “face-to-face” parents, as well as the way that people in close proximity can set up rigid lines of argumentation when a softer touch would might work better. Charlie McDermott is excellent as Axl tonight, using his cartoonish, over-the-top mannerisms to act as a metaphor for teenaged boys in general.
I also generally liked Brick's incompetent shows. Hyperintelligent children on TV shows are often presented as adults-in-miniature (see: Lisa Simpson), so it was good to see his intelligence and his immaturity combining into something just wasn't good for his family to deal with. Sue's storyline was more trifling, but Eden Sher, as ever, sells it. “It would be nice to be able to sit down” is funny enough, but seeing her eat the pasta from her tray without ever setting it down? Golden.
The whole thing was resolved by the appearance of Reverend TimTom, who I had not seen before, but apparently has a history with Sue and perhaps the rest of the Hecks. Really, I should have hated this bit. I may not be firebreathing anymore, but I'm still an atheist. Instead, I found it charming and, well, I want to say quaint, but that has negative connotations I don't want to invoke. I like the idea of someone whose job, in practical terms, is to smooth out people's rough edges and interactions. He's a peacemaker. It helps that it always feels like the characters' problems are easy enough that an outside force can objectively dispense working advice, because otherwise, it would be a Reverend ex machina. It is, really, but it's one that makes a certain kind of logical sense given the premise of the show.
“How would you feel if dogs ran the planet?!?”
“I don't have face-to-face.”
“He'll be in a tux.” Mike threatens to tie Axl up and drag him to his prom date.”
“In high school, every day is judgment day.”
“You make allowances for family, Dad.”
“Mary wondered if he'd be okay, and Jesus turned out to be a super-nice guy.”
“But Jesus isn't in my lunch room.” “Or is he....?” If anyone is Jesus, it's Sue Heck. The endgame for The Middle is her dying for all of our sins. Hilariously.