The Middle: “The Second Act”
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The Middle: “The Second Act”

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The Middle

“The Second Act”

Season 4, Episode 2

All good things must come to an end, and the same holds true for stagnant plotlines that have outlived their usefulness. Frankie's job at Ehlert Motors has been a part of The Middle from the very beginning, but as the series has continued to evolve, offering an increasing number of stories that take place almost entirely within the Heck's home, we've seen her at work less often, finally reaching a point last year where it felt legitimately shocking when the show cut to a shot of Frankie at the office. I believe the record will show that I suggested that it was only inevitable that the series would eventually have her give up the glamorous world of car sales, but in the back of my mind, I also kind of thought the show might keep her there for the long haul and only mention it when it was plot-convenient. I mean, that's really all the writers have been doing for the past year or so, anyway, right? But, no, it has finally happened: Frankie and the car dealership have finally parted ways.

Not only that, but the scene is clearly designed to give the viewers the closure they need on the matter while also acknowledging that Frankie's importance to the company—and, to a lesser extent, the company's importance to Frankie—is transitory at best. Ehlert uses the economic downturn as a crutch to explain why he's having to fall back on the old “last one hired, first one fired” routine, but in the long run, it's clearly more than that, since he all but admits that he has no intention of hiring her back no matter what the economy does. (“Look, Frances, if the economy picks up and things change... feel free to come back and buy a car!”) As she walks out of the building, the highest compliment Frankie can pay her coworkers is, “This really wasn't such a horrible place to come to every day,” and she has only just walked out the door when Pete announces, “Dibs on her desk!” I'm sure the show will find ways to bring in Brian Doyle Murray and Chris Kattan for guest spots, but for now, it's clear that the focus is going to be on Frankie and her trials as she figures out what her next step is going to be.

Let's not count on the decision being all that permanent, but at the moment, it looks like she's not going to be taking on another job, her argument being that she really didn't make that much to begin with. Mike's initial response was beautiful in its simplicity—“No. You did not”—but it doesn't take long before he starts to twitch at Frankie's reticence to even look for another job, no doubt because he's never not had a job since being old enough to go to work. Still, he's doing the best he can to support his wife, which is no doubt why he's trying to get behind her grand new plan: She's going back to school.

As the kids absorb the news that their mom is out of a job, it's Axl who ends up making the biggest transition during the course of the episode, starting out as an insensitive douchebag who is more concerned about the effects that his mom losing her job will have on his social life than he is about what she's feeling. This is standard for teens, of course, so that's no surprise. What's unexpected, however, is the way he turns things around later in the episode when he walks in on his mother sobbing about the situation she's found herself in and realizes that he needs to step up and offer the moral support that she deserves. If Charlie McDermott has ever looked sweeter than he does after he delivers the line, “It's about time Dad, Sue, and Brick started pulling their weight around here,” I can't remember it.

Sue's storyline was a great showcase for Eden Sher, offering a look into Sue's decidedly unique but unfailingly upbeat mindset (“I'm so excited!”) as she serves as a mentor to an incoming freshman named Jenna, only to watch the girl quickly enter all of the coolest social circles. There were different ways the writers could have handled the scenario, and had it been another series, it wouldn't have surprised me if Jenna had been a complete bitch to Sue... as if anyone could be a bitch after being handed a copy of “Sue's Tips for Sue-cess.” Instead, Jenna starts and ends the episode as a character that you actually don't mind seeing succeed, while Sue, rather than succumbing to jealousy about how the student has become the master, is pleased for Jenna and resigned to her own social leper-dom. It's a little sad to see her feel like she has to settle, but, really, if Sue's not sad about it, why should we be?

Brick's storyline is pretty inconsequential, all things considered, being as it's basically about him being rude and speaking inappropriately to Mike in public and Mike trying to figure out how to punish him for his actions. With that said, however, the whole thing was like holding a mirror up to the relationship that exists between my daughter and myself at the moment, and I suspect there are a lot of other fathers out there who could relate to that misguided instinct to try and talk things out rather than just punish outright. It never works. (They're all about deflection, the little bastards.)

Last week's season premiere was good, but this week serves as the true set-up for season four. Having Frankie leave the car dealership behind is a game-changer, to be sure, but it's one that opens up tremendous possibilities for new developments in the Heck household. Granted, those developments are probably the sort that will cause people to moan, “I need TV as an escape, not as a mirror of my real life,” but the best episodes of The Middle have always been the ones that hit the closest to home. Not because they're necessarily the funniest, but because they make you think, “Well, thank God someone else can relate to this shit.” In today's economy, I'm betting more people can relate to The Middle than any other show on the airwaves.

Stray observations:

  • "Softball game? Why don't you just take me to the beach?” Sometimes I am amazed at how similarly wired Brick and I are.
  • I laughed very hard when Sue mentioned that she had a section in her notebook on “Funny Things To Say When You Fall Down The Stairs.” And then I laughed almost as hard when she talked about how antiquated her cell phone is.
  • Even if Eden Sher didn't really do the face plant off the swing last week, I'm still betting she offered to really slip on the cafeteria floor rather than having it happen off-camera.
  • I'm sorry. I realize this is probably the last thing that he wants to hear, but the second I saw Mark DeCarlo as Mike's softball teammate, I instantly thought, “Hey, it's the host of Studs!”
  • And speaking of softball, am I forgetting something, or is the first time it's ever been suggested that Mike plays on a softball team... or, indeed, does anything with anyone from work outside of the quarry?
  • “Here's the thing, Frances: The truth is, you don't look good today.”
  • Pete's fake gasp of horror upon hearing the news of Frankie's firing was laugh-out-loud funny.
  • There were a lot of fun running jokes tonight (“Seniors rule!”), though the best were the recurring references to Frankie's past efforts in beading, the still-not-real website KickinItTeenStyle.com, and the general awfulness of powdered milk.
  • The discussion about Frankie's new school—specifically the possibility of her becoming a court reporter—features an exchange which may be one of my favorites in the history of the show.

Frankie: I could be a court reporter. Whenever I watch those crime shows, I always know who the criminal is before they reveal him.

Mike: I don't think you'd actually be solving crimes.

Frankie: No, no, I'd just be assisting. But the cops would come to rely on me for my expertise.