Whenever there’s a new Middle on the horizon, my daughter invariably asks, “Daddy, do you know what this week’s episode is about?” When I told her that we were going to see Frankie and Mike celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary, she rolled her eyes and said, “Yeah, like that’s going to end well.”
She might only be 7 years old, but you have to admit that, given how most major holidays and special occasions go down in the Heck house, it’s a pretty fair cop. But while “Twenty Years” may have followed through with the anniversary-episode trope of a pre-anniversary spat between husband and wife that ends up getting resolved just in time to make for a very happy anniversary after all, “Twenty Years” proves to be an unexpectedly strong episode for the kids.
Indeed, the first plotline introduced this evening is actually a carryover from several episodes back, when Brick won virtually all of Axl’s possessions as a result of discovering an unexpected knack for air hockey. Turns out Brick’s decision to use Axl’s guitar as little more than a glorified post-it storage unit (“I like this wire the best!”) has really been grating on Axl’s nerves in a big way. Like, to the point where, when Brick gets excited to the nth degree about the release of the concluding book in the Planet Nowhere saga, Axl channels his inner Bond villain: Not only does he hold Brick’s copy of the book hostage and threaten to give away the ending, but even after Brick agrees to give back the guitar, he still proceeds to spoil the ending for him. Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me if some viewers gasped when that last bit went down, because, damn, man, that’s a pretty major dick move right there.
It’s also a move which has serious repercussions: As soon as the spoilers stop flowing, Brick collapses in a heap on the living room floor, causing Axl to fear that he’s accidentally killed his little brother. He hasn’t, of course, but the trauma he’s caused is enough to put Brick into a near-vegetative state for two days. (Kudos to the writers, by the way, for throwing in dialogue to confirm that, yes, those two days did take placeduring the weekend, so, no, he did not miss school as a result of his emotional immobilization.) Brick’s general lack of motion finally freaks Axl out enough that his guilt gets the best of him, and after he pleads for his little brother to return to normal, Brick is finally inspired to sit up, at which point he delivers a speech about how important books are to him and how they fill a void in his life that Axl doesn’t have and therefore can’t fully appreciate. Yeah, it’s a pretty heavy-handed monologue, but with his character’s well-established love of books standing tall behind him, Atticus Shaffer sells it damned well.
Jumping back to the plotline that gave the episode its title, Frankie and Mike may be celebrating a major milestone in their marriage, but they’re both doing their best down to downplay its importance, claiming that their 20th wedding anniversary is just the one after the 19th, no more and no less. Sue, however, feels otherwise, taking it upon herself to plan a super awesome surprise party for her parents, devising an elaborate event featuring guests and speeches and even an original skit. Unfortunately (if not exactly shockingly), no one else’s excitement about the to-do comes anywhere close to approaching Sue’s, but even as she watches the whole thing slowly collapsing around her, damned if she doesn’t still try to rise above it all and come through for her mom and dad. It’s always fantastic to watch Eden Sher’s performance when we see Sue growing increasingly frazzled over the course of an episode, but this was a particular tour de force, in that we actually see Sue’s optimism fail her in the end. She’s gone from confident party planner to a blubbering mess before you know it, and reasonably so, given how hard she’d been trying to make her parents’ anniversary as special as she believed it deserved to be. That’s not to say that Frankie and Mike’s party doesn’t have a happy ending, more or less, but it’s ultimately incidental to anything that Sue had planned for the shindig.
Frankie and Mike’s aforementioned pre-anniversary spat kicks off when Nancy Donahue and Frankie spot Mike in line with Brick at the book store. When Frankie decides to call Mike and do a bit of flirtatious teasing, she watches in horror as Mike opts not to answer her call, but when she confronts him about his actions, he counters with his own annoyances about the situation, highlighting why he’s not very fond of cell phones to begin with, and the next thing you know, she’s more pissed off than she was when the conversation began. It only gets worse when he foolishly decides to warm up a steak in the middle of the night, thereby sending her on a rant about how his interest in alone time is, in its own way, worse than having an affair. In the end, though, Frankie’s discovery of Sue’s party-planning notebook and their joint pride in their kids for at least trying to throw them an anniversary party brings them back together, and at the end of the affair, Mike manages to pull off a surprise gift for Frankie that handily tops the washing machine he bought her for Christmas last year.
I still don’t get why ABC opted to run its Christmas episodes last week instead of this week (and, as you may recall, neither does my daughter), but if this is the last episode of The Middle that we’re getting for 2012, then it’s still a damned fine way for the series to wrap up the year.
- “You’re not the most reliable people.” It’s amazing how well Brick can sum up his parents with just six simple words.
- Sue has a lot of great moments in “Twenty Years,” but my favorite was one of the smallest: the way she delivers the words “muy importante,” as if Spanish was some sort of uncrackable code. And as long as we’re on the topic of small moments, I also loved Brick’s crestfallen look when Frankie tells him, “I guess you’ll just have to interact.”
- On another show, having the family eating Subway at the dining room table would’ve felt like unabashed product placement. On The Middle, it’s just another one of Frankie’s easy options for avoiding having to actually cook dinner.
- I had to rewind the scene where Sue shrieks without actually moving her mouth a couple of times because I couldn’t stop laughing at Eden Sher’s eyes.
- “Until I see some proof, I will not even address these malicious and spurious charges. Law & Order. Watch it.”
- With regard to Mike’s missed opportunity to have Frankie “apologize” to him, it occurs to me just how rare it is for them to acknowledge their sex life on this show. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just an observation.
- I’m not sure which is funnier: Big Mike’s recollections of his first meeting with Frankie or Sue trying and failing to capture the magic of his story when telling it to her parents.
- I just realized I didn’t mention it in the review proper, but the parallel between the Frankie/Mike relationship and the Sue/Axl relationship is pretty funny.
- Okay, one last great Sue moment: her handheld “photo montage.”
- Don’t forget: Zumba Jesus on Tuesday nights!