The Middle: “Valentine’s Day III” 
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The Middle: “Valentine’s Day III” 

Not that there was ever any doubt in my mind that it would return to form, but given my general disappointment with the last new episode of The Middle (which, as my daughter has reminded me countless times, was weeks ago), I couldn’t be more pleased that tonight’s installment of the series was top-notch.

Of course, there’s a pretty consistent trend with the holiday episodes of most series being among their better installments, probably because the writers don’t have to dig too deep to come up with plot ideas that have been ripped from their real lives. Take, for instance, Valentine’s Day. Who among us doesn’t have some awful story revolving around February 14 that’s actually pretty funny when you look back on it a few years later? (I certainly do.)

Surprisingly, though, there’s really only one story in this week’s episode that’s specifically to do with Valentine’s Day. (Sue’s situation was incidental to the holiday.) As someone who’s successfully crossed over the decade mark in my marriage, I’m well familiar with the concept of bypassing the big productions for Valentine’s Day in favor of basking in the romance of just being comfortable with each other, even if that comfort is sometimes expressed in front of different TV sets, and I’m just as fine with it as Mike was. Alas, before their non-plans could come to fruition, Frankie runs into Nancy and Paula while she’s out buying candy for Brick’s class, and after a few minutes of commiserating with her gal pals, a plan has been hatched for the three couples to go out together for a Valentine’s Dinner. Everything’s hunky dory at first, but when Mike ends up being the only husband who fails to buy his wife a rose, his utter lack of romance puts Frankie on the warpath.

As soon as Nancy’s husband bought her a rose, I instantly knew that, whether Paula’s hubby followed suit or not, there was still no way in hell that Mike was ever going to succumb to floral peer pressure, which was going to spell trouble. By this point, I think it’s safe to call it a “typical Mike moment” when he gets so focused on something he knows unequivocally to be true (in this case, that Frankie has a history of mocking the flower ladies in restaurants) that he misses the bigger picture, namely that she’s a woman, her friends each got a flower, and she goddamned well wants a flower, too. And when she doesn’t get one, boy, does she get pissed

We’ll rejoin the Frankie & Mike saga in a moment. For now, though, let’s jump into the other storylines of the episode.

First up, there’s Brick’s assignment to write an essay about love, which ultimately only exists to bookend the episode. I’m not complaining, I’m just commenting that there’s not much to say about it. As such, we move to Axl’s assignment, which involves him having to give a speech or make a video about a life-changing event. At the time, I thought, “That’s weird, giving him the choice of a speech or a video,” but I’m so glad they decided to add the video as an option… and, I’m guessing, so was Atticus Shaffer, since his greatest moments in the episode came when Axl was trying to make said video. I enjoyed Axl’s frustration at the fact that his friends had beaten him to the punch on life-changing events, the initial draft of his speech was awesomely bad, and I have to say that I did not in any way see his end-of-episode speech coming, but, wow, talk about a perfect Axl moment.

Okay, onto Sue’s story. Yes, as Frankie observes, it’s pretty unbelievable that Sue could manage to have two girls in her class that were pregnant and still be confused about exactly what French kissing is. (It’s even more unbelievable when you consider that, unless my memory is fuzzier than I think it is, she watched Carly putting the concept into practice with her boyfriend from Hot Dog on a Stick when they were all hanging out at the mall.) But, y’know, given what we’ve seen of Sue over the years, it’s surprisingly easy to buy that she really did think French kissing was “kissing during a rainbow.” Give the girl credit, too, for not succumbing to traditional teenage mores, instead preferring to stick with good old-fashioned American kissing. U-S-A! U-S-A!

And on that jingoistic note, we come to the close of the episode, where Brick gives his speech about love. This might be one of the most effective schmaltzy endings we’ve gotten this season, probably because romantic clichés sound perfectly charming when delivered by a kid, but also because long-married parents know how quickly they can come back from the abyss of being pissed at each other when your kid says something sweet that really hits home. Rather than end on that syrupy moment, however, the final moments of the episode instead focus on Axl giving his speech, which consists almost entirely of sentiments that he’s unabashedly swiped from Brick’s speech.

Nice. Not just the ending, but the whole episode. It’s good to have The Middle back on top again.

Stray observations:

  • Man, that joke about finally taking down the Christmas tree sure would've been a lot funnier if we hadn't taken ours down sometime around the last week of January. Or, wait, did that actually make it funnier? I can never remember. Oh, well. At least ours wasn't a live tree.
  • “Guess I'm hitting the Internet. Is your parental control password still '1234'?”
  • I can’t really explain why I thought it was so funny, but there was nothing I laughed harder at this evening than Julie Brown’s delivery of the question, “That place with the room with the fountain?”
  • “Wait! I think I saw something on KickinItTeenStyle.com on how to tell your boyfriend he's a bad kisser. I'm gonna go check it out!”
  • “As much as I love a good pamphlet, I'd go with FroYo.”
  • “Enjoy summer school.”
  • “We're not rich enough to travel, we're not poor enough to live out of our car, Mom's not on the internet stripping for money, and Dad doesn't get drunk and beat anyone.”
  • Also far funnier to me than it probably was to anyone else: Axl saying, “Shrug.”
  • “It's the not knowing that's the hard part. Oh, and the dying. Actually, they're both hard.”
  • I would absolutely try cooking bacon with an iron if I didn’t think my wife would have a conniption fit. But, say, now there's an idea for the next time I stay at a hotel…

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