(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
“Frankie, listen to me: He was fun while we had him.”
Mike’s unexpectedly sardonic rejoinder to Frankie’s fretting about Brick isn’t just the biggest laugh in a generally hilarious episode, but it’s also a sneaky encapsulation of the episode’s larger theme. While Frankie is forced to trust that Brick can manage a three-day school trip to Chicago without wandering into fatal peril—and thus admit that Brick is growing up and doesn’t always need her to look after him—Mike and Axl confront the idea that Sue wants to date an 18-year-old, who just so happens to be Darrin. The show’s adults (using the term extremely loosely in Axl’s case, of course) suddenly have to contemplate the possibility that Sue and Brick aren’t silly little kids anymore, and there are only so many boundaries that can be set for them. As Mike tells Frankie—and then later Frankie tells Mike, much to his chagrin—they pretty much have already raised their kids, and now, it’s just a question of hoping they do the right thing.
Last week’s wonderfully touching episode wrung plenty of well-deserved emotion out of Sue and Darrin’s Valentine’s Day kiss, and now, “Winners And Losers” gets to have as much fun as it possibly can with the aftermath. Happily, there’s no question that Darrin is still interested in Sue, and the episode compresses all possible farcical misunderstandings of romantic intention between the two into a single turbo-speed monologue from Sue. She explains to Carly all the possible reasons why Darrin is acting so weird—defined as smiling and saying “Hi” when he walks past her—and decides that she doesn’t like him if he doesn’t like her, but she does if he does. It’s not exactly breaking new ground to discuss Eden Sher’s brilliance as Sue, but even by her high standards, that blisteringly fast speech is a thing of genius. Even better, it allows Sue to do away with any possible doubts about the wisdom of pursuing Darrin, which allows both characters to spend the episode wooing each other with sledgehammer-like subtlety.
There’s an admirable simplicity to how this plot works itself out. The natural obstacle to Sue and Darrin’s love is Axl, but he isn’t even mentioned until he pops seemingly out of nowhere to interrupt Sue’s conversation with Darrin and banish her from the senior hallway. Sue and Darrin are such wonderfully straightforward goofballs that they (quite rightly) don’t worry what Axl thinks, offering only the flimsiest of excuses for their sudden closeness until the penny finally drops and Axl realizes what’s going on. Until then, the new couple’s romantic overtures are things of comedic beauty. Sue turns up to an Axl and the Axmen practice in a getup that somehow manages to both be legitimately stunning and still retain the essential dorkiness of Sue—The Middle’s lone Emmy nomination came last year for Outstanding Makeup, and the series should win the damn thing this year on the strength of that look alone.
Indeed, the entire scene is perfectly calibrated to both generate laughs and propel the central romance; Sue’s attempts to be alluring predictably end with her knocking over a rake and some turpentine while offering comically pathetic ulterior motives (“These high heels sure do come in handy!”), but she doesn’t make such a complete fool of herself that Darrin couldn’t still feasibly be interested in her. Not that there’s really any danger of Darrin being scared off by Sue making a fool of herself, as his love ballad “Betsy (Not Her Real Name)” is so unremittingly awful that even the ever-sunny Sean wishes he were deaf. Sue, of course, is moved to tears by the song’s nakedly honest, utterly unselfconscious emotion. Nothing here reaches the emotional highs of “Valentine’s Day IV”—as touching as Sue’s tearful reaction to the song is, it’s still just a counterpoint to Darrin warbling about the magic of his trashcan kiss—but the episode wouldn’t be half as funny if it weren’t so clearly rooted in a deep love and respect for its two silliest characters.
Admittedly, the episode is much more comfortable making Frankie the butt of the joke, as she totally freaks out about Brick’s looming trip to Chicago. Patricia Heaton is at her funniest when Frankie is at her most frantic, and “Winners And Losers” gives her plenty of chances to play the character utterly unhinged. Frankie first tries to buy Brick off with some candy and a trip to a book fair. Frankie tries to play it cool—which amusingly takes the form of “nonchalantly” helping herself to a piece of food while pretending to think over where Brick should go—but ends up yelling at Sean when he offers an unsolicited endorsement of the field trip’s awesomeness.
It’s not hard to sympathize with Frankie’s concerns about Brick, especially when Brick’s timing-obsessed teacher reveals the trip will prominently involve activities like making one’s own deep dish pizza in an 800-degree oven, which seems an ill-advised activity even for non-Brick fifth graders. But the episode increasingly plays up Frankie’s own craziness, as she tries to prove an irritating super-mom rigged the chaperone selection by proudly revealing she put her own name in four times, harangues the mom and Brick’s timing-obsessed teacher about finding her son a responsible buddy (preferably a girl), spends her time searching Chicago-area headlines for news of an orange-clothed child being kidnapped, answers Mike’s pleas to relax with a gloriously loopy analogy about people being hit on the head with pianos, and then, in the entirely expected and completely perfect finishing touch, forgets to pick Brick up because she doesn’t realize how long three days actually is.
Watching Frankie slowly go off the deep end with poorly articulated worry is a hoot, especially since it lets Mike cut loose with a bunch of one-liners that are more pointedly sarcastic than normal. The big lug actually smiles at a few of his own witticisms, which Neil Flynn sells as both a sign that Mike is trying to distract Frankie from her own worry… and that he’s so understandably fed up with her antics that he can’t help but make fun of her a little. Mike is also crucial to the episode’s big emotional conclusion, as Axl finally realizes what’s going on between Darrin and Sue and demands his parents put a stop to it. Mike has some sound reasons to be unenthused about the pairing—“He’s too old, he’s too dumb, and he’s too Darrin”—and he tries to threaten the guy with dynamite to ensure he treats Sue right, but this warning sails right over Darrin’s head. Ultimately, Mike is too straightforwardly decent to not be moved by Darrin’s earnest assurances, and so he gives the most begrudging approval imaginable.
The same can’t be said for Axl, which is the huge plot thread left dangling at the end of the episode. Axl completely freaks out when he finally realizes the truth, and his command that Sue should go to her room suggests he sees himself less as her embarrassed older brother than as an eternally disapproving third parent, which means his reaction is oddly in keeping with the episode’s theme of parents struggling to recognize that their children are becoming independent. The final act is a great showcase for Charlie McDermott, who gets his own rapid-fire monologue when he demands his parents for once do some parenting and stop the relationship. In an episode that shows the entire cast at the top of their talents, McDermott is particularly hilarious, with the highlight being his impromptu, convoluted plan to become Darrin’s stepfather and so gain the authority to forbid him from dating Sue. What’s impressive about his performance is that there’s absolutely zero empathy or maturity in either his exchange with Darrin or his address to his parents, as he pointedly refuses to even contemplate anyone’s perspective but his own, yet Axl still remains weirdly sympathetic. He’s being a baby, but McDermott finds just enough modulation in this very narrow emotional register to avoid becoming completely obnoxious. Axl is going to have to come to terms with Sue and Darrin—and, more to the point, the fact that Sue is becoming an adult, too—but that big moment, which I suspect is going to pack quite a wallop, can safely be left for another episode. After all, “Winners And Losers” has brilliance to spare.
- Since ABC is hosting the Oscars this Sunday, tonight’s episode has to incorporate it as a theme. This doesn’t end up being too distracting, particularly when the episode gets in a great gag about the Oscars’ endless preshow.
- As a general rule, there’s no better way to go to commercial break than a character screaming in horror, and the only way to improve on that is if the character is still screaming when the show returns. Axl’s freak-out fits that nicely.
- Mike mentions that Darrin looks about 30. I can’t find John Gammon’s age online, but if that’s an accurate year of graduation on his IMDB profile, that actually might not be too far off.
- “Well, despite the poor air quality and aging infrastructure, I think I’d still rather go to Chicago.”
- “Well you better get in there, because she just met a guy on Christian Mingle!”
- There are quite a few veterans of Bill Lawrence shows in tonight’s episode, for whatever reason. Beyond Neil Flynn, Scrubs’ resident sad-sack lawyer Sam Lloyd returns as Mr. Walker, while Carolyn Hennessy, who used to show up on Cougar Town as the ludicrously perverted realtor Barbara, plays Frankie’s latest super-mom nemesis.
- Speaking of Neil Flynn, if you haven’t yet checked out this great interview conducted by regular The Middle reviewer Will Harris, go read it posthaste.
- Finally, thanks to Will for taking a break from his terrific regular coverage so that I could sub in here for Second Opinions Week. It’s a tremendous honor to get to write about the best comedy on TV. That’s right, I said it, and I’m almost certainly sticking to it.