I'm coming to the conclusion that I like The Middle best when Frankie's at the center of the show, instead of outside of it. Her role as narrator occasionally pushes her out to the margins, commenting on the events more than participating in them. But when she's at the center, with her insanity interacting with the other characters' quirkiness, The Middle has a fun manic energy, built around the idea that the family means putting up with, well, everything. (Bob's Burgers does this well, too, in the pantheon of shows I currently review.)
The trigger for Frankie's meltdown this week is the royal wedding, which she treats with the same magnified importance as important American news magazines. None of the other family members care about the wedding, or at least, they don't care until Frankie rouses them at 3 a.m. to get the new TV working. Side plots include Mike getting in trouble with his crew at work when he cuts pretzels from the budget, while Sue tries out for her school's news team. One thing The Middle deserves credit for is managing to weave several plots into each episode. It doesn't always work (like in last week's episode), but it doesn't necessarily feel like the show is being too ambitious. They're little stories, but they're introduced nicely and generally come to a conclusion.
Tonight's episode also works because of The Middle's advantages in dealing with class without pandering. Both Mike's job and Frankie's wedding obsession are based around issues of money. Mike has to cut something, although the end indicates that no, maybe he doesn't have to? Frankie, meanwhile, loves the wedding, because it's pretty and it shows that someone can wake up a commoner in the morning and become a princess. It's silly, yes, but it acknowledges that even in a nominally classless society, people still think about such things.
Still, while anchoring the show to the real world helps the show feel more relevant, it still lives or dies by its comedy. Mike's workers are fantastic, almost like cartoon characters out of The Simpsons, while each member of the family gets at least one really good line. Even the crucial moment of the episode, Frankie's big insane monologue about how much the royal wedding means to her, has enough humor in it to work.
The monologue brings the episode a certain tension that The Middle doesn't normally possess. Usually, its text and its subtext are totally in alignment. Here, despite Frankie being the main character, are we supposed to agree with her? Sympathize? The show seems to play it for comedy, especially when the sleep-deprived Frankie starts flailing around and breaking things. Yet, it's a message that's congruent with the show as a whole. This isn't a criticism, however. There's intelligence in The Middle, and enough broad comedy that the intelligence can certainly shine through without lessening its appeal. The final monologue lets audiences see Frankie as a character more than a narrator and decide whether they agree with her, laugh at her, or both. That's a pleasant ambiguity.
- “See, fever kind of mellows out Brick's quirks. The more normal he is, the sicker he is.”
- “This is the Super Bowl times a million plus crowns.” Frankie cared about the Super Bowl earlier…
- “Yeah, we won the Civil War, so we don't have to care.”
- “Man Found Frozen In Parking Lot!”
- “What? But I came up from the hole for a nice crunchy pretzel.”
- “I mean, I obviously don't care too much about how this house looks, but I gotta draw the line somewhere.”
- “Someplace with pretzels.” “And freedom!”
- “But those go away when I'm running the microwave. But the microwave doesn't work unless I'm shooting the hairdryer at it.”
- “They're supposed to be stale and dry. They're British!”
- “I don't want to yell at the kids alone. That's something we enjoy doing together!”
- “Why am I awake? You know I need a solid 16.”
- “Hah. Rector.”
- The makeup on Frankie for the pinkeye was pretty damn scary.
- “Now she's going into a church and a woman, no, scratch that, a man in a wig, is holding her… keep.”