Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Middle: “The Safe”

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Given the highly atypical cliffhanger ending dropped on us last week, with Frankie receiving the last-second diagnosis that Sue had actually broken Axl’s toe, rather than merely spraining it, it was somewhat of a relief to find that the first moments of “The Safe” did indeed pick up approximately where they’d left off two weeks ago. (Surely we all enjoyed the annual opportunity to revisit It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, no?) Unsurprisingly, when denied the opportunity to play football, Axl’s fallback position is to fall back onto the couch and do as little as possible… aside, of course, from alternating between complaining about the deplorable level of compassion he’s receiving from his family in the wake of his debilitating injury and making Sue’s life a living hell.

As feared, it looks like Axl’s scholarship opportunities are drifting away in the wake of injury: One school’s already rescinded its offer, and the other’s gone quiet, which ain’t exactly what you’d call a good sign. The fact that Mike and Frankie’s Plan B for Axl to get a college education involves having him step up his academic game is arguably the most painful proof of their limited financial means ever seen on the series. All things being equal, I’d say there’s a better chance of Axl winning his proposed lawsuit against milk than there is of him pulling anything approximating decent grades, but maybe that’s just me. Still, the kid’s options are limited, and, like Mike says, “It’s not really possible for you to study less,” so they suck it up and steer Axl toward a tutor.

Enter the redheaded, bespectacled vixen known as Cassidy Finch, played by Galadriel Stineman, who presumably arrived on the set after what must have been one hell of a Daria marathon. Not that Stineman isn’t perfectly cute or that she doesn’t have chemistry with Charlie McDermott, but the whole jock-falls-for-brain plotline is so trite that I kept waiting in vain for something off-kilter to happen. But, no, this was straight out of the playbook from start to finish, which was highly unexpected and more than a little bit disappointing… although I’m willing to admit that it could just be that I’d rather see Axl end up with Weird Ashley. For now, though, I think we can count on seeing Cassidy turn up again, whether she breaks up with “that moot guy” or not.

Even if we never see the day when Axl and Frankie are going to college together, at least we’ve now them studying at the same time, thereby providing Axl with the chance to throw Frankie’s past comments to him about dealing with teachers back in her face. It was pleasant enough to see Jane Kaczmarek turn up as Frankie’s teacher, Sandy Youngwood, who’s “a thorough dental educator, according to a recent Yelp review,” but the scenes felt a little off. Maybe it’s just because this dental-assistant school is an environment we haven’t seen before and the series is trying to make it stand out as unique from the Heck’s home, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was mostly because Kaczmarek’s  performance seemed so unabashedly Lois-esque that I often felt like I was back in the universe of Malcolm in the Middle.

Mind you, that point of comparison was aided slightly by the realization that the Sue/Brick storyline felt like the kind of adventure that could’ve featured Malcolm and Dewey back in the day, albeit with decidedly fewer reality-show titles being dropped throughout. It was discussed in the comments last week that the prospect of Axl losing his scholarship might well take the series down a more depressing path than might be healthy, and Mike’s increasing grumpiness about the family's plumbing problems and its ever-growing inability to afford to pay for the ever-growing number of repairs… well, it’s realistic, that’s for damned sure, but perhaps surrounding the inherent seriousness of some of these things with a goofy storyline about trying to break into a safe because it might contain gold doubloons isn’t the worst thing in the world.  With that said, however, this episode was all over the place, with some moments working decidedly less successfully than others (here’s looking at you, Tylenol PM), making it ultimately rather unsatisfying.

Stray observations:

  • “It hurts my foot to eat sandwiches!”
  • Switching Sue’s shampoo with a bottle of maple syrup didn’t seem terribly Axl-like, but I’ll let it slide because it gave us Sue’s great line about her hair: “It smells pretty nice… except bees chase me.”  On a related note, nice work by Eden Sher with the crutch pratfall. Also, my wife says Axl’s move with Sue’s cereal bowl reminded her of the move Hulk put on Thor in Avengers. Thoughts?
  • It really is sad how little faith Mike and Frankie have in Axl’s bone-mending powers.
  • Oh, how my wife and I laughed at the fact that we will, in very short order, also need a plumber, a roof guy, a mold guy, and a bug guy. And I laughed a little bit harder at Mike’s line about how “I’ve had a headache for 10 years; you don’t hear me whining.”
  • My favorite classroom moment, and the one that rang 100 percent true, is how horrifying a sensation it must be for someone in their 40s to go back to college, bring a pen and a notebook to class, and realize that you’re the only one without a laptop computer.
  • Okay, so we had references to Antiques Roadshow, American Pickers, House Flippers Miami, Storage Wars, Safecrackers, Whale Wars, and Hoarders, a show that, as Brick observes, “does not usually end well for cats.” Plus, of course, we had the cameo from Rick Harrison of Pawn Stars, who is forced to let Brick and Sue down easy and admit, “I'm pretty sure the President wasn't renting an AMC Gremlin.” Did I miss any other reality-show references?
  • God, I must be old. I actually didn’t think about the fact that “Vassar” has “ass” in it until Axl explained why he was laughing.
  • ...robot butler…