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

The Middle: “The Smell”

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Once or twice a season, The Middle offers up an installment that doesn’t have enough oomph to be in contention for being named one of the year’s best. It coasts by on the cast’s charm, but still has a little too much going on to be completely dismissed as filler. “The Smell” is one of those episodes: Brick and Frankie share a storyline, Sue and Mike share a storyline, and although Axl gets a storyline to himself, it’s cool, because his is the only one that’s likely to have any sort of impact beyond the closing credits.

Not unlike episodes that start out with the Hecks having a family chat in the car, there’s a good chance for future greatness any time we kick things off by looking into the eyes of a Heck as they gaze into the depths of the refrigerator. In this case, the eyes belong to Frankie, and she—along with just about everyone else in the house—is on a desperate question to figure out what the hell is stinking up the joint. It’s an epic quest, one which is funny right up until the point that they realize that the smell is coming from Brick, at which point you wonder, “Shouldn’t they have been able to work that out a little bit sooner? I mean, surely they’d gotten within whiffing distance of him long before then.” By that point, though, you’ve already had a few laughs over the absurd descriptions of and reactions to the odor, so it’s pretty easy to let it slide and just move on to enjoy the process of Brick picking out something to make him smell better.

It’s perfectly in character that he’d take such an extended period of time to figure out what scent was right for him, but it’s borderline ridiculous even for Brick that he’d put on all of the cologne and deodorant and not realize that he’d made a tactical error long before getting to school. Still, the montage of him slapping on all of the stuff was funny, and I laughed at the idea that the situation was so bad that the school finally had to break down and call to complain about the stench. In the end, Frankie’s suggestion that he might want to put a little effort into impressing the girls comes back to haunt her when she wraps by saying, “You can lead a boy to deodorant, but you can’t make him smooth with the ladies.”

As Frankie’s working her way through her mother-son time, Mike’s learning that, for as much as Sue might get on his nerves, she’s a walk in the park compared to what life’s like as the coach of a girls’ soccer team. Bill suckers him into taking over the team by first playing to his ego, reminding him of his former tee-ball glories, and then sealing the deal with promises of future adult beverages. (“I’ve done a lot less for beer,” Mike admits.) But it’s all a sham: Bill’s passed the buck, and once he takes over, Mike realizes that he’s in over his head, stuck with a team full of girls who whine, cry, bitch, moan, and text constantly.

Watching Mike squirm his way through the encounters with his various players and their parents was great stuff, and although his speech and the accompanying visual aids were admittedly silly—what sort of coach would put up with that kind of shit from his players?—Neil Flynn managed to deliver Mike’s dialogue perfectly, nailing the voice of a man who’s clearly out of his depth but is doing the best he can to make the situation work.  It’s also a nice change of pace for Sue, who seems to have more camaraderie with her soccer teammates than any other group she’s been a part of. Eventually, though, Mike can’t deal with it anymore, so he follows in Bill’s footsteps and passes the buck to some other poor slob, using the exact same phrases that sold him on the gig in the first place. A fun diversion, but I’ll be surprised if we ever see Sue playing soccer again.

And so we come to Axl, who reveals a remarkable dedication to Cassidy by refusing to put himself in a position where he might cheat on her, provided that they’re actually still boyfriend and girlfriend… except he’s still not sure that they are, because he continues to have absolutely no clue what the hell she was on about in the painting she gave him. The scene where he breaks down and asks the foursome of girls to help him interpret the painting was cute, but once they all started hitting on him in a big way, it was only a matter of time before he broke down and called Cassidy. Once he did so, we really got to see Charlie McDermott shine, finding confidence in the mere act of calling Cassidy and admitting his ignorance that he was able to work his way through the interpretation of the painting by himself, ultimately realizing that, in fact, they were broken up. Watching the realization cross over his face was downright tragic, and you could tell that Cassidy’s heart broke a little bit more, too. Although Axl ended up having a happy ending, to say the least, the fact that it affected him so significantly was a reminder that, although he’s a real doofus at times, he’s still got a lot of heart.


Stray observations:

  • I feel like tonight’s episode will directly result in my daughter writing down her own list of colors she likes.
  • “Remember the conversations we used to have when we were dating?” Mike reminisces about the pre-stink days of his relationship with Frankie.
  • Great moment with Bill reeling back from the stink and Mike trying to save face by assuring him, “We’re zeroing in on it.”
  • Eden Sher had some great moments as Sue tried to balance trash-talking with her friends with praising her dad’s efforts, but I don’t think anything topped the slowly-increasing volume of her shriek as she ran from her bedroom to the door to given an item-by-item explanation to her dad and Bill about how ready, willing, and able she was to play soccer.
  • “If you’re curious, bat mothers do nurse their young.”
  • “Do  I want to smell like a polo player or  yachtsman?”
  • “Nah, nah, nah, don’t clap for that. She’s not hurt.”
  • Lastly, if you’re wondering why, given the end of last week’s episode, there wasn’t even so much as an offhanded reference to Sue and Darrin being back together, executive producer DeAnn Heline actually dropped me a quick message a few minutes back:

“Just an FYItonight’s episode was supposed to air before last week’s, hence no mention of Darrin, etc. ABC messed up the order, and by the time everyone realized, ABC didn’t want to change it because they had already started advertising and promoting the prom episode last week. Spread the word! We just don’t want everyone to think we dropped the Sue/Darrin storyline!”