Spring officially begins on Sunday, so it’s only appropriate that this week’s episode of The Middle feels like the writers indulged in a bit of spring cleaning, finally doing something with an unused storyline that’d been sitting in the back of the closet, opening the windows to let a little bit of fresh air into an ongoing storyline, and moving things around just enough to make everyone feel like they’d accomplished a little something.
While it hasn’t exactly been weighing on my mind that we’ve never really seen Frankie take advantage of her employee discount to get dental procedures for the kids, it’s one of those storylines that immediately made me think, “Wow, I can’t believe it took them this long to get around to writing an episode around this!” In truth, though, it’s less a story about Axl and Sue getting their wisdom teeth removed than it is a tale about Frankie feeling as though her two oldest kids don’t need her anymore and wanting a chance to briefly revisit a time when her presence was a blessing rather than a pain in the ass. On paper, it’s ostensibly a sweet idea, but Frankie’s side of the story ends up playing out rather disappointingly, with her frustration growing stronger whenever something doesn’t work out as she’s anticipated, and when she actually throws Brad out of the house because he’s screwing with her big plans to pamper the kids, well, that’s pretty much when I fell away from Team Frankie.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of hilarity mined from Axl and Sue going down for the count before their dental surgery, only to still be loopy as hell when they wake up. Both Eden Sher and Charlie McDermott end up scoring major laughs from their performances, but the unexpected dramatic twist – if you’re a major fan of The Middle, that is – takes place when it becomes evident that the anesthetic has affected Axl in such a way that he’s actually able to be honest about how much he loves his sister. Why? Well, in a nutshell, it seems to come down to the simple fact that she’s a nice person who’d get a fork for him if he asked her, whereas it’s not his nature to be that guy. What really matters, though, is the sweetness of the moment, which is instantly ripped away when his head clears and he hears Brick’s video. Naturally, he denies that it’s real, but just to be on the safe side, he deletes the video, a move that absolutely infuriates Sue.
Before moving on, let’s take a quick sidebar to discuss poor Brick, who basically spends the episode trying to take advantage of his status as the only one of the kids who’s officially still living at home, but only gets heartbreak in return. As is only befitting for a kid like him, he works up an extremely detailed plan and lays it on the table when Axl and Sue get home, but they can’t be bothered to listen. When they’re loopy from the drugs, though, Brick records them assuring him that they will fulfill all of his demands. By the time the episode finally wraps up, though, he really hasn’t achieved any of his goals: Axl has – as noted in the previous paragraph – deleted the vow that he and Sue made while under the influence, leaving Brick angrier than ever about the lack of respect he gets in the house. Atticus Shaffer still made me laugh, but I just didn’t love Brick trying so hard and failing miserably.
Axl, on the other hand, actually manages to achieve a moment of growth, even if it’s only a small one which only takes place because Sue spends so long berating him for deleting the video. After she rips him to shreds for his immaturity and his refusal to grow up and just admit that he loves her and the rest of his family, he sees just enough of the light to make a gesture that causes Sue to burst into tears at the dinner table: he brings her a fork.
Lastly, we got the return of Norm MacDonald as Rusty and, somewhat unexpectedly, we also got the return of Rusty’s ex-wife, Marlene, who hasn’t popped up since the Thanksgiving episode of season five. The head-spinning storyline involves Marlene turning up at the Hecks’ house, only for Rusty to reveal to Mike that she’s claiming that she came up with the idea for their Li’l Rivals product and therefore owns the company. Tempers flare, Mike grows increasingly upset at the thought of losing the business he’s put so much work into, and although Rusty keeps trying to help by pitching an alternate product idea, the merits of producing a Human Hand Backscratcher simply do not outweigh the merits of what they’ve accomplished together with Li’l Rivals, at least as far as Mike’s concerned. Of course, in the end, it doesn’t really matter, anyway: once Mike belatedly discovers that Marlene’s idea was not the one that they based the company around, all’s right with the world again.
Well, you know, except when it comes to Brick. For him, everything still kind of sucks. But that’s the way it goes when you’re a Heck.
- First things first: she’s so busy doing voice work that I really have’t seen her in front of the camera lately, but Marlene’s blonde buddy at the bar was E.G. Daily. You may know her best as the voice of Tommy Pickles on Rugrats or Buttercup on Power Puff Girls, but for me she’ll always be the girl in the tight dress singing in the nightclub in Better Off Dead or the bikini-clad maiden in the Lolita-inspired video for her single “Say It, Say It,” which you can watch above. Daily’s greatest achievement in tonight’s episode, though, was managing to hold her own in a scene against Neil Flynn, who - if you can believe IMDb - is almost a foot and a half taller than she is. He’s 6’5” and she tops out at five feet high exactly, which is why I joked to my wife after the episode, “I wonder how many apple crates she had to stand on to even look that tall next to him!”
- I can’t imagine any Middle fan who didn’t laugh out loud when Frankie mixed up Axl’s favorite flavor of Jello with Brick’s and Axl growled, “It’s alwasy all about him!”
- Although Rusty’s inability to remember really obvious titles and names reminded me of Homer Simpson and The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down, but I definitely didn’t expect that Cinema Paradiso joke.
- I know it was probably a stunt driver who spun out directly in front of the Hecks’ house, but somehow I can totally see Mary Birdsong doing it for real. (I mean that as a compliment.)
- “Why would Julia Roberts do that to me?”
- Brad was so great this week that I immediately wanted to go back and re-watch that improv bit about the pizza parlor on Mars.
- Also great: Rusty’s elaborate Grand Canyon murder scheme.
- “I guess what I’m trying to say is, you’ve got great boobs.”
- “You’re a Heck. Disappointment is your birthright.”
- Just to circle back to E.G. Daily to close, as sexy as she still is, I had to laugh at the sight of her grinding against Neil Flynn, particularly when his reaction was about like that of him shooing away a fly. (“Could you please not do that?”)
As The Goldbergs heads toward the end of its third season, one thing has become increasingly clear over the course of its run to date: it’s at its best when it’s focusing on two storylines. Whenever we get an episode that kicks things up a notch to deliver an A story, a B story, and a C story, things start to get a little frazzled. Case and point: this week’s episode, which is certainly funny, offers some strong sentimental moments, but ultimately feels a little too overinflated for its own good.
There’s no question that the most 1980-something of the storylines is the one revolving around the Columbia House Tape Club, which – unless I’ve completely blocked it out – I don’t believe I actually entered until the CD era of the club. I was certainly familiar with it, though, and I have to believe that I’m not the only one who religiously filled out the Columbia House form anytime I saw it in a magazine, just so I could enjoy dreaming of which tapes I would order if I were to join. I also spent a fair amount of time recording songs off the radio much as Adam did, so if we’d gotten an episode that was strictly about that stuff, it might well have been my favorite of the season. As it is, though, it felt like so much was left untold in regards to Adam’s obsession with bilking the Columbia House system (not to mention Dave Kim’s). On the other hand, we did get to hear a lot of fake names from the mailman which where hilarious, and I have every reason to believe that we would’ve gotten more if there’d been time, so there’s that.
Erica’s storyline tied directly into Adam’s this week, with Bev thinking the worst of her daughter and the best of her youngest son, to the point where, even though there’s plenty of evidence to support the fact that Adam’s ripping off Columbia House, Bev is nonetheless convinced that Erica is behind it. Way more often than not, Erica’s story felt like it had been shoehorned into the proceedings, and the fact that Erica was hanging with Carla rather than Lainey - how often does that happen? - didn’t exactly help matters any. It wasn’t until the final third of the episode that it felt like any of it really mattered, with Carla getting busted for shoplifting, Bev grabbing the wrong end of the stick and accusing Erica of the theft, Erica yelling at her mother, and Bev having to try and salvage the situation. For as intentionally cringe-worthy as Bev’s performance of “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” to Erica may have been, it actually made me start to tear up for a moment. I just wish the Erica/Bev saga had been as compelling from start to finish.
Lastly, there’s Barry, who spends the episode trying to get Lainey’s dad to like him, finally reaching a point of frustration with his failed efforts that he dares to ask Murray if he’ll help sway his buddy Bill into his son’s corner. Despite the strong sentimental pull toward Columbia House, this was arguably the best overall storyline of the episode, thanks to the comedic trifecta of Troy Gentile, Jeff Garlin, and David Koechner, who delivered across the board. Barry can’t win but won’t stop trying, Bill can’t be swayed and has no plans to change his mindset, and Murray really doesn’t want to get involved but ultimately realizes that his son needs a win and is only going to get that if his dad’s got his back. The combination of these three gentlemen makes for a lot of hilarious moments tempered with just the right amount of sentimentality, and in the end, everybody walks away a winner.
- Because I literally just pulled three of these things out of my garage a few days ago, I can’t resist sharing a shot of one of my cassette carrying cases. Once upon a time, they were alphabetized by artist, because that’s how I roll, but now they’re just artifacts of a bygone era, so I don’t feel obliged to be as anal about it. I can’t say that I really miss cassettes, but I do miss the fun of trawling through cassette cut-out bins. Those were the days, my friends…
- “Dave Kim doesn’t read the fine print. He lives in the moment.”
- Adam’s rationale for why Erica should join his Columbia House scam: “It’ll be a great bonding experience, or at the very least a cautionary tale.”
- “Your mom’s a nice lady, but she’s done some serious damage to you.”
- Nice recycling of the Fanboys poster, Mr. Goldberg.
- Between the list of things Barry wanted to know if Murray had trumpeted to Bill and the list of fake Columbia House customers, this episode must’ve been a hell of a lot of fun for the writers.
- I’m calling bullshit on 101 Farts being part of the Columbia House catalog, because if it had been, its sales figures would’ve put the Eagles’ greatest hits to shame.
- “I think I drowned a little!”
- Lastly, I really wanted to embed The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island in its entirety, but I couldn’t find it! So I’m sorry if you’ve never seen this pop culture artifact, but you’ll have to settle for this clip, along with the knowledge that I reeeeeeeally want to do a Random Roles interview with Martin Landau just so I can ask him about Ed Wood, Space 1999, and this TV movie. As for its use within the episode, I got one of my biggest laughs of the evening from Murray’s incredulity that they could’ve built a basketball court on the island while seemingly having no problem buying into the fact that the court in question is populated with basketball-playing robots.