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

The Middle: “The Year Of The Hecks”

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Welcome to 2012, and welcome back to The Middle. If tonight proved to be your first experience with the series, then we know definitively that you believe Todd VanDerWerff has it in him to make good on his death threats (as well you should), but, hey, if that’s what it takes to get you to watch one of television’s most underrated sitcoms, then so be it.

For the Hecks, the new year begins the way you’d expect it to: with every single member of the family ringing in 2012 at home, all by themselves. What, like you thought Frankie and Mike might throw a New Year’s Eve party on the heels of their Christmas Eve fiasco? Yeah, right. (That mortifying event probably also served to kill any chance that they’d be invited to anyone else’s house.) Brick’s only slightly less socially awkward than Sue, so it was a safe bet that they’d both be spending it at home, and although it’s mildly surprising that Axl didn’t have anything going on, the fact that he apparently didn’t would certainly serve to explain why, between the end of the countdown and the uttering of “happy new year,” he’s already declared, “This year already sucks.” Frankie and Sue ignore him, of course, and enjoy a mother-daughter embrace, but Brick can only just barely look up from his book long enough to shrug at the arrival of the new year, and Mike, bless him, sleeps through the big moment, only to be jolted awake and claim that he actually stayed awake ‘til midnight. (Apparently, his snoring gave him away, as is so often the case with fathers who slip into post-dinner comas in their easy chairs.)

Caught up in her annual enthusiasm, Frankie demands resolutions from her family. Unsurprisingly, Sue has, like, fifteen. Everyone else, however, offers a groan in response, with Mike adding a great jab by asking, “Why don’t you just donate a hundred bucks to Curves and call it a day?” Axl tries to match his dad by suggesting that, although he himself can think of nothing he needs to improve upon, he can think of plenty for everyone else. Whoops: Frankie decides it’s a great idea. Suddenly, it’s a thing.

Or is it? Axl hates the resolution foisted upon him - to clean his pigsty of a room - and when Brick learns that he’s been asked to “stop reading all the time,” he immediately flicks away the paper it’s written on and snaps, “I’m out.” But the prospect of an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord is sufficiently tempting to keep everyone at least tentatively into making good on what they’ve been asked to accomplish, including Sue (to stop trying out for things she’s never going to make), Mike (to smile more), and, yes, Frankie, too. Although she feels awful about the resolution she’s received - to spend more time with Brick - she admits that it’s completely warranted. “What do we really know about him?” she asks Mike.

Well, one thing we know about him now is that he’s pretty damned nasty when he’s not allowed to read, yelling at Axl for throwing an open book at him (“I’m in detox!”) and snapping at his mother when she dares to step into the bedroom and say, “Knock, knock.” (“I hate it when people say, ‘Knock, knock.’ It’s irritating. Just knock or don’t knock!”) Still, Frankie won’t give up so easily, eventually convincing him to come help kill the ants coming out of the dishwasher hole…which, by the way, is yet another thing that the Harris family has in common with the Heck family. (Goddamn ants…)

Hey, Brad’s back…and he’s on the wrestling team! In addition to a great reaction shot from Frankie and Mike when Sue says that Brad’s “got huge news” and several reminders about how homoerotic wrestling is and always has been, Brad’s new endeavor gives Sue the perfect opportunity to bypass trying out for things and instead just create something new…specifically, “wrestlerettes,” a.k.a. wrestling cheerleaders. And, yes, that really is a thing, because my sister was one at our high school. (She and her peers were a damned sight prettier than Sue's teammates.) It would be fair to say that Sue’s plan meets with no opposition from the wrestling coach, whose only semblance of an emotional reaction occurs when Sue feels obliged to mention that she once had “a romantic relationship” with Brad.

Some of the storylines successfully weave in and out from each other, particularly Frankie's well-intended but ultimately kinda half-assed efforts to spend time with Brick regularly colliding with his nasty cold-turkey mood (I loved the way he delivered each line as if he was on the verge of losing his freaking mind), while others just kind of tangentially cross paths, like Sue complaining to Frankie about the emotional turmoil caused by possibly having to cut one of her Wrestlerettes. (Not that it ends up mattering. You know, all things being equal, I can appreciate someone preferring to watch Phineas & Ferb over being a Wrestlerette.)

Although Frankie accurately sums up Axl's clean-room storyline when she says that his resolution didn't amount to much, his "you owe me a cookie" speech was still pretty funny, and I can't imagine any proud English major not getting a laugh out of his teacher putting him on the spot and demanding that he spell "there" correctly. Sue's Wrestlerettes turn out about as well as you'd expect, but you can't fault her enthusiasm. The material about Mike's smile was limited, but it was funny to see the effect it had on people, from his disconcerted coworkers to the chatty woman in the bank to the quickly-charmed cop. I didn't expect Frankie to leave Brick at the dealership, which gave the end of the episode a nice little twist as well as a great back-and-forth between mother and son. ("You didn't think I wouldn't come back for you, didn't you?" "Well, I didn't think you'd leave me in the first place, so clearly I'm not that good of a judge.")

Call me crazy, but I think this might actually have been the best episode of the season to date, so I hope a few of the non-believers actually deigned to check it out. Not only was it strong through and through, but to address a recurring theme in many people's bashing of the show, I don't think anyone could say that Patricia Heaton ever once went into what's generally perceived as her "shrill" mode. Nope, this was just 30 solid minutes of fun family comedy…something which, as I reiterate week after week in this blog, is something The Middle does very well.

Random quotes and observations:

  • “Okay, it’s 2:30. Just tell me what you need to hear.”
  • Yeah, I’m going to need more back story about Frankie having spent most of Brick’s first week of existence watching the Ferguson baby. (If this has been addressed in a previous episode, I can’t recall it.) Flashback episode, please…
  • “Go ahead, Mr. Heck, try and tip me over!”
  • “These straps are really digging into my shoulder. Ah, I’ll bring it up at the next rehearsal…”
  • “If there weren’t supposed to be wrestling cheerleaders, then why would ‘pin’ rhyme with ‘win’?” That’s some real nice logic there, Sue…
  • “You don’t want to hear any of my reasons? I have over 200!”
  • “I won’t let you down.” “That wouldn’t be possible.”
  • I love it when the lines between Neil Flynn and Mike Heck blur. It happened again tonight, with his smile and his delivery of the word "show-off" when Sue gave him a big toothy grin. That wasn't acting. That was pure Neil.
  • "You know what would be really fun? Coming to work with me. You can hang out and see what I do and why I'm so tired all the time."
  • "Oh, good. You're still alive."
  • "Do I need to call Social Services here?" "No, that's okay. We're already in the system."