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The Middle: “A Very Donahue Vacation”

When it comes to family sitcoms, one criticism that most of them inevitably suffer—particularly the ones that run as long as The Middle has—is that they have a tendency to hit the same beats, and that those beats, no matter how effective they may be the first few times around, tend to lose some of that effectiveness the more they’re used. This week’s episode definitely covers some ground that’s been trod upon in the past, but it was done well, either putting a slightly new spin on a familiar situation or leaving us with the sensation that maybe we’d better stop complaining and just enjoy that ground while we still can.

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Take, for instance, the premise that the entire episode is built around. How many three-kid families do you know that still take family vacations when two of those kids are in college?

Given the kids’ incomes, Frankie and Mike’s respective incomes, and the Heck family’s general history of not being able to afford to take extravagant vacations, it’s quite plausible that the whole bunch of them would end up sitting on the couch watching reality TV together rather than going anywhere, so it’s no wonder that they’d all jump at the chance to do something, simply because it’s better than doing nothing. Not that it stops them from groaning when they learn that Mike’s financial windfall from Li’l Rivals is only going to be taking them as far as Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, but they get over it relatively quickly.

Part of the reason Frankie recovers so fast is because she realizes that this is a perfect opportunity to make good on her promise to tell Nancy Donahue whenever they’re going to be going on a trip somewhere. It’s also one that’ll prove beneficial: since Frankie has little to no interest in Mike’s idea of a vacation destination, at least she’ll have Nancy to hang out and talk with, no matter what happens. (It probably also doesn’t hurt that the Donahues have offered to drive.) As far as the kids go, they’re a little less enthused—it’s hard to accept Kentucky when you’ve convinced yourself that you’re heading to Hawaii—but they nonetheless find ways to make do.

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It doesn’t take long for Mike to realize that no one else has any interest in accompanying him on his expeditions into the caverns or to the nearby fort, but while it may annoy him at the moment their disinterest is expressed (by silence), he clearly ends up enjoying himself, as indicated by the awestruck “cool” we hear him uttering.

We don’t get much of a feel for how Sue’s keeping herself occupied, but we do learn that Axl has drafted Brick to help him perform the Jerk / Not a Jerk routine due to Sean not really being into deceit these days. As it turns out, Brick’s got a knack for playing the jerk, which really isn’t all that surprising when you consider who he’d been forced to live with for most of his life, but he’s not interested in doing it for the long haul, which is why he finally confronts Axl about why he even needs to use the routine. That’s when we discover that he’s still fretting about Devin and, having seen her with “some skater guy” and clearly enjoying herself, is realizing that there’s no longer any point in being optimistic about a possible revival of their relationship. Naturally, it’s almost immediately after that acknowledgment when a cute waitress pops over and mentions that her cousin goes to the same school as Axl, which means…nothing, maybe. Then again, maybe it means that she’ll come visit her cousin and find time to hang out with Axl while she’s there. Either way, Axl’s increasingly confident patter as he’s talking to her gives us the impression that he might be on the mend at last.

Frankie, meanwhile, ends up being accidentally drawn into kind of Strangers on a Train situation with Nancy, where Nancy asks Frankie if she’ll talk to Sean about taking his MCAT, and in return Nancy will talk to Brick about his as-yet-unrevealed quirk. Frankie dismisses the whole thing until Nancy pops by the pool to reveal that she’s already talked to Brick, at which point Frankie realizes she’ll have to step up her game. Finding Sean, she attempts to engage him in conversation about his future and ultimately succeeds in her endeavor, but her success causes her to shift into cockiness about her parenting skills, and while she’s mouthing off to Mike about it, she’s overheard by the Donahue’s daughter, Shelly.

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A storyline about Frankie inappropriately mouthing off is certainly something we’ve seen before, and—as ever—it makes you want to cringe as she tries to salvage the situation, which in this case involves dealing with the blackmail demands issued by an 11-year-old girl. There are two things that particularly stand out, though: Frankie is clearly upset at the thought of Nancy finding out what she said, which would seem to indicate a certain amount of personal growth, and Nancy unabashedly pushes Frankie into the pool, which is a very un-Nancy-like thing to do and, in turn, confirms that there is, as Frankie says in her narration, “a little sliver of Nancy that’s down in the gutter with the rest of us.”

As a dad with a daughter, I’ve saved the storyline about Sue and Mike for the end, because it’s the one that meant the most to me. Yes, we’ve seen Mike dealing with the fact that Sue’s not his little girl anymore in earlier episodes, but here’s the thing: it’s an ongoing process, and it doesn’t get any easier. This is the first time we’ve really seen Sue stand on her own two feet and say to Mike without hesitation or concern, “I wasn’t asking for your permission, I was just telling you what I’m going to be doing.” It was a little startling, frankly, but wonderfully so.

For us, the viewers, that is. For Mike, maybe not so much.

The idea of Sue heading off to Dollywood with Brad for the summer is an amazing one, but Mike is at a loss, finding that his fatherly powers are waning, and decides that he’s going to take one last shot at turning the tide back in his favor. It’s a plan that dissipates the moment he sees Sue in her red dress: she may always be his little girl, but she’s a woman now, and she looks every bit of it. You can blame it on the music cue if you want, but I feel like I’m probably not the only dad who abruptly found himself getting teary when Mike had his epiphany that Sue Heck is—for all practical purposes—all grown up.

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Actually, I don’t expect you have to be a dad to get teary over that particular thought. Ain’t it funny—and a little bit sad—how time slips away…

Stray observations:

  • “What do you even know about this Dolly Parton?” If you need an excuse to leave a comment below, here’s one: what’s your favorite of Ms. Parton’s songs? I thought about several possibilities, but I kept returning to this one.

  • Neil Flynn’s best line reading of the evening, and one which begs for back story: “Oh, I don’t think Triple-A will come for us anymore.”’
  • Anyone got any theories on what Brick’s doing that Frankie isn’t aware of?
  • Drinking before noon is apparently acceptable if your beverage has a piece of pineapple stuck in it, thereby making it more or less like breakfast.
  • Axl wants to punch Sean. Sean totally gets that.
  • Axl’s reason for not pursuing the first girl he meets: she’s got a boyfriend in the military, and he just can’t do that to the troops. Nice.
  • Is it just me, or don’t you want to see the rock that looks like a buffalo, too?
  • When Nancy said that she thought of Frankie as a sister, the first thing that ran through my mind was to wonder where the hell Molly Shannon is and why we haven’t see her back on The Middle in awhile.
  • “Bring your D-bag A-game.” Axl has such a way with words.
  • To be fair, I think I might’ve found an excuse to run over Shelly’s bike, too.

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The Goldbergs: “Magic Is Real”

It was only a matter of time before The Goldbergs delivered an episode which really found Adam dealing with the impact of breaking up with Dana and trying to get back out there and start looking for the next love of his life. Not that there was any reason to expect that he’d find her so quickly, but… I mean, damn, the poor kid finally got back on the horse, and he got shot right out of his saddle. Did it have to end in such heartbreak?

Sorry, what was I thinking? Of course it did. Any teenage boy who doesn’t have his heart ripped out of his chest a dozen or so times while in the throes of puberty clearly isn’t doing something right.

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If anyone’s to blame in Adam’s failure to find a new love, then one might easily argue that the fault lies with Dave Kim, who assured Adam that getting girls is easy as long as you’ve got a hook. Then again, one might just as easily blame David Copperfield, whose on-camera presence was such that he made it easy to believe that magic was real, even when it involved something as ostensibly nuts as walking through the Great Wall of China. Whoever’s responsible, the idea of magic being “the ultimate hook” is enough to inspire Adam to take out an ad to trumpet his services as a magician. It’s a ridiculous looking ad, to be sure, but it’s enough to capture people’s attention and, in very short order, to earn Adam his first performance. Better yet, it’s for the birthday party of the brother of a very cute girl, and Adam, unsurprisingly, is smitten with her immediately.

Thing is, in terms of performance, Adam doesn’t actually know much when it comes to magic tricks. In fact, he can’t even consistently turn his wand into a bouquet of flowers. Current goings-on do, however, necessitate a trip to Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, with Bev tagging along because Adam’s assured her that it’s a good excuse for mom time while keeping quiet about the fact that he’s really just trying to impress a girl. This is very, very shady, but it does result in Bev paying for the top-level tricks for Adam.

That said, I can forgive a hormonally-charged heterosexual teenage boy for just about anything he may do, owing to the fact that girls are awesome, but I can’t forgive the way Adam unabashedly uses his mother and then kicks her to the curb the second the opportunity presents itself. Bev may drive everyone crazy, but she doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment, and she’s right to be pissed off and take back all the stuff he ordered. As such, there are probably some who would say that the reaction Adam gets after asking the birthday party hostess for a date – he gets completely shut down – is one he’s earned. I would disagree. There are few things more painful than realizing that you’ve completely misread a situation as romantic when it’s absolutely not, but as Adam soon realizes, it’s on those occasions when you’re glad to know that your mom’s got your back, unconditionally and forever.

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In a related story, Adam isn’t the only male Goldberg who’s having to grow up a bit this week: Barry’s angry and frustrated about…well, you know, pretty much everything, because he’s Barry. But the real answer to this question is that he’s upset about realizing that everyone around him has their sights set on college or has made post-graduation plans, whereas he doesn’t even want to take the PSAT, let alone the actual SAT test. Oh, sure, he’s done some practice exams at Bev’s insistence, but he hasn’t taken them seriously, unless it turns out that the answers to one of the tests are indeed shaped like the Van Halen logo.

Rather shockingly, Murray is actually invested enough in how things go down that he takes the initiative to get out of his chair, walk over to Barry to berate him, and then drive him down to the SAT test prep center. Barry, startled that he hasn’t arrived at the zoo as he’s been promised, manages to skip out of the proceedings after he sees that Murray has driven away, after which he kills time outside the Wawa until the other members of the Jenkintown Posse show up. That proves to be a heartbreaker, too, as none of them want to do anything other than grow up, which causes Barry to howl, “Real life is for sell-outs!”

It’s not, though. It’s for everyone.

But real life scares the living hell out of Barry, because he’s suddenly finding that no one can picture him as any of the things that he’s planned to be, and then you add to that scenario the fact that everyone he knows seems to have found what track they want to follow, and it starts getting worrisome. When it turns out that Lainey has taken the PSATs and gotten a pretty great score, it’s suddenly even worse. In an attempt to salvage his future, Barry remains convinced that he’s got the stuff to be a billionaire entrepreneur, but after reeling off a list of truly terrible inventions, he hits maximum frustration level, bailing out of the house and heading off to parts unknown.

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Just kidding: he’s back in the Wawa parking lot, sitting in a shopping cart, depressed as all hell. That’s when Murray steps in again and hits Barry with a compliment –“Your brain works like nobody else’s: I’ve never met anyone who thinks the way you do” – and tells him that in the future he’s going to surprise everybody, up to and including himself, if he just tries.

So he does. And as you might expect, he’s still very much Barry Goldberg. But suddenly that doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world.

Stray observations:

  • When we first see Adam this week, he’s in front of the bathroom mirror, “feathering my hair like famed ladykiller Robert Lowe.”
  • There is nothing wrong with crying at The Muppet Movie, dammit!
  • Erica’s revenge on Adam for being in her room is deviously brilliant. Beware the Cuddle Coyote!
  • I would buy a shirt labeling me as a “successkimo.”
  • Pops’ best lines this week are pretty much everything he says while watching the David Copperfield special. (“Oh, you gave us quite a scare, you handsome bastard!”)
  • The part that cut the deepest in terms of Adam getting his hopes up for this girl being his next love was that she actually got his Star Wars reference. The Force seemed so strong with this one…
  • I love that Lainey’s previous career goal had been to become a background dancer on Club MTV, and it makes me sad that that has changed.
  • I always liked David Copperfield, but when push came to shove, I was more of a Doug Henning guy. (I have a history of rooting for the lovable goofball. Go figure.)

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