As has been previously observed in this forum, when it comes to debating the merits of The Middle versus Modern Family, it’s not like you’re entering into an Elvis versus Beatles cage match where only one can emerge the victor. It’s quite conceivable that someone could find both shows funny. When posing the question as to which of the two sitcoms comes closest to taking place in the real world, however, surely we can agree that The Middle takes that title handily, no?
Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh. We are talking about the whole of existence, after all, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that the Dunphy and Pritchett families don’t have plenty of real-world equivalents. But while most of us do still tend to subscribe to the general tenet that it’s better to give than to receive, Frankie Heck offers up a sentiment on holiday shopping that it’s impossible to conceive of Claire or Gloria, let alone any of their spouses or siblings, uttering:
“Well, I’ve paid the minimums on all the credit cards, sent in my first tuition payment and conveniently forgot to sign the check, so I think that’ll buy us another week… and we still have $20 to buy Christmas presents!”
She’s exaggerating, of course, but only just very slightly. It’s been shown repeatedly over the run of the show just how low the Hecks’ income bracket is, and this season, with Frankie being shown the door at the car dealership and deciding to go back to school, it’s only gotten worse. In other words, when she refers to 2012 as “not our best year,” that’s no exaggeration at all. (It also probably hits home for a lot of viewers, too, I’d guess. It certainly does for me, anyway.) As she toys with the possibility that the kids might accept a low-cost Christmas, you can suddenly see that Sue comes by her naïve optimism quite honestly, just as her darkly funny idea about faking her death so that her return on Christmas Day would distract the kids from their lack of presents shows you how much of Mike has rubbed off on her over the years.
In an effort to provide a Christmas miracle for her family, Frankie takes a seasonal gig at a nearby discount store (I’m guessing this J.J. Macky place is probably just a stone’s throw away from T.J. Maxx) in order to earn both money for presents and “a 30-percent discount off of their already low, low prices!” Unfortunately, she experiences a “gotcha” moment when she takes her purchases up to the register and finds that her employee discount doesn’t kick in till Christmas Eve, a preventive measure designed to keep short-timers from grabbing their gifts and heading for the hills, which results in numerous failed attempts by Frankie to hide things to buy later. Say what you will about those gags, but when the ladder was rolled away, leaving Frankie high and dry on a top shelf until it’s too late for her to buy any presents, my daughter laughed harder than she has at just about anything she’s seen on the show this season.
How thoughtful of The Middle to give us a return appearance from Norm Macdonald as a Christmas present. Frankie is reasonably suspicious when she hears that Rusty has asked Mike to help him move furniture in the dark, and given their shared history as siblings, Mike’s probably doubtful as well, but he clearly didn’t anticipate that he’d be asked to move the furniture into his own garage. The back-and-forth between Norm and Neil Flynn about Rusty’s questionable ownership claim was enough to sell me on the idea of teaming them up for a buddy comedy at some future juncture, and Rusty’s stream of excuses about why he couldn’t pick up the furniture is great, but I feel like we’ve reached a point with Mike’s family where it’s hard to believe that he’d ever kick any of them to the curb (if he was going to do it, he would’ve done it by now), so there isn’t much emotional heft to the thought that Rusty might be permanently out of the picture. That said, however, it is so out-of-character to see Mike taking a moment to appeal to a higher power that that particular scene manages to prove affecting, at least.
As for the kids, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the running joke of Axl slowly transforming the garage into his personal sanctuary. Silly, yes, particularly when it jumps to the point of Axl inviting Sue and Brick over for a dinner, throwing a Christmas shindig, and even stealing the family’s tree for his new hideaway, but seeing Charlie McDermott sitting on the couch and swigging eggnog while grooving to holiday tunes just about made the whole thing worthwhile. It’s always inevitable that he’ll go from his “sick crib” to his “dump” of a room, but, hey, it was fun while it lasted.
Elsewhere, Rev. Tim Tom asks Brick to play one of the Wise Men in “J.C.’s Rockin’ Birthday Jam,” and, in a move that surprises Frankie and Mike, Brick accepts. Unfortunately, it’s a production limited to those aged 12 and under, leaving the perpetually enthusiastic Sue momentarily heartbroken, but no sooner than she’s feigned a lack of concern (“Oh, cool, yeah, no prob”), the rev brings her back from the precipice of the abyss by offering her the opportunity to bake cookies for the concession stand. She accepts, of course, which surprises Frankie and Mike in no way, shape, or form. The fact that Brick is already oblivious to the existence of the play within seconds of accepting his role would seem to set up what we’ve already suspected—he’s probably not destined to be the next Olivier—but we’re at least kept guessing a little bit when he returns from play practice with one of the show’s numbers stuck in his head. Sue, however, is clearly in over her head from the moment she starts doing her cookie calculations… not that that’s a bad thing from a comedic standpoint.
Just as things are looking pretty miserable across the board, with Sue’s cookie-cooking efforts having gone less than spectacularly, Axl losing his sweet new pad, Mike struggling yet again with his relationship with Rusty, and Frankie having no Christmas presents for anyone, Brick manages to save the day by doing little more than living up to expectations. I cannot explain why watching Atticus Shaffer shuffle his feet and squeak his shoes is as funny as it is, but it’s pretty damned hilarious. Yeah, criticizing the technique of his fellow actors in mid-performance and sitting down on the stage to eat a cookie are kind of ridiculous, but becoming mesmerized by the opening and closing of the box is classic Brick, as is the revelation that the idea for the shoe-squeaking—which, funnily enough, turns out to be an intentional choice rather than just a random behavioral quirk—is the only thing he got out of watching a basketball game. In the end, everyone in the Heck family ends up having about as happy a holiday as anyone in their income bracket could hope for, and we get a very merry Christmas episode, indeed.
- Sing it, Rev. Tim Tom! “It’s a bell you can’t un-ring / It’s a song you can’t un-sing / It’s a gift you can never take back / That’s why it’s best to stay on track / And wait for marriage.”
- There’s something incredibly cute about the way Eden Sher sells the unsurprising fact that Sue loves both cookies and concession stands.
- “I called Acey-Deucey. Sure, I had a lot of corn nuts in my mouth, but everybody heard me.”
- “Sue! Quilt!” The callback gag about keeping the quilt in the oven might be silly, but I still love it.
- “Oh, hey, Mike, I was on my way over to get that furniture, but then I realized that I don’t have any shoes. I’ll keep you posted!”
- This episode’s award for Best Facial Expressions clearly goes to Neil Flynn, whose efforts when opening the garage door and while listening to Rev. Tim Tom sing “Talk To The Man Upstairs” are outstanding. (Sadly, Mike doesn’t follow through on the premise of the Rev’s song, as “the Colts are rebuilding, and I don’t want to distract Him from that.”)
- “I failed. But it’s okay. You can tell me. I can take it. Well, probably not. So I would go easy on me.” And so he does. Oh, that Rev. Tim Tom. He always knows the right thing to say.
- “Come on, Mike, how many llamas can I put you down for?”
- Plot-related discussion question: To avoid any possibility of accidentally swiping a future AVQ&A, what’s your favorite non-pop-culture-related holiday gift that you’ve ever received? And don’t be afraid to be sappy, because mine is the gift box of coffee, tea, and snacks that my future wife gave me on our first Christmas as a couple. We’d literally only gone on, like, a date and a half at that point (the half-date was when she invited me over to her apartment to watch Wings Of Desire), but the mere fact that she’d taken the time to put this gift box together for me—no girl had ever cared enough to take the time to do something like that—took my breath away. Mind you, I gave as good as I got: I framed a poster and ticket stub for a Love & Rockets/Pixies show that we discovered we’d both been to before we’d ever actually met, and I tagged it with a Post-it on which I’d written, “To the memories we never knew we shared.” Feel free to swoon and/or puke at this juncture.
- Lastly, I’m on a roll lately when it comes to interviews with cast members of The Middle, so be sure to check out my chat with Patricia Heaton over at Bullz-Eye… and when you do, please note that, like series creators DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler, she apparently actually reads these reviews on occasion. Who knew?