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The Middle: “Crushed”

With all due respect to the perpetually-cute-as-a-button Eden Sher, you know something’s up when the very first shot of Sue Heck in an episode of The Middle immediately causes your eyebrows to raise and makes you want to say, “Hey, now!” For a moment, one might easily have wondered if the fashion sense of the Sue we saw on the dance floor during Spring Break had been implemented as a regular thing for the character, but as it turns out, there’s a specific reason for Sue looking particularly spiffy in class: she’s totally smitten with Professor Nick Grant, played once again by Josh Cooke.

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While it’s clearly something that depends on your individual college experience, I’d be surprised if most folks who went to college didn’t have a crush on at least one of their professors. For my part, the first thing that leapt to mind when I discovered the premise of this episode was the mix tape I made for my college Spanish professor, Señora Wehling. It never would’ve worked out between us – she was well-educated, politically savvy, and decidedly liberal, whereas I was a hormonally-charged idiot who read Star Trek novels, watched Twin Peaks, and made mix tapes which were destined to end in heartbreak – but I still remember how cute she was and what a fool I made of myself…or did I?

Yeah, actually, I’m pretty sure I did. But at least my embarrassments were mostly low-key, and they were really only known to my friends and Señora Wehling. Sue’s, on the other hand, are unabashedly public and are enough to make just about anyone cringe.

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Something that I’d expect to cause a divisive reaction amongst viewers, however, is how caught up in her crush Sue is. I’m thinking in particular of the line in her conversation with Lexie, where the tentative suggestion is made that Sue might’ve been teetering on the edge of stalking, and Sue admits that when she was in Nick’s bathroom, she dabbed his aftershave on a ball of cotton and pocketed it. To my mind, the show gets away with Sue having this level of obsession, mostly because we know enough about Sue at this point that we’re confident that the worst thing she’s going to do is completely embarrass herself, which is exactly what happens. (Also, let’s get real: this is The Middle, not Criminal Minds.) But I’m sure someone will have a problem with it and suggest that it’s going to be a bad influence on teenage girls, which is ironic, since I can’t think of many TV teens who’d be better to emulate than Sue Heck.

Okay, that was a bit of a digression from the real question, which is whether or not the storyline worked on a comedic level. It did, although it felt like it was dragged out a bit longer than necessary, especially when some of the time could’ve been spent focusing further on the first meeting between Axl and Lexie, which looks like it has some serious comedic potential. (After all, isn’t it about time Axl had a chance to drop some turnabout-is-fair-play action on Sue for having dated Darren?) But tying Jeremy the megaphone-wielding tree hugger into the proceedings was an interesting twist, as was the closing-scene decision to clean him up and sit him right next to Sue in class. Not that we should view every guy that makes Sue smile as a potential boyfriend, but…he’s right there!

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Speaking of boyfriends and girlfriends, that’ll serve as a decent-enough segue into the episode’s other storyline, which revolved around Brick talking Frankie and Mike into finally meeting Cindy’s parents. It’s a little surprising that it took this long to happen, given that they’ve been dating since last season, but it might never have happened if Mike gone to pick up the pizza for the family. He didn’t, though, which is how Frankie came to find herself seeing the families of several kids from Brick’s class, all of them having a good time together. While the Hecks’ absence from this scenario is a dream come true for Mike, it bothers Frankie, who immediately wants to do something to remedy their social standing with Brick’s classmates, and as long as he gets to watch the game on the big TV, Mike’s fine and dandy with that.

As it turns out, it’s not as easy as just rejoining the circle, and Frankie seems resigned to being on the outside looking in. Brick, however, has a possible solution: to reach out to Cindy’s parents. This suggestion is instantly met with groans, along with the very reasonable suggestion that they’re likely to be just as weird as she is, but when Brick counters by reminding them that he’s weird but his parents are normal, both Frankie and Mike acquiesce and agree to have dinner with them, resulting in a scene which was brought to you by Bad Idea Jeans.

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Not only are they indeed weird – Merv finishes all of Mike’s thoughts, and Llewellyn doesn’t seem to have any thoughts – but they come bearing a highly inappropriate question: can they borrow $700 to pay the rent on their house, thereby saving them from having to move in with Cindy’s grandparents? Their question is doubly ridiculous for anyone who knows how much the Hecks battle with having insufficient funds on a weekly basis, and even though Mike and Frankie tell Cindy’s parents, “We’ll think about it,” it’s not like any amount of thinking is going to make a free $700 appear in their bank account.

Still, with Brick’s sad pleas and legitimate arguments about how he never goes anywhere, doesn’t do anything, and is probably the only kid with whom they’ve actually made a profit, there was still a part of me that made me wonder if they were going to go the traditional sitcom route and somehow find a way to come up with the money. They didn’t, of course, which did indeed result in Cindy’s family leaving their house behind and moving in with her grandparents, who live – wait for it – two houses down. Yes, it was a ridiculous twist, but it was one I didn’t see coming, and Cindy and her family are just weird enough that it worked. What worked even better, though, was the short but sweet scene between Brick and Axl, where Axl – even though he can’t resist making a few snarky comments along the way – acknowledges that he really believes that Mike and Frankie do everything for their kids that they possibly can, but the reality is that they just can’t come up with $700.

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And let’s be sure we put the emphasis on the word “reality,” shall we? I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a free $700 lying around my house, either. The Middle might not serve as an escape from my day-to-day financial troubles, but it’s a constant reminder than I’m not alone in them, and you’d be surprised how much that helps sometimes.

Stray observations:

  • A perfect Mike moment: when Frankie suggests that the family could eat dinner at the table and listen to music or something, he immediately presume it’s a ploy of some sort and replies, “If you want the big TV …”
  • I remain on the fence about the whole Brick-being-ignored thing, but it’s reaching a point of such ridiculousness that I’m starting to laugh about it now. Case and point: the fact that he went off for a long weekend to Chicago with Cindy and her parents, even brought Mike back a coffee mug, and neither Mike nor Frankie realized he’d left.
  • Okay, yeah, maybe Sue recording video of her professor might’ve veered a little bit into less-funny, more-creepy territory…
  • You have to admit, Sue’s move with her purse to snake the seat next to Nick was pretty sweet.
  • On the sadder side of things, I actually went “awwwwwww” at the revelation that Brick’s still wearing clothes from the cousin box. (Great callback, though.)
  • It’s always funny when the Heck kids’ cash-strapped upbringing collides with normal-income behavior, as when Sue is startled by her professor throwing away the nice plastic plates that her family washes off and uses again.
  • Eden Sher had a lot of spotlight moments, but her abrupt freakout and frantic departure after the realization that Nick was aware of her crush was hilarious yet heartbreaking.
  • Having Mike and Frankie use electrical tape to repair the toaster while Brick was trying to convince them to give Cindy’s parents $700 was pretty great.
  • Mike’s argument to Brick’s reminder that they’re supposed to give to people less fortunate than themselves: “In our defense, they’re hard to find.”
  • A throwaway line, but possibly my favorite of the episode: “Clear your history.”

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The Goldbergs: “Dungeons & Dragons, Anyone?”

Ah, Dungeons & Dragons: you were so frightening to certain sections of the populace, but you were awesome, no matter what the cool kids may have thought.

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Yes, I’m using the past tense, but that’s only because it’s been decades since I last wound my way through a D&D module. Even then, I don’t think I ever played the game with anyone who actually knew what the hell they were doing, but that didn’t make it any less awesome to create characters, flip through the pages of the Monster Manual or Deities & Demigods, and basically just have fun geeking out.

Although the spotlight is shined on Adam, Dave Kim, and the gang as they play D&D, reminding all of us reformed players how great it used to be, the storyline is offered up in a way that also ties in the terror of taking P.E. when you’re not exactly setting Fitness Test records. When your athletic prowess is subpar, you ultimately end up being picked last for teams, which can be decidedly damaging to your psyche. (Not that I have any firsthand experience with this phenomenon.) The idea of switching things up so that the less-than-cool kids get a shot at being team captain is not a new one, but when Adam talks Coach Meller into turning things topsy-turvy for a day, it’s entertaining to see him do exactly what I suspect many of us would do in a similar situation: throw all of our peers under the bus in favor of compiling the best possible team. Sure, it’s easy to talk a good game about maintaining a unified front and fighting the powers that be, but when faced with the opportunity to be in charge of your own team, you can suddenly see something that wasn’t necessarily visible from your usual side of the fence: they’re not picking you last because they don’t like you, they’re picking you last because they want to win.

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When Meller realizes that Goldberg has betrayed his original plan, the coach immediately counters by not only giving Dave Kim the opportunity to be a team captain, but also to pick the competition of his choice to do battle with Adam’s team. His selection: Dungeons & Dragons, naturally. When Adam attempts to teach D&D to the jocks on his team, it initially looks to be a lost cause, with the guys having more fun giving their characters names like Dick Biggens than actually playing the game, but Barry – or, rather, Lord Big of Tasty – helps serve as translator and helps to teach them the game, putting them on strong footing when they hit the gym for the big competition. Confronted by Dave for what’s destined to be the final move of the game, Adam opts to do the right thing and loses, which might seem like a dumb move in the short term, but if it ends up strengthening the friendship in the long run, then it’s definitely the smartest thing he possibly could’ve done.

Meanwhile, over in our second storyline of the episode, Erica thinks she’s found the perfect in-state school for her purposes – Carnegie Mellon – only for Bev to dismiss Pittsburgh as being far too far away from Jenkintown for her (s)mothering purposes. Reasonably presuming that she’s at least got Murray on her side, since he’s basically spent her entire life saying that he wants the kids out of his house, Erica books a meeting for herself and her parents with Mr. Glasscott – hooray, Tim Meadows is back! – in order to further educate them on the school she’s interested in attending. Amazingly, the pamphlet does the trick: Bev realizes that her daughter has a chance to live the life she never did, and she does an on-the-spot 180, deciding that Erica absolutely should go to Carnegie Mellon. Unsurprisingly, this is precisely the moment that Murray, having looked at the material himself, decides that there’s no way in hell that his daughter is going to be going away to school.

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As Murray admits later, even though he’s pointedly told all of his kids that he wants them out of his house as soon as possible, he always said it with an eye on the fact that it was going to be quite awhile before it was really an issue. Now that the moment’s here, however, he’s backpedalling and realizing that he’s not quite ready to see them leave. There’s tension in Casa de Goldberg for an indeterminate period of time over the matter, but eventually Murray sees the error of his ways and apologizes, and they both agree to let her pursue her future at Carnegie Mellon. You kind of figured how things were going to play out with that storyline, but it’s still a pleasant one nonetheless.

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention George Segal’s tour de force performance in the episode, specifically the way he obsessed over Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School. I should close every review from now on with readers asking, “Are you done?” At which point I’ll respond in turn, “I don’t have to be!”

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Stray observations:

  • I can’t ever think of Dungeons & Dragons without thinking of Mazes & Monsters, a.k.a. the biggest reason I want to do a Random Roles with Tom Hanks someday. If you don’t know the movie, you’re welcome.

  • I really hope we someday get an episode set in or at least around the Jenkintown Funk Academy. You can’t just reference the most awesome-sounding school name in recent memory and then never utilize it again!
  • “Goldberg, you’re the worst.” “I welcome the feedback.”
  • “More like dork attack!”
  • “What’s with the getup? Is there, like, a sports musical you’re starring in?”
  • Getting Kurtis Blow to record a song about Dungeons & Dragons for the episode will go down in history as one for the greatest Goldbergs moments of all time.
  • I also hope we see more Sergei as time passes.
  • Murray’ s sales pitch for Erica to move back in with her parents – her tour of the house – was pitiful but funny.
  • “Dad, wherever you are sitting or eating in this house, come to my room immediately: it’s an emergency.”
  • Lastly, how can we end this without offering up the video for Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball”? The answer: we can’t.

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