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The Middle: “Cutting The Cord”

When we last left Sue, she was practically vibrating with nervous excitement about the impending arrival of the first roommate of her college career. As it happens, that’s pretty much the same place we find her when this week’s episode picks up. Yes, it’s only three days into Sue’s college experience, and things have already gone awry with her big plans to bond with her new roomie and jointly share the experience of being a freshman. As a result of having more time on her hands than she’d originally expected, Sue’s filling the minutes and hours by either texting or calling Frankie and Mike – okay, mostly Frankie – to remind them that she still loves them and to ask questions about this, that, and the other that she really could get answered on her own if her general uncertainty about her new surroundings wasn’t weighing on her.

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It’s interesting to see Sue being put into a situation where even her famously boundless optimism isn’t enough to keep her spirits up. Anyone who’s had the experience of leaving home and going away to college will see rather a lot of realism in what Sue’s dealing with, from trying to get coherent answers out of an overwhelmed R.A. to the general oddness of having to share a bathroom with an entire floor’s worth of other people. And then there’s her roommate, Holly, a girl whose look is little bit punk and a little bit goth and who hates people in general, doesn’t hesitate to fall back on alcohol as an escape, and lets Sue know in no uncertain terms that there’s no hope for them to evolve into chums because that’s just never going to happen.

Before her roommate showed up, Sue was a little sketchy about how her college experience was starting out but was still looking forward to seeing what the future was going to hold. Now, she’s sharing a room with someone who thinks that Taylor Swift is a skank and, even more brazenly, isn’t afraid to slap a poster on the wall that says “Fuck Life.” Needless to say, she’s utterly frazzled by the whole experience, and all she wants to do is talk to her mommy for moral support. Unfortunately, by the time Sue finds herself in the darkest timeline, she’s sent so many arguably-unnecessary texts to Frankie and Mike that they’ve reached a tipping point…or, more specifically, they’ve decided that it’s time to cut the cord and let Sue fly free. It’s a plan which lasts right up until Sue calls home, sobbing and saying that she’s not ready for college after all, she doesn’t want to be there anymore, and she just wants to leave.

Naturally, Frankie and Mike are in the car and on their way almost immediately. What they don’t factor in, however, is the Axl factor: although he’s still sufficiently annoyed about Sue going to the same college as him, limiting her to only 10 questions for the duration of the semester, he also sees something in his sister’s experiences that echo his own, and that whole brotherly-love thing kicks in in a big way when he shows up at her door to ask if she wants to grab a pizza. She does, of course, and the remainder of the episode features sibling bonding at its finest, offered in such a fashion that it’s by far the most mature Eden Sher and Charlie McDermott have come across on the show to date. Sue may fall back into her old, overly excitable ways – frankly, I’d be disappointed if she didn’t – but for now it’s just great to see her trying to keep a level head and make the most of her situation.

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Of course, the other reason that scene is great is because we get to see Axl stepping up to the plate and being a good big brother. Not that there’s no precedence for him to do such a thing, but as we’ve seen, he’s still prone to being the same old Axl when the opportunity presents itself, so it’s nice that he was able to set aside his Axl-ness and actually have some quality time with his little sister. For better or worse, though, that’s not the Axl that we saw throughout the majority of the rest of the episode: during those moments, we were witness to the slovenly bachelor whose pad is so infested with ants that he decides to catch them by putting a bowl of syrup in the middle of the room. It doesn’t work, of course, so they move to Plan B, which involves a ferret that promptly runs out of the house because Hutch has left the back door open so that girls could get in. So, yeah, long story short, Axl is still woefully immature more often than not. But at least he’s making progress.

And so, for that matter, is Brick, whose storyline completes the kid trifecta and helps to make it a clean sweep as far as solid storylines go. It’s just a shame about his parents, who – at least when they’re dealing with him – come across as the sort of folks who deserve a monthly visit from Child Protective Services just to make sure everything in the house is up to code. How else would you describe a mom and dad who start the episode by forgetting to make dinner for their child and end the proceedings by forgetting to tell their child that they were leaving the house for awhile? Thankfully, Brick’s a good kid by nature, so it’s not like he’s doing anything particularly untoward in their absence, but when he’s spotted dancing later in the episode and says, “We can do this every day if you want, my parents don’t care about me anymore,” there’s a laugh, but there’s also a legitimate twinge of sadness that Brick can reel off such a significant statement in such a jocular fashion. (Not as sad, though, as when he snapped at his parents that he was going to list himself as his emergency contact.) Here’s hoping they settle into the one-child lifestyle sooner than later and stop forgetting that Brick’s around. He’s a unique little dude who needs to be noticed, not ignored, if he’s ever going to make it in the real world.

Then again, if Frankie and Mike had been paying more attention, then we might not have gotten the experience of seeing Brick in a bookmark costume dancing to “Everybody Read Now,” and given how hard I laughed every single time the word “dance” was replaced by “read,” I’m hard pressed to complain but so much. Plus, it would appear that Brick now has a new friend, one who, while quiet, seems to be relatively normal. Surely this can only be a good thing.

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Stray observations:

  • It’s not that I didn’t laugh at Frankie and Mike’s lines about how they’re really going to be much better parents to Brick once he gets past 8th grade, which - to hear them tell it - really isn’t all that important a year. It’s just that first I laugh, and then I feel bad for Brick, which kind of sucks some of the comedy out of the premise for me.
  • The problem with trying to kill ants with Axe body spray: “Now they’re more confident than ever!”
  • Good: Axl telling Sue, “You don’t contact me, I contact you, and only if Mom and Dad are dead.” Great: Axl showing up at Sue’s dorm room a few minutes later, so surprising Sue that she says in a legitimately horrified voice, “Oh, my God, Mom and Dad are dead!”
  • When Brick was confronted by the bullies about being a bookmark, I couldn’t help but think of the Bill Hicks routine: “Looks like we got ourselves a reader!”
  • In regards to Sue being outside of her comfort zone, it was also a pleasant change to hear an acknowledgement that she doesn’t have political views or much in the way of political awareness at all.
  • “Send her an emoji.” “I think I sent her a frog.” “That’s good. She likes frogs.”
  • Ferret Bueller. Awesome.
  • I’m curious how many non-parents have the slightest clue what the Ferber Method is. Me, I laughed when it was referenced.
  • Lastly, and apropos of nothing beyond the fact that it involves someone from the cast of The Middle, I thought I’d share this little nugget that ended up being excised from my Random Roles with Paget Brewster. I expect you folks will appreciate it, as it came about when I mentioned that I was highly amused when I spotted Neil Flynn in the cast of a low-budget comedy project called Brainwarp.

“Oh, that’s right, Neil’s in that! He’s great. He’s so good. Yeah, Neil Flynn… Honestly, Neil is one of those guys who’s so good, but he’s actually too tall. Neil Flynn does not get the jobs that he should get – because he’s the most talented guy for them – because he’s so tall, and so many other actors are not, that you can’t frame a shot with the guy! Craig Anton, same thing. Craig Anton is a big, tall, really funny guy, but it’s tough to cast him. Yeah, there are people that are so talented, but…they’re too tall! It’s crazy!

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The Goldbergs: “A Chorus Lie”

Last week, I expressed my appreciation of The Goldbergs’ decision to steer directly into the storm of Sean Giambrone’s changing voice and mine it for all the comedy it was worth, but I hadn’t expected them to take it to the next level and actually hone in on the repercussions his voice change would have on the more theatrical elements of his life.

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Puberty’s a tough time for any kid. I myself found it a particular struggle because I skipped a grade: imagine your body going through all of its changes, and then imagine that no one else cares what you’re dealing with because they had all of their changes happen the year before. You’ve probably got your own horror stories, too. You think it’s going to be great because you’re finally growing up, but then you realize that not only is it a long way up, but it’s a treacherous climb all the way. In Adam’s case, he’s battling body odor, pimples, and a sudden awareness that women are just the best thing ever. Yes, even Sally Jessy Raphael. But it’s the voice that proves most problematic, particularly when it comes to drama, which is why Adam is horrified to learn that he’s actually going to have sing – and stay in key, too, at least theoretically – for the school’s upcoming musical. (You know it’s bad when even his drama teacher finds herself uttering the epithet, “Balls!”)

While in the throes of his puberty issues, Adam seeks counsel from Beverly and Pops (Barry proves repeatedly that he has nothing to offer except the worst advice ever), and Beverly vows to help him get through this most difficult time for a teenager, even as Pops shakes his head, rolls his eyes, and goes, “Oh, boy.” Still, to give credit where credit is due, she does pull off a successful use of makeup to hide his zits, thanks to the fine folks at Gimbels, but to help him get through his vocal woes, she pitches the idea of chicanery, getting Adam to lip synch his songs in the musical. (Hey, it worked for Milli Vanilli, right? At least temporarily, anyway.) He agrees, Ms. Cinoman agrees, and all appears right with the world, at least until just before they go onstage, at which point Beverly hears them singing and suddenly realizes that she’s well a terrible, if well-intentioned, mistake, and that they should be themselves, no matter how they sound. It’s a sweet ending, to be sure, but that’s definitely one concert recording I don’t think I’ll need to own.

Sharing the spotlight with Adam this week is Erica, who’s been spending a lot of time as a third wheel to Lainey and Barry. Too much time, in fact, which is why Lainey has a minor intervention with Erica about how she needs to stop writing off every guy in the school as a moron. Accused of being closed off and way too picky, Erica denies these charges and assures Lainey that she’d happily date any Christian Slater type who walked through the school doors, which causes Jeff of the JTP to immediately start honing his Slater impression. As impressions go, it’s…not good. But Murray admires the kid’s moxy for walking up their door and invites him in. Unfortunately, Erica is decidedly less impressed, bursting into laughter and declining his offer of a date, leading Murray to remind her that she needs to be less closed off and more open to ideas. Agreeing with this assessment, Barry jumps on a lunch table and announces to the entire school that Erica’s on the prowl, she’s looking for a man, and she’s not afraid to say “yes” to a date.

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Although she’s utterly cringing after that demonstration, Erica does concede to go on a date with Johnny Atkins, 1st chair saxophone in the school band. He comes across as kind of creepy - and, boy, is that a major understatement - but he’s unquestionably confident, and by that point her options are limited, so she sucks it up and is more or less resigned to her evening…until she discovers that he’s planning to bring two dates to the dance, at which point she bails out of the weirdness altogether. (It’s probably best, though: Murray hated him, anyway.)

After opting to skip the dance altogether, Murray goes up to Erica’s room, sits down, and apologizes that she’s so much like him with the moron-calling, but he assures her that there’s still hope, and that if he could find Beverly, then she can surely find someone, too, rather than feel like she has to go it alone. Once the speech has been fully delivered, Erica pops over to Jeff’s house and asks him if he wants to hang out as friends. He does, of course, and it’s fair to say that his mind is immediately trying to work out some way to take their relationship out of the friend zone, but they still end up having a nice evening together…or at least they do until Jeff tries to gleam the cube and ends up busting his ass. Ouch. But still funny.

Stray observations:

  • I don’t know which smells worse: a gym sock’s butt, a garlic diaper, or an egg salad left in a humidifier. But no matter which is the most foul, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s always nice to see Bryan Callen stop by the show.
  • I would not mind seeing Johnny Atkins pop up once or twice a season. I wouldn’t want him around regularly, because I’m sure he’d wear thin pretty quickly, but you have to respect a guy who defines his hairstyle as “band geek in the front, rock god in the back.”
  • Speaking of Johnny Atkins, I loved the way that, after Erica dismissed him, he called to another nearby girl and, as he walked away, the groovy sax riff kicked in again.
  • Sean Giambrone needs to get on Lip-Sync Battle, stat. His funniest moment, however, came right after Pops suggested that he didn’t do anything. “Didn’t you see this?” Adam demands to know, and then busts some serious moves.
  • “I’m so confused by your moral high ground!”
  • I laughed at Bev’s comment that guys in the throes of puberty “take extremely long showers.” I’ll be sure not to seduce anyone.
  • If there’s a disappointment about this episode, it’s that we were teased with the idea that we’d be hitting the dance and seeing some darned swell hoofing from the JTP, who somehow manage to dress in bright colors - possibly inspired by Color Me Badd? - and yet still come across as unbelievably white. Instead, all we got were a few precious moments of the guys in their sharp attire. I would’ve loved to have seen more.
  • If we can get a Goldbergs episode that features Christian Slater as an occasional plot point, then surely we can get a Random Roles interview with Christian Slater. But so far it’s still a “no.” Dammit.
  • Lastly, I dropped a line to the real Susan Cinoman to ask exactly how badly the real Adam F. Goldberg’s voice affected the theater and drama department. She replied, “Well, I do recall some cracking voices in the Penn Carter theatre…but Adam was my leading man in comedy and drama, so in those areas he was a MAJOR STAR!” I then asked Mr. Goldberg how he felt about that recollection. “Whenever singing was involved I would be banished to the chorus,” he confirmed. “And this was in a small Quaker school where no one did theater — I was that bad. But as I got older, it was a numbers game, so I got some acting roles that I tried verrrrry hard at. I’m not sure I can show any of those videos on the show. They’re just unbearable because I’m so bad. But I love Susan’s response. She’s such a supportive person who is half Jewish mother and half drama teacher. The perfect combo!”

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