The Middle: “Find My Hecks”

With all due respect to the great Neil Sedaka, breaking up is bad, but the really hard bit is the growing up, especially when you’re still living in your parents’ house.

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Also extremely difficult: being a parent and having to deal with the ramifications of your kids growing up. It’s not a side of the equation that the kids tend to consider until they’re grown up and have kids themselves, at which point their parents—who are only just barely reigning in a fit of giggling—remind them what total pains in the asses they were when they were growing up.

Now that college is out for the school year, Axl and Sue have returned home, but if you’re expecting Frankie and Mike to throw a victory parade on their behalf, you’re barking up the wrong (fake inflatable palm) tree: they’ve only been home for a few hours, and the living room is already filled with their stuff from top to bottom, which is really pissing Frankie off. Given the bond that we’ve seen building between them while they’ve been away at school together, it’s not entirely surprising to see that Sue is finally starting to emulate Axl’s sullenness and slug-like tendencies, but it’s still worthy of a double-take when it becomes evident that Axl is enjoying this new relationship with his sister enough to actually invite her to go to a party with him now that they’re not at school. For a moment, it looks as though she’s going to be all Sue about it, but she pulls back from the abyss just in time. Not quick enough to avoid an attempt at using the word “dope,” alas, but these things take time.

In another season, Axl and Sue sharing the same social situation would’ve been a recipe for disaster, but in this case it isn’t: they have a great time and neither seems to embarrass or annoy the other enough to cause an emotional blowout, providing further proof that Axl’s maturing and that Sue’s maturing. When they get home at 2 a.m., however, they find a very angry Frankie waiting for them, demanding to know why they haven’t bothered to look at their phones. (It’s a great moment when Axl finally looks at his phone and reacts to the amount of texts he’s received from Frankie.) The volume hits a point where Mike crawls out of bed to find out what the ruckus is all about. Things quickly descend into a testy back-and-forth, with Frankie complaining about them getting home late, and Axl reminding her that when they’re living on campus, neither Frankie nor Mike have any idea what he and Sue are doing or when they‘re getting home, and provided they decide to go home at all. That’s when Mike starts breaking out the classic lines from Parenting 101, like the old “as long as you’re under our roof…” speech, earning instant mockery from Axl. In turn, Mike opts to institute a new curfew of 10 pm, which Axl counters with a single word: “Whatever.”

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As such, when the next party rolls around and it’s just before the 10 pm curfew, Sue is already twitching about Axl’s refusal to concede that they should get back home ASAP, but Axl assures her that all is well because there’s no possible comeback to a well-delivered “whatever,” which means that they’ve won, which in turn apparently also means that if they want to stop somewhere for biscuits and gravy, then that’s damned well what they’ll do, curfew be damned. But as it turns out, Frankie isn’t freaking out about the kids’ whereabouts this time, because she’s picked up an app for her phone that she can use to track the kids’ whereabouts. Mike accuses her of spying, but Frankie argues that she’s purchased peace of mind, which is certainly true up to a point.

Unfortunately, once Mike gets the tracking app on his phone, he has a problem keeping his mouth shut about it, creating a situation which starts to get a little tense when he realizes that Axl is actively lying about his whereabouts (“I drove all the way to his school to bring him a chair, and he can’t bring his old man a taco?”) and gets worse when he’s talking to Sue and, without thinking, references things she’s done that he’d have no way of knowing. Realizing that a security breach is imminent, Frankie tells Mike he’s off the project because he’s too much of a risk, and while Frankie has been known to make rash, irrational decisions in the past, this is clearly the wisest thing she could have done.

As most anyone would’ve predicted, we eventually hit a point where the app fails Frankie and Mike, giving them information which convinces them that the kids have gotten themselves into dire straits, and when neither Axl nor Sue answer their phones, they go into full parent mode and head out under the auspices of trying to save the day. Naturally, Axl and Sue come home right after their parents leave, and while their first instinct upon finding an empty house is that Frankie and Mike are trying to give them a taste of their own medicine, Sue begins to worry, rationalizing that if the donut shop is closed and Frankie’s still not home, foul play must surely be afoot. That’s when Axl reveals that he also has the tracking app that his parents are using, except he uses it to track them.

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When Mike and Frankie and Axl and Sue finally find each other, Mike uses the reunion as an excuse to rail on about how technology has made things worse rather than better, noting how it used to be that if someone wasn’t home when they were supposed to be, “you said a prayer, you went to bed, and they still weren’t there in the morning, then you worried.” In the end, everyone seems to agree with Mike’s assessment that they all just need to delete the app from their phones, although with Mike being Mike, he concludes this judgment bypassing the phones to his son, saying, “Axl, get these apps off the phones.” Still, he’s probably right: for as convenient as it is to be able to call my wife no matter where she may be, if she doesn’t answer and then I don’t hear back from her within a few minutes or so, I’m immediately working through every worst-case scenario in the book.

Stupid technology.

Okay, now we move on to the only other storyline in the episode, which finds Brick giddily preparing for his valedictorian speech, only to be horrified to learn that he isn’t the shoo-in that he’d believed himself to be. Worse, he’s left in the dark as to who the competition is, which sends him on a relatively short but nonetheless very funny quest to determine who’s out of the running, thereby allowing him to narrow down the field of suspects. Finally, with Cindy’s assistance, he finds out that his nearest competition is…Cindy.

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Disconcerted by this information, Brick confides in Sue, who seems legitimately thrilled that she’s finally able to use her long and storied history of wanting something so bad and not getting it to help her brother. Unfortunately, that excitement only lasts until Axl invites her to attend another party, at which point she wishes him the best of luck and hits the road. (Just as a quick sidebar, I laughed a lot during this episode, but probably not more than when Mike walks into the room, hears the discussion going on between Brick and Sue, and promptly spins around and walks right out again.) Emboldened at least slightly by his conversation with his sister, Brick approaches Cindy with the suggestion that they both just go into the test and give it their all, to which she replies, “I love you.” Oh, sure, she said some other stuff, too. But let’s face it: that’s really the only thing that sticks with Brick.

When Axl hears what’s happened, he reacts in much the same way I did: he’s immediately convinced that Cindy is just playing mind games with Brick in an effort to throw him off his game and give her the advantage. As such, Brick opts to take his brother’s advice and wait until just before the test starts to say, “Cindy, we need to talk.” Her uncertain reaction makes it seem as though Axl had been onto something, but whether or not she was thrown by his remark, any advantage Brick might’ve gotten out of it immediately dissipates when she removes the side flaps from her ubiquitous hat, revealing her mesmerizing ears.

Game over, man. Game over.

Or is it? For a moment, it looks like Brick has nonetheless come out victorious. Alas, even though he’s perpetually forgotten by his parents, he’s still a Heck, which means that victory is only ever in your grasp long enough to think about how great it’s going to feel to be a winner, at which point the victory is cruelly ripped from your clutches, and you feel like crap. And, boy, does Brick feel the sting when he learns that he really would have beaten Cindy if he’d only spotted the extra-credit question on the back of the test: “Write three sentences about any book you’ve ever read.” Ouch.

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And yet The Middle still manages to pull a happy ending out of its hat: as they sit on the edge of the fountain, Cindy confirms that she meant it when she said she loves him, and they share a kiss to close the episode. Too sweet. And totally earned.

Stray observations:

  • Before getting into the proper observations, I had to laugh when I first saw Brick and Cindy sitting by that fountain, because my wife and I once sat there, too. It’s on the Warner Brothers lot, just a short walk from where they film the exteriors of the Hecks’ house, and - here’s your trivia for the day - it’s the same fountain in which you can see the cast of Friends frolicking during their opening credits.

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And now for those proper observations:

  • “There’s lots of other ways to get in the house: the back door, the garage, the chimney…”
  • “I’m just gonna leave this dollar bill on the counter…and if the information mysteriously ends up in my locker, so be it.”
  • “Audible gasp!”
  • “You don’t go anywhere.” “BECAUSE YOU’VE SUCKED THE LIFE OUT OF US!”
  • “Arrrrrrr! 10 pm! And no big drinks at the movies!”
  • Note to self: the next time I’ve got a hankering for a bean and cheese burrito, check under the bag of peas.
  • Nice subtle callback to Cassidy from Axl: “I was never valedictorian, but I dated one.”
  • “Dads aren’t supposed to know what’s going on. We like being in the dark. Let me know when they’re getting married.”

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The Goldbergs: “Big Orange”

Remember last week when I made a point of applauding how The Goldbergs had managed to deliver an episode where neither of its plotlines particularly used the ‘80s as a crutch? Well, now they’ve delivered two in a row. Granted, “Big Orange” doesn’t leave you with as much of a warm fuzzy feeling as its predecessor, but it helps further cement that the series is far more than the sum of its ‘80s references, and when you combine that with the fact that it’s pretty damned funny, it’s unquestionably deserving of a checkmark in the “win” column.

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We’ll get to the storyline that provides the episode with its title in a moment, but before that, let’s start by delving into The Case of the Dismantled Treehouse.

Throughout the run of the series to date, Adam’s treehouse hasn’t been what you’d call a predominant location, but it’s certainly made its fair share of appearances, with most of its key moments generally involving Dana. As Adam’s relationship with Dana wound down, however, we started seeing it less and less, so the idea of taking it down and using its dismantling as a way to explore the idea of Adam growing up is certainly a reasonable idea for an episode to revolve around. Surprisingly, though, the focus ends up being more on Adam’s fond memories of spending time with Erica in the treehouse, making movies about “The Goldberg Gang,” a mystery-solving club which unraveled big enigmas like, “Where’d my Skeletor figure go?”

(¡ssɐ s’ʎɐɹɹnW ɹǝpun s’ʇI :uoᴉʇnloS)

Meanwhile, Bev and Lainey have discovered that if they share nothing else in common beyond their love of Barry, they are certainly bonded by their mutual loathing of Barry’s hockey jersey, otherwise known as…Big Orange. That thing has been to Hell and back a thousand times over, and yet it’s still the star attraction in his wardrobe…and it’s an attraction that Bev and Lainey want retired immediately. Combining their individual strengths, they quickly manage to convince Barry to go to the mall with them, at which point we’re treated to a hilarious (and slightly painful) montage of ‘80s fashions that results in Barry taking home a whole new wardrobe. Not that it matters: as soon as he gets back to the house, he’s back in Big Orange. Frustrated to the point of considering all options, no matter how devious and/or despicable, a plan is hatched to do away with Big Orange via a laundry “accident.”

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Needless to say, Barry is positively devastated by the loss of his most treasured item of clothing and demands that the perpetrators of this dastardly act be brought to justice, which – as plot convenience would have it – provides Adam with the perfect opportunity to experience one last “Goldbergs Gang” case with Erica before the treehouse is taken down.

It’s at this point that the episode pretty much slips into utter silliness, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. It would be if it happened all the time, mind you, but the combination of a talented cast and great patter can take utter silliness and make it pretty damned funny, which is what happened here. Hearing Bev and Lainey spitting out all of the stock crime caper clichés was great, just as it was when Adam refused to accept the obvious guilty party and instead tried to drag the investigation out as long as possible with unabashedly inaccurate accusations, thereby keeping his final adventure with Erica lingering on. Then you’ve got Murray combining his usual lack of concern with a flurry of frustrated-supervisor lines (“My ass is on the line!”), Pops’s perpetual lack of comprehension, and the J.T.P. just being the best damned J.T.P. that they can be. The end result is not an episode for the ages, but it’s sure as hell an entertaining one.

While I noted that “Big Orange” didn’t leave you with quite the same warm, fuzzy feeling as last week, there’s still a lot of heart in Barry’s storyline, which sneaks in at the very end, during the least likely place for seriousness in the episode: the shirt funeral. For such a ridiculous concept, Troy Gentile manages to deliver some real emotion in Barry’s remarks about what Big Orange meant to him and all the memories he has of the things that he experienced while wearing the shirt. Silly though it may be, it has a ring of authenticity, and as a result, it works. Maybe not so much the ending of The Case of the Dismantled Treehouse, which drifts a bit too far into schmaltz, but it’s okay: the laughter still wins out in the end.

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Stray observations:

  • Barry’s yearbook photos - and clubs - were just fantastic.
  • I know they had to offer some sort of vague proof that the treehouse was in sad shape, but falling through the floor and having the ladder go wonky seemed a little too slapstick even for this episode.
  • Did anyone else find themselves thinking of Mystery Team during the “Goldberg Gang” sequences?

  • It was a very, very small window indeed when the highest degree of handsomeness one could achieve was deemed “Richard Grieco hot.”
  • It zipped by just as fast as the rest of the patter, but I loved Barry having no hesitation about offering up $7,000 to find out who committed Big Orange’s shirt murder, despite Adam questioning how many other things he could buy with that kind of money.
  • The whole “bathroom-based emergency” bit proves that you can make poop jokes without actually saying the word “poop” and still be funny. (“This is not my first rodeo.”)
  • “You tell that nice lunchlady who calls me ‘son’ to put her money where her mouth is!”
  • I feel like Wendi McLendon-Covey fulfilled a lifelong dream by delivering the lines “and I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids.” That, or she just wanted to say it and get it over with. Either way, I dug it.
  • And speaking of Wendi, based on Lainey’s reaction, I have to believe that Bev’s “pooper” line was not expected.
  • The song at the end? Best thing ever, obviously.

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