The Middle: “Flirting with Disaster”

One of the weirdest things about growing older is seeing a member of the opposite sex and recognizing that they’re attractive, only to find yourself doing the math and working out either how much older than them you are or how much younger than you they are.

I’m not completely confident that the last part of the preceding sentence is grammatically accurate, but hopefully you take my meaning nonetheless: it might take some of us longer than others, but eventually reality smacks you in the face and reminds you that there’s a major gap, and you’d better mind it, or you’re asking for trouble. Not necessarily the kind of trouble that lands you in prison and leaves you on a really bad list for a really long time, but certainly the kind of trouble that’ll leave you blushing and feeling every bit of your (old) age, which is what happens to Frankie this week.

The Frankie / Finn storyline is certainly one that could turn exceedingly creepy on another series, but here it’s handled in a lighthearted yet still relatively realistic fashion. Frankie’s a heterosexual female, after all, so it’s no wonder that she’d be aware that Finn was attractive, but it doesn’t delve into that side of things nearly as much as it does the fact that she really likes that Finn’s paying attention to her and feels like she has something in common with him. Maybe not as much as she tries to act like she does – the idea that Frankie listens to Alt-J is about as probable as Buffy Summers listening to Widespread Panic, although I’d lay odds that, after that conversation ended, she did promptly invest in the latest album by The National – but it’s still the most comfortable conversation we’ve seen Frankie have with a male outside of her family since…well, pretty much ever, really. (It’s certainly better than any scene she’s ever shared with any of her co-workers!)

Watching Frankie try and fail to come across as breezy and flirtatious was funny enough, but what proved funnier was the combination of Mike finding the whole thing amusing as hell and Frankie getting defensive, making sure that everyone knows that Mike’s really bad about flirting with waitresses, so it’d really all even out if she’d actually done anything wrong, which she didn’t, so shut up and stop laughing, dammit! We also get nice use of Nancy Donahue, who – gasp! – is attracted to her daughter’s pony-tailed guitar teacher. (“When he kicks off his shoes, he seems so…dangerous!”) The whole “did Axl and Finn overhear her lascivious comments on the Bluetooth?” bit felt like it was from the Sitcom 101 files, as was the misunderstanding of Axl’s comment that led Frankie to out herself as having found Finn to be hot, but Axl’s reaction was perfect (“Okay, first of all, gross; second of all, barf”), and if Frankie’s realization that Finn’s seeming flirtation probably meant no more than his winning smile to earn extra tater tots from the lunch lady was momentarily devastating, well, after the way she treated Brick last week, she kind of deserved to be taken down a peg, anyway.

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Mike also gets to shine a bit in his own storyline, although the biggest laughs by far come from Jerry Van Dyke, once again turning up as Frankie’s father, Tag. When Mike gets a call from tag, asking him to meet him at the Stuckey’s, he’s worried what he’s in for, but it seems innocent enough at first: Tag just wants his son-in-law to help him study for his driver’s test. (Damn those bastards at the DMV!) At first, Tag is a little elusive about the reason why he has to take the test again, offering only the vague assurance that whatever happened was “nothing big” and that “everybody’s alive,” but it soon becomes evident that he’s got a laundry list of reasons why he shouldn’t be driving anymore, including – but not limited to – the inability to see colors very well anymore and a general loss of peripheral vision. As ever, Van Dyke is an old pro who’s pretty much able to get a laugh just by turning up, but his delivery when dismissively explaining his various issues is fantastic, and if you’ve ever had to bear witness to an elderly relative having to give up their license, then you probably found the ending a bit poignant, too, but at least it ended with a punchline: now Mike’s gonna be stuck hauling Tag anywhere he needs to go that his wife can’t manage. (Let’s get real: we can probably count on him delegating to Frankie and the kids far more often than not.)

Lastly, we have a rare Brick and Sue storyline. Granted, it’s a pairing that only comes about because A) Brick thinks Frankie has agreed to drive him to the Planet Nowhere convention because he heard her say “oh, great” as her cell phone went flying out of the car window, and B) Frankie can’t bear the thought of going, so Mike decides to guilt Sue into taking Brick as part of her quarry-party punishment, even though neither he nor Frankie is entirely sure that she’s still being punished. But, hey, she’s still feeling guilty enough that she doesn’t question it, so it all works out. And when I say “it all works out,” I mean this actually ended up having the sweetest ending to any of the episode’s storylines, which I can’t say as I expected. Initially, it looked like it was just going to be an excuse for the Middle writers to get multiple seasons worth of accumulated Planet Nowhere jokes and references (not to mention whatever elaborate continuity they’ve created for the Planet Nowhere universe when they should’ve been writing actual scripts) out of their system in one fell swoop…and make no mistake, it was very much that, too. More importantly, though, it provided an opportunity for Brick to recover a bit from last week’s belated birthday disaster and to deepen their bond as brother and sister before Sue heads off to college in the fall.

“Flirting with Disaster” is one of those episodes that casual viewers might not find as wonderful as devotees of the series, but for those who know the ins and outs of the characters, there’s still a great deal to fun to be had.

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Stray observations:

  • Mike questions Frankie’s choice of adjective when describing her new Bluetooth: “I found it in a dollar bin of pagers and 8-track tapes. I don’t think ‘fancy’ is the right word.”
  • I referenced it above, but Van Dyke’s dismissive delivery when he assures Mike that “everybody’s alive” was a rewind-and-enjoy-it-again moment, to be sure.
  • “God! Geez! Wow!” “I think that’s one too many.”
  • The most true-to-life moment in Frankie and Mike’s back-and-forth about their respective flirtation is Frankie’s decision to latch onto complaining about the proper pronunciation of “ogling” because it’s the only thing she feels confident in standing behind.
  • Frankie’s phone call to Janet reminded me that it’s far too long since we’ve had a Molly Shannon guest appearance.
  • I have to admit, even after I realized that it was Brick narrating the Planet Nowhere audio recording, I was still not expecting the whisper during his narration.
  • Probably the best part of the convention was the fact that Brick just didn’t even think twice about the fact that he was going to have to plunk down $29.99 to successfully complete his quest. That’s true fandom, baby.
  • Sue’s most Sue-like moment – and arguably her funniest – was when she told Brick that couldn’t be at the convention all day because she had “definitely maybe plans.”
  • “I just stop at every light, count to five, and then go.” If that wasn’t my favorite Tag moment, it was when he took his sudden left turn.
  • “Wow, Mom. Just…wow.”

The Goldbergs: “Happy Mom, Happy Life”

Let’s just go ahead and start this review with a phrase that has been well earned over the course of the past several episodes: if you haven’t been watching The Goldbergs, then you really should remedy that situation post haste. Why? Not only has the series spent the last month delivering a run of episodes that would make most sitcoms not set in the ‘80s envious, but I’d argue that any one of them was strong enough to turn a casual fan of the show into a regular viewer.

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As you might’ve guessed from the upbeat tone of the preceding paragraph, that trend continues with “Happy Mom, Happy Life,” which continues to find the right middle ground with the character of Beverly Goldberg. By now, anyone who isn’t resigned to her exceedingly lovey-dovey, practically worshipful ways toward her kids probably isn’t ever going to get on board with Bev, but there’s been a concerted effort to show her as a mom who may not be able to completely dismiss her tendency to turn into a “smother” but is increasingly capable of learning when it’s appropriate to tone it down. After all, what’s the point in being a loving mother if the way you love them turns them away?

Bev’s big lesson this week, however, is less about her kid and more about her kid’s significant other. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of TV series that’ve featured a storyline involving teens learning about parenthood by carrying around some object – be it a doll, an egg, or a plant – and treating it like it’s their child. Given the decade in which the series takes place, you can’t begrudge the show for going the doll route and utilizing Cabbage Patch Kids, and it was a nice use of guest star Michaela Watkins as Adam and Dana’s teacher, Miss Taraborelli, the seeming spinster who has enough disposable income – and a significant enough allergy to dogs and cats – that she’s accumulated enough CPKs for her entire class to utilize them for their assignment.

Once Adam and Dana have their daughter in their possession and settle on her name – Leia Delorean Goldberg! – all seems right in their world, which is of course exactly when Bev pops her head into the treehouse and things go straight to hell. There’s an instant awkwardness between Dana and Bev over the latter’s bubbe tendencies kicking in, and it puts Adam in a weird spot, which leads him to seek advice from the two male authority figures in his life. With Pops “happy to help” and Murray “also here,” they are horrified at how he’s handled the situation thus far and inform him that which all young men should know: his girlfriend needs to call the shots in his life, not his mother. Oh, and also his girlfriend and his mother should never hash things out between themselves: he’s got to be the buffer, or else it’ll all spiral into chaos.

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Big surprise: it all spirals into chaos. Adam’s and Dana’s relationship is suffering – there’s some funny stuff with the parallels of their relationship and those of real married couples (“I can smell pizza on your breath!”) – but they’re prescient enough that they realize that they need a break from baby Leia. Unfortunately, nothing invites chaos like asking Murray Goldberg to be your babysitter, and his general indifference to his stuffed grandchild leads Bev to realize what’s going on, and after feeling like Nizwar Karanj for a moment, she decides that it’s her responsibility – nay, her duty – to take over as Leia’s temporary guardian. This works out just wonderfully right up until the moment when a dog swipes the doll from its stroller, leaving Bev frantically yelling things like, “I’m going to get attitude from my son’s pretend wife!”

Desperate to come out of her self-created situation smelling as much like a rose as possible, Bev opts to buy a Cabbage Patch Kid from a shady vendor whose kiosk is his trunk. (Nice work, Nick Swardson.) Of course, it turns out to be the worst-looking bootleg ever, leading to Adam and Dana nearly failing their project, and while Bev deserves some credit for trying to take the blame, her performance is such that the only thing that saves them from an F is Adam standing up to his mother in front of Miss Taraborelli, thereby proving that he actually knows a fair amount about how to maintain a successful marriage. Bev, in turn, responded to Adam’s comments by inviting Dana over and helping her set up a special evening for Adam. It’s clear that Bev is never going to be able to fully stifle her “smothering” instincts, but she’s increasingly battling back after they kick in, and while you might argue that this kind of repetition could get old if it happens week after week…well, yeah, it does get old, but anyone who’s got a mom could’ve told you that. Just as long as The Goldbergs can continue to keep it funny and familiar, I’m fine with it.

Tonight’s other storyline involves the triangle between Barry, Laney, and Erica. We’ve seen how Barry and Laney becoming a couple has led to tension with Erica, who’s understandably annoyed by how it affects the amount of time she gets to spend with her best friend, but tonight we got a glimpse into the heretofore-unconsidered damage being done to the members of the JTP. Smashball just hasn’t been the same since Barry started seeing his “special lady,” and the social misfits who make up the group are struggling to find ways to occupy their time. Given their common bond, it makes perfect sense that Erica and the JTP would find solace with each other, so when Erica has a last-straw moment over Barry buying Heart tickets for him and Laney, her weakened emotional state leads her to start spending time with the JTP, ultimately replacing Barry as their leader.

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Unfortunately, being teenage boys, it’s also no surprise that all three members of the JTP quickly develop crushes on their new leader. The repeated burst of the chorus of Heart’s “Alone” never fails to score a laugh, nor do the romantic clichés spouted by the guys when they have a moment of physical contact, no matter how minor it may be, and the sight gag of each of them trying their best to go full Lloyd Dobler on Erica is delivered perfectly. (Viva Tejano!) In typical oblivious fashion, they still have no clue that they’re on the wrong track all the way up to Erica’s intervention: as she’s trying to cut ties, they’re convinced she’s going to formally declare which one of them is to be her lover. It takes someone who understands the way they think to get the point across, and once Barry succeeds in doing just that, he steps up and – like Bev – does what needs to be done to maintain familial and relationship harmony: he gives his Heart ticket to Erica so that she can spend time with her best friend, and he can spend time with his.

Stray observations:

  • I didn’t notice it the first time I watched the episode – you probably did – but I’d say Bev’s feelings towards Dana as she’s leaving the treehouse are pretty well clarified by the way she semi-forcefully uses Dana’s head to steady herself on her way down.
  • Nothing says romance like popcorn, Diff’rent Strokes, and holding in a fart for your special lady.
  • Only Murray would use his grandchild to achieve better lumbar support.
  • “Could someone call the police…or Toys ‘r’ Us? I don’t fucking know anymore!”
  • Brian’s Song? That’s our secret guy cry movie!”
  • That She-Ra joke was just the best.
  • I wouldn’t have pegged Murray for a Bob Ross fan.
  • Miss Taraborelli wins the “she says what we’re all thinking” award for her description of the Lettuce Crop Child as looking “like something in a horror movie where a doll comes alive and terrorizes a lakeside town.”
  • I’m not sure which is funnier: Adam’s optimism that he might have a shot with Molly Ringwald, or Dana’s eyebrows when she hears him say that.
  • “I also sell a lifetime of devotion and tenderness!”

In closing, here’s a version of Heart’s “Alone” by Robert Forster, late of The Go-Betweens. It may not be for everyone’s tastes, but between his pained vocals and the sparseness of the music, I’ve always found it quite affecting.

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