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The Middle: “Floating 50”

WhenAxl went off to college, it became a bit of a running joke about how he seemed to still be around the Heck house about as often as he had been before he was ostensibly living about 45 minutes away. This was pretty easy to write off, though: Axl had always been kind of a mooch to begin with, so it was easy to rationalize that he was just continuing his existing mooching tendencies by getting food and laundry done at home rather than having to pay for those things himself while at college. With Sue, though, it was hard to tell what we were going to get when she went away to school: would she be so homesick that she’d return all the time, or would she embrace college so much that she’d end up staying there as often as not?

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Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, we have seen her at home with considerable regularity – it’s not much of a sitcom about a family if the family isn’t provided with the opportunity to interact with each other – but this week The Middle actually used Sue’s absence to its benefit, and it paid off beautifully.

Something that was surprising, however, was that “Floating 50” only just barely even needed to utilize the conceit of the Heck family’s tendency to float important celebrations over to different dates. Yes, it was necessary for everything to fall into place, but most major aspects of the episode could’ve played out the same even if Frankie’s birthday had been celebrated in a timely fashion.

Maintaining the show’s reputation for delivering great car scenes, things kick off with Frankie, Mike, Axl, and Brick returning home from Dottie Donahue’s confirmation. It’s a ride which serves to reveal that Brick was forgotten once again by Frankie and has never been confirmed. (Does that mean he’s going to Hell? Nope: as Mike observes, “We’re in Hell.”) It’s also a ride which reveals that Frankie has a favorite pizza place that basically no one else in the family likes, she likes toppings on her pizza that nobody else likes, but since she’s decided to play the “I turned 50” card, they’re going to be stopping there anyway. They get their pizza to go and head home, but as they’re on their way home, Mike suddenly realizes that he left it on the roof. Needless to say, it’s not there when he stops the car to get out and check, which causes Mike to turn around and head back to the restaurant, thereby setting off a tense discussion with Frankie, who fears that they’ve reached a place in their lives where they’re no better than possums, eating food off the highway. In the end, her concerns about highway pizza prove to be moot—the crows are devouring it when they get back to the restaurant—but the tension inspires Mike to do something to make it up to Frankie.

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Give Mike some credit: it’s a bold move on his part to try and throw Frankie a surprise party. Of course, it ends up being a little too bold, but it isn’t the complete disaster that it might’ve turned out to be on a lesser sitcom. Axl may have accepted his assignments with limited enthusiasm, but damned if he didn’t end up delivering exactly what he’d said he would. Sure, the decorations might’ve been lacking, and Mike’s focus on the sub led him to be without sides or even a cake, but even thought it was somewhat bare-boned, he pulled it off, dammit.

Okay, maybe it’d be more accurate to say that he mostly pulled it off. Basically, he nailed everything except for the minor detail of making sure that the guest of honor would get there in a timely fashion. Still, in the grand scheme of things, that’s pretty darned close to everything.

This seems like a good time to pause for a moment and tackle Sue’s story. It was starting to look very much like the only thing we’d get to see from her was the ongoing saga of her missing sock and the various laundry room discoveries she made along the way, but that ended up being a bit of a fake-out. At first I was a little uncertain as to how I felt about that decision, as I actually kind of liked the idea of following the lost sock story all the way to the end of the episode (anyone who lived on campus during their college years surely must have a laundry anecdote of their own), but the focus fell away from footwear once Mike called and told Sue about Frankie’s impending birthday party.

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While Sue arguably could’ve been a big help to Mike while he was planning the party, possibly even helping to prevent the subsequent issues, the biggest concern was that she’d blab to Frankie about the get-together. This proved to be a highly valid – and extremely funny – concern: stricken with near-paralyzing nervousness about possibly giving away the surprise party, Sue’s spontaneous, nervous-sounding lies cause Frankie to spontaneously drive up to visit Sue to help make her less stressed out. It’s a lovely gesture, but it would’ve been lovelier still if Mike hadn’t had 50 people waiting at the house for her to get back. But, hey, that’s what he gets for not making sure that the guest of honor had an escort.

Before discussing the party itself, let’s bring in Brick’s story, shall we? Like Sue’s laundry exploits, it only just barely ties into the birthday party, but the whole idea of burying an “I can’t” makes for great car conversation, with Brick acknowledging that there are plenty of things he can’t do (“I can’t touch sandpaper without sneezing”). Mike reminds him that he can’t play sports, Brick decides that that’s the one he’s going to go with, but when he can’t even successfully toss it in the hole after crumpling it up, Coach Babbitt spots him and decides that she’s going to help him make good on his “I can’t” on sports.

She can’t, though. He’s just that bad.

After thumping a volleyball, snipping a tennis ball, and touching his tongue to a football, not to mention going total Star Wars during his attempt at fencing, Brick – with the help of an equally desperate Coach Babbit – switches out his existing “I can’t” with a new one: “I can’t make small talk.” Following in the footsteps of his classmates, Brick then decides to make good on what he’s buried by chatting with one of the guests at Frankie’s surprise party. It’s a total train wreck, of course.

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Not just the conversation. The whole party.

When Frankie arrives at Sue’s dorm room and can’t find her, can’t get to answer her phone, and is worried by the strange “lost sock” signs, she calls Mike, who – in a desperate attempt just to get her home – basically ignores the possibility of their daughter being M.I.A. (which is pretty easy to do, since she’s only a few feet away from him) and just tells her to come home. Instead, she calls Sue’s phone one more time, but this time Sue answers, which is just not a good plan. Unconvincing lies about being at the library quickly ensue. Meanwhile, the party guests are getting restless, particularly Bill Norwood, who’s so hungry that he’s obviously about to waste away, and the whole thing goes belly up when Frankie learns that it’s snowing so hard that she won’t be able to make it home ‘til morning.

Faced with no other option, Mike finally concedes and admits the surprise party to Frankie using video chat (a minor technological miracle in and of itself), and she’s ecstatic, even if she manages to get in at Mike for never having done something like this before realizing how hard he’s worked to try and pull it off. And even though he’s technically failed –the guest of honor isn’t there – Frankie still declares it to be one of her top 5 birthday celebrations, as well she should.

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Stray observations:

  • Pineapple was never a major topping on pizza in my family, but I get the whole “doesn’t stay contained” mindset: my father loved anchovies on his pizza, and my mother would scope out every bite of each piece before eating, lest she accidentally miss an anchovy “whisker” and discover its presence by its taste (and the resulting gag).
  • It is so very Sue to actually sit and weigh whether or not a missing sock qualifies as a legitimate reason to use the “In Case of Emergency” phone.
  • I laughed - even though maybe it wasn’t 100% ha-ha funny - at Frankie’s concern that they’d never sunk lower, only for Mike to respond, “I feel like we have.”
  • When in doubt, your romantic surprises should always be bigger than a trip to Arby’s.
  • Great callback to Frankie’s yellow pants, but…was this the first time we’ve heard about the year they gave her loose change in a baggie as a present?
  • “Don’t pocket-knife this, Sue!”
  • My new definition of not having eaten much will henceforth be a Luna Bar and three grapes.
  • Bill had some great moments, though I think my favorite was when he was “lashing out” because of his hunger.
  • It’s somehow so perfect that Mike decides he’s going to make Frankie happy by fixing the porch light, and he’s right: it’s a big enough deal that Axl carries the computer outside so that she can look, and she identifies its repair immediately.
  • It was great to show Frankie meeting Sue’s first college friend, and for her to bring Frankie three Zingers with unlit birthday candles in them because she feels obliged to follow the dorm policy that says they can’t light them. (“I can see why you and Sue are friends.”)

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The Goldbergs: “Double Dare”

This rule may not hold completely true, but in my experience, unto every generation of kids there comes a TV game show that’s aimed at their demographic and inspires them to dream of an opportunity to be a contestant on the show and win prizes. Adult game shows were all very fine and well, but a kid game show? Those were the stuff that dreams were made of.

When I first started camping out in front of the TV on Saturday mornings, there was ABC’s Junior Almost Anything Goes, a spinoff of the non-junior version that aired in prime time, and once we got cable, there was a brief period where I became obsessed with the idea of playing Bozo’s Grand Prize Game on WGN’s The Bozo Show, but mostly I was addicted to TBS’s Starcade, which is arguably the most ‘80s game show ever.

Yes, this clearly paints me as a child of the ’70s and ‘80s rather than the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I’m not so old that I don’t remember when Double Dare premiered on Nickelodeon. Even though I was 16 by then and a senior in high school, I still remember pangs of jealousy that I was too old to be a contestant…or at least I always thought I was, anyway. Now that I’ve seen tonight’s episode, I’m beginning to think I was wrong. My God, how different would my life have been if I…

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No, no, I can’t go there. That way lies madness. I’d better just start discussing the episode, which kicks off with Adam and Emmy watching Double Dare and denouncing the contestants as idiots, which is effectively what virtually anyone who dreams of being on the show does when they’re watching. It’s clear that they’ve been devout viewers for quite some time—even in the ‘80s, what other cause would there be for having fantasies of strutting around in your brand new pair of British Knights?—but given their location, Adam is resigned to never being an actual Double Dare contestant.

His resignation ends abruptly, however, when Coach Meller conveniently announces that their very gym will be playing host to Double Dare auditions, with the winning duo earning a spot as contestants on the show. Adam’s excitement about the chances of making it onto the show lasts until Emmy strolls away, when Dave Kim promptly bursts his bubble and reminds him that no matter how talented he may be at the obstacle course, his struggles with puberty are likely to doom him to failure, leaving Handsome Ben to take the win. Desperate to make his Double Dare dreams come true, Adam abruptly throws Emmy to the wolves and decides that he’s got a better shot at making it onto the show with an adorable old man at his side.

Demographically speaking, it’s a genius plan that would no doubt thrill any network suit, but it ultimately fails to take into account that Pops has little to no chance at traversing the obstacle course. In fact, Pops is clearly out of the running as soon as he walks into the gym and starts throwing around the word “verkakta,” demanding to know, “What the f*** is that thing?” But it only gets worse from there, and although he’s game as all get out— your personal mileage may have varied, but I never failed to laugh at any shot of an obvious stunt double filling in for George Segal—Pops still drags Adam down during their run on the practice course more than enough to confirm that there’s no way in hell that he’ll ever get on the show without finding a new partner.

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She is not. In fact, not only has she teamed up with Handsome Ben, but Adam soon discovers that he’s actually been under the bus even longer than she has: Handsome Ben and Emmy found out about the impending Double Dare auditions months ago, and they’ve been training ever since. Did anyone else abruptly go from thinking Adam was being kind of a shitty friend to trying to decide which of the two friends was actually the shittiest? I definitely didn’t see that twist coming—if anything, I figured we’d see Dave Kim come into play at some point during the auditions—but I guess it’s like the man himself said: “Dave Kim: always a bridesmaid.”

As for Adam and Emmy, he gets angry at her and lashes out, causing her to lash back, resulting in both of them ending up covered in shmutz and thrown out of competition. In turn, Ben asks Amy to be his partner, and—as history / reality reveals—they end up winning the audition and actually make it onto Double Dare.

[For the record, I would’ve gotten that question right—the answer is Squeeze—but enough about my love of Beatle-esque British pop bands: how cool was it that the duo handling the Double Dare auditions were the real Ben and Amy?]

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Naturally, Adam and Emmy make up, although it strikes me as telling that she rebuffs his attempts to refer to them as an “us” even in the capacity as Double Dare teammates. I know Adam F. Goldberg has said that we’ll never Adam see end up with Emmy because, well, Adam didn’t end up with Emmy—he does try to have the series echo reality as much as possible, you know—but that doesn’t mean we won’t see increased tension between them if either of them should have flashes of jealousy over the other’s relationships. Then again, maybe I’m completely wrong. What matters in the end is that their friendship has been repaired and life—like babble—goes on.

On to the evening’s other storyline we go, and while I’m right up there with Adam in terms of being more or less oblivious to sports, I could still relate to this episode relatively well, as I spent three years rooming with two obsessive Pittsburgh Steelers fans, one of whom had—and very much still has—a tendency to react to Steelers losses with a level of anger that puts Murray’s to shame.

Fan superstitions are always ripe for comedy, and Murray and Barry have plenty of them, first and foremost to make sure that Bev doesn’t dare set foot in the room while they’re watching the game, lest she seal the Eagles’ doom. If that means she has to use top-level toy technology to deliver their nachos, then so be it. And if things don’t go as planned and the hot cheese ends up all over the rug, that’s the way it goes. It’s officially a “No Bevs Allowed” zone…until she accidentally defies them, at which point Barry realizes that her presence cause good things to happen. Not that Murray’s buying into it at first, but eventually the evidence seems undeniable, leaving him feeling like he doesn’t have any choice but to let her watch the games with them. (It’s that or admit that his lucky jersey and underpants don’t help.)

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Naturally, Murray regrets it immediately, or certainly at least when Bev starts throwing out questions like, “Are the players married to the cheerleaders?” and “Why does the throwy guy put his hands on the other guy’s butt?” Realizing that he’s got to put a stop to it for the sake of his sanity, Murray fails to be sensitive and simply asks Bev, “Hey, honey, would you put that down and get out?” When she asks why, he explains that it’s because she doesn’t understand football. A fair explanation, but one that only serves in inspire Bev to learn everything about the sport that she possibly can: Bill Lewis tries his best to instruct her, but his efforts break down almost immediately due to her lack of even the most general sports knowledge. It takes Erica’s educational contributions—along with a little assistance from the Jenkintown Posse—to open things up and help Bev finally get the hang of football, but once she’s got it, by Jove, she’s got it. She always masters the art of trash talk, but that’s somewhat easier to believe. Either way, though, not bad for a woman who started out by daring to ask, “Is the plural of football ‘feetball’?”

Too bad Bev’s football education really wasn’t what Murray wanted. He just wanted some quality time to himself, and it’s impossible to get that when his wife is sitting beside him, recognizing every action happening on the field and often even arguing with his own football theories. When he finally gets frustrated enough to admit as much to Bev, though, he doesn’t have a clue just how much it’s going to upset her. Indeed, after she storms off, she’s so pissed that even the threat of Murray making a mess in the kitchen isn’t enough to bring her back into his gravitational pull. Erica suggests that her father should try to do something that she likes to do, showing her that he’s legitimately trying to show interest in her activities. Murray opts for scrapbooking and promptly reveals himself as being really, really bad at it—the music cue was immeasurably helpful in selling the moment we saw his first scrapbook attempt—but after Erica successfully finds the right frame of reference to explain the process to her father, he manages to make something that looks pretty decent. Bev is still woefully disappointed in the scrapbook, but she appreciates the gesture and concedes that maybe husbands and wives do deserve their own alone time.

All told, another strong episode of the show, one that hits both TV geeks and sports geeks in their sweet spots. (You don’t see that combo happening very often.)

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Stray observations:

  • “I called and asked if his refrigerator was running. It wasn’t, so it ended up being sad.”
  • “Season’s over. They already blew it. Time to fire the coach and start focusing on next year.” Murray’s optimism knows no bounds.
  • “That Vanna White sure can turn a letter.”
  • I loved Adam’s vitriol toward Ben even as he couldn’t resist complementing him under his breath. (“Stupid, handsome, generous Ben…”)
  • “Hi, Erica! You called, and I came right away! Isn’t that nice of me?”
  • “Yes, I do sample from the salad bar of life…” George Segal had a lot of great deliveries tonight, but this one was my favorite…unless it was when he assured Adam, “That’s the best news I’ve heard all day!” before asking, “Also, what’s Double Dare?” Or the way he packed an epic amount of lasciviousness into the line, “That Vanna White sure can turn a letter.” The moral to this stray observation is, George Segal is awesome.
  • Sean Giambrone’s delivery of the name “Sack-of-Crap Emmy” was the best.
  • What audition?” Never change, Barry. Never change.
  • I’ve saved my that’s-not-from-1980-something remark for the very end, but I still have to say it: INXS’s “Beautiful Girl,” the song playing when Adam and Emmy are talking things out on the bleachers, is from 1992. Better they should’ve gone with this track if they were really feeling the need for some INXS to score the moment.

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