As I welcome The Middle back for its third season, I’m doing so with the profound hope that this season proves to be the charm for the series when awards season rolls around. After two consecutive years of hitting it out of the park more often than not with its observations on what life's like for real families (hand on heart, I don’t think a single episode has gone by without either myself, my wife, or my daughter wondering aloud if they’ve somehow slipped a camera into our house), the series continues to fly under the radar of the Emmys, Golden Globes, and even the People’s Choice Awards, for God’s sake, earning not so much as a single nomination in any freaking category whatsoever. Granted, even as a fan, I don’t claim that The Middle offers the same laughs-per-second ratio as its more acclaimed ABC sibling, Modern Family, but although the latter is arguably funnier, I’d bet there are more people in America who can relate to the economic goings-on in the Hecks' house than in the Pritchett or Dunphy homes.
It’s the first day of school when we first see Frankie, Mike, Axl, Sue, and Brick, but it’s awfully tempting to believe that we’re watching a dream sequence unfold: The kids don’t want to leave their parents, the parents don’t want to leave the kids, and—most unlikely of all—the kids all seem quite happy to stick close to each other. Ah, but there’s a story behind this situation, as there invariably is, and we’re soon privy to the tale.
Having spent a portion of this summer having to field questions from my 6-year-old daughter about why we haven’t taken her to Disneyworld yet, it was surprisingly easy to empathize with Frankie’s forced enthusiasm when she was greeted at the front door by her mouse-ear-sporting neighbors. No one wants to be the family that can’t really afford to go much of anywhere on vacation, but that’s the financial rut the Hecks have fallen into. Worse, not only haven’t they gone anywhere, but they’ve barely seen their kids all summer, what with Axl getting a job, Brick camping out at the library, and Sue hanging at the mall while her BFF Carly is busy locking lips with the kid who works at Hot Dog America. This hasn’t exactly broken Mike’s heart, but a wistful Frankie begs him for any quick and cheap idea for a family vacation that’ll provide her with the opportunity to someday reminisce generically and ask, “Remember that thing we did with those kids we used to have?”
Sorry, did I say any idea? Make that any idea that doesn’t involve camping. Turns out Mike took Frankie camping once before… and on their honeymoon, no less. Given the utter horror in her eyes as she reacts to his suggestion, there’s clearly a story to be told on this front, but it remains untold for the moment. Instead, Frankie confirms the level of her vacation desperation and agrees to the trip. The kids, however, are possibly even less thrilled about the idea than she is, and when Frankie throws Mike under the bus (“It was your dad’s idea!”), Axl speaks for his siblings when he moans, “Why are you punishing us?” Good ol’ Mike promptly deflects the charge, clarifying, “Hey, I was perfectly happy not seeing you kids all summer!” Whoever’s to blame, the end result is the same: The Hecks are going camping! No surprise here: That’s when everything goes to hell.
If you’ve ever been on a family camping trip, then you probably recognized several very familiar elements during the episode, starting with the voyage to the campground. No, wait, it actually starts with Frankie leaving the carefully-packed bag of snacks on top of the car, where it promptly falls flat on the driveway as the Hecks speed away to their destination. It’s a harbinger of horrible times to come… but, then, you probably already figured that.
Everybody’s got a plotline on this expedition. Sue’s spending most of her time freaking out about the fact that she’s getting ready to start high school, and she’s driving Axl crazy with all of the questions she’s asking of him, though he’s ultimately less annoyed about the questions than he is about the realization that he’s going to have to share his educational existence with his woefully uncool little sister. Brick’s got his nose stuck so deep in a book that it’s keeping him from appreciating the wonders of nature that are all around him, and it’s really pissing Mike off. Meanwhile, Frankie’s still pissed off about their honeymoon camping trip that took place 19 years ago, and as the other plotlines unfold, so does the tale of Mike, Frankie, and… THE THING THAT WOULDN’T LEAVE!
Enter guest star Ray Romano.
The flashback is relatively fun, starting with young Frankie trying to hide her reticence to go camping and Mike assuring her that they’ll look back on their honeymoon years later, when they can afford better trips, and have a good laugh. I’d guess I’m not the only one who found this line funny but not ha-ha funny. (I think it actually left a welt, so close did it hit to home.) It’s bad enough that they have to put up their tent in the middle of a downpour, but just as the rain stops and they’re finally able to relax and enjoy some dry alone-time, there’s a rustling in the bushes, and out steps Mike’s former high school classmate Nicky Colbrenner (Romano), who’s apparently spent most of the last 30 years dwelling on how Mike kinda sorta kept him from getting his big chance on the basketball court. When that failed to materialize, life apparently fell apart for the poor bastard, and he’s more than happy to moan about his troubles while making s’mores for the newlyweds. Finally, Frankie can’t stand it any longer, drops a subtle hint about how she’s still full from the wedding cake she had that afternoon, and effectively tells him to get lost. And it would’ve worked, too, if it hadn’t started pouring down rain again, leading Mike’s nice-guy tendencies to kick in. Nicky stays the night, Frankie and Mike have their first fight, and when Mike goes for a walk to clear his head, Frankie goes into the tent to apologize and almost consummates her marriage with the wrong guy.
As the flashback is doled out gradually throughout the episode, we continue to get bits and pieces from the other plotlines between segments, but the highlight is when the family comes together to play a game made up of leftover pieces from old games, resulting in the coming-together of everything from Candy Land and Battleship to Scrabble and Hungry Hungry Hippos. We also discover that Sue got her first period on the camping trip, possibly explaining her craziness during the preceding days (but you didn’t hear that from me, because my wife would kill me), but more importantly taking her mind off her anxiety about high school. Unfortunately, her menstruation also attracts a bear, which is only staved off by the singing of “99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall.”
Yep, sounds like a Heck family vacation to me.
All told, it was a pretty successful return for The Middle, with only a few exceptions. For one, the honeymoon flashback seemed to end a little too abruptly (why do I feel like we’re going to see Romano turn up again come sweeps?), and as far as the first-day-of-school framing device, it worked as it opened, but by the time things wrapped up, it seemed a little sketchy that A) the family would still be that freaked out about the events of the trip, and B) they’d suddenly switch gears seconds after stepping off the front porch. But these are minor quibbles. The heart of the episode, i.e. the camping trip itself, was classic Middle. Let’s hope the trend continues throughout the season.
Random quotes and observations:
- “Wow. We suck, Mike.” “I’m not gonna argue. We got any more mayo?”
- “A few more years, the kids’ll be gone.” “Don’t jinx it.”
- The three predominant scents of a teenage lifeguard: chlorine, Red Bull, and body odor.
- “Mom, did you hear that? Did you hear what he just said?” “I could say I did, but, honestly, I wasn’t listening.”
- Frankie describes her preferred bug-be-gone spray as “the good stuff, from before government regulation,” warning the kids to close their eyes.
- Sue on taking the Cosmopolitan sex quiz: “I didn’t know any of the answers. I didn’t even understand the questions! I just filled in all B’s and C’s!”
- “A lot of people don’t understand the beauty of quiet. A lot of people right in our house.”
- It’s good that Mike and Brick have experienced the male bonding ritual of peeing in the bushes.
- “It’s not like I didn’t go on to success. I mean, I didn’t go on to success, but it’s okay. My lack of success means that I don’t meet a lot of women. But I like the solitude. Or you grow to like it, anyway.”
- “Mom! Axl chip-clipped my eye! It really hurts, but I left it on so you could see what he did to me!”
- “Ka-bam! I just sunk your Yahtzee!”
- “Shimmy. Don’t yank.”
- "You were excited about camping!” “I said, ‘Oh, wow.’ That’s not excited, that’s lying! You don’t know me at all!”
- “You know, in an alternate universe, you and I could’ve been very happy together.”