It’s been a few weeks since we last checked in on the Hecks, and now that we’re back from spring break, as it were, there seems to have been a slight change in tone. Not in a bad way, thankfully, but in each of the three storylines, there’s definitely a profound sense that time is continuing to creep ever forward. This is at least partially unsurprising, as this week’s installment marks the first of the final four episodes of the season, which means that Axl’s graduation is most likely imminent (yeah, I know, this is Axl, so it could go either way, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt because the season finale is actually entitled “The Graduation”), but this is a rare instance where it seems like all of the characters show signs of getting older and, in most cases, even a little bit wiser.
Sue starts off the proceedings lying face first on the living room floor, in the depths of a depression that she’s hesitant to try and explain to her mother, but when Frankie presses the point, Sue finally explains that she’s majorly bummed about not having gotten an invite to Chloe Kirkwood’s sleepover, and it’s like pouring salt in the wound to see all of the other girls updating their Facebook status, uploading photos, and so forth. After watching Frankie struggle through trying to use the internet to bitch about The Bachelor, it’s not entirely surprising that she has little to no frame of reference to the Facebook phenomenon, but she quickly makes up for her ignorance in a big way, going from zero to obsession in well under 22 minutes.
It’s a classic Frankie maneuver to want to help one of her kids so damned badly that she enters a state of obsession where she completely tunes out the kid she wanted to help in the first place and, in the process, often makes the original problem worse. Trying to follow your kids’ lives via their Facebook updates is a slippery slope to begin with, however, and it only grows worse when Frankie decides to infiltrate her daughter’s life as her newest, fakest Facebook friend, Jill Munroe. (If you didn’t recognize the name before Mike called Frankie out for her pseudonym, you should hang your head in shame.) After unabashedly mocking Carly for her too-enthusiastic Facebook comments, Frankie dives even deeper into her plan to bulk up Sue’s social-media status, suggesting that she have a sleepover—surreptitiously skewing the guest list in a more popular direction—and then trying to create a photographic record of the evening to be uploaded ASAP.
Between Frankie trying desperately to get hip to Facebook and wanting to do everything possible to help her daughter to become more popular, it was clear that she was really feeling her age at various points in the episode, but it’s unlikely that anything made her feel older than the realization that Sue neither wanted nor even needed her help. In her heart of hearts, Sue may still be a little girl, but when she finally told Frankie to get lost, it was quite clear that we were seeing a glimpse of an older and somewhat more secure Sue Heck. Apparently, winning that tennis match did wonders for her self-confidence.
For those who were disappointed last episode when Frankie’s mom, Pat (Marsha Mason), turned up without her husband in tow, this week evened things up by giving us the great Jerry Van Dyke as Frankie’s dad, Tag. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, he was teamed not with Patricia Heaton but Neil Flynn, resulting in a brilliant comedic pairing I wouldn’t mind seeing again sometime. Having read Tuesdays with Morrie, Tag has decided that, since he’s getting older, he wants to emulate the book by meeting once a week with Mike to tell him the tales his life and times. Unfortunately, the wisdom he’s spouting is of the Abraham Simpson variety, which is to say that the stories rarely go anywhere and the nuggets of wisdom are of questionable merit at best… although he’s right, you really should always release a test fart if you can.
The beauty of Tag, like so many other of Van Dyke’s past characters, is that he is absolutely oblivious to insult or offense, which means that even though a well-intentioned Mike got a little too excited in his efforts to be honest and tell Tag how his stories were driving him crazy (“You’ve ruined Stuckey’s for me, you’ve ruined lunch, you’ve ruined driving, you’ve ruined coffee, you’ve ruined listening, you’ve ruined talking…”), it didn’t do a thing to damper the man’s spirits. The storyline wrapped up a bit too quickly and conveniently for my tastes, suddenly throwing Mike in front of a computer and having him set up an online group for Tag to spin his stories, but you’ve got to give him credit for at least one thing: That Dukakis story at the very end was gold.
Lastly, we’ve got the Axl/Brick storyline, which served several purposes, the first of which was to acknowledge that the writers hadn’t forgotten that there was supposed to still be a bunny living in the Heck house. But where there was once one, now there are many, thanks to a field trip into the wild which apparently got really wild, and all the little bunnies are living on the floor of Axl’s closet. A crisp one-dollar bill secures Axl’s silence, but he quickly tasks Brick with getting rid of the excess bunnies in the parking lot of the Frugal Hoosier. Brick fails at this task so badly that he actually ends up coming home with more animals than he left with, somehow adding two kitties to the mix.
Let’s face it: this storyline could’ve coasted on nothing but the bunny/kitty Bond parodies and still come out a winner. Instead, we got a couple of lovely sentimental scenes between the two brothers, including Atticus Shaffer’s remarkably effective attempt at a smoldering look and, most importantly, Brick’s realization that Axl actually is going to be leaving for college. You can’t blame the kid for being convinced that his brother was basically just going to continue living with him for the long haul until eventually taking over their parents’ room at some future juncture, but when the reality hits him, you can hear it in his voice: “I’m really gonna miss you, Axl.” And there’s something sweet enough in Charlie McDermott’s delivery that he manages to not sound snarky when he replies, “I know, Brick. Everyone will.”
- Was it just me, or did the house look cleaner than usual in the opening scene? Maybe Frankie spent those weeks off doing some spring cleaning. (I did not even finish typing that sentence before I started laughing.)
- Stuckey’s? Chi-Chi’s? It’s confirmed: Orson is where old restaurant chains go to die.
- Axl’s beliefs about bunny behavior in the wild are a beautiful thing.
- The back-and-forth of the week goes to Frankie and Mike: When the former intones, “An informed parent is a responsible parent," the latter reminds her, “I think we've proven we're neither."
- I don’t know why it’s funny that Sue apparently feels that pictures of her feet are somehow the key to eventual Facebook success. It just is.
- We got another of the rare suggestions that Frankie and Mike actually have a sex life. I’m not sure I want to know what he thought she was referring to, but whatever he was hoping for, he apparently ain’t getting it anytime soon.
- The Saturday Night Sundae made me sad.
- Based on his kitty and bunny Bond parody, there would seem to be considerable merit in the idea of Axl making a living from creating viral videos.
- “I’m telling you, Mike, there’s no such thing as a bad baked potato. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a jackass.”
- References to Charlie’s Angels, Three’s Company, The Love Boat, and The Shawshank Redemption all in the same episode? You’re damned right The Middle is awesome.
- And, hey, you want another reason why The Middle is better than Modern Family? Even with the joke about rabbits giving each other piggyback rides, I could still watch The Middle with my daughter, whereas I had to delete tonight’s Modern Family off of the DVR because even the freaking description of the episode would’ve given away to her the fact that the Tooth Fairy isn’t real. I’d rather dole out that information myself, thanks.