The Middle: “Halloween VI: Tick Tock Death”

Witness Mr. Brick Heck, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by…

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Oh, all right, I won’t recite the entire intro to “Time Enough at Last,” but if you’re as much of a fan of The Twilight Zone as I am, then that’s probably more than enough for you to recognize the homage. And even if you didn’t recognize the specific homage, between the header image of this review and the repeated references of a certain Mr. Serling, there’s really no excuse for you failing to figure out where I was coming from.

Even in these early weeks of The Middle’s seventh season, it’s evident that the series still has plenty of stories yet to tell, but it’s to the credit of the creative team that they’re this far into the series’ run and can produce an episode that feels unlike anything they’ve ever done before. Yes, yes, we all know that holidays have always brought out the best in the series, but this took things to a whole other level.

First and foremost, Atticus Shaffer deserves a round of applause for delivering a very solid Rod Serling impression, one that made me smile every time he broke it out during the course of the episode. He clearly went out of his way to try and mimic Serling’s mannerisms and delivery, and he nailed it about as well as he possibly could have, while also adding the Brick-centric pitch that he wasn’t actually supposed to be Rod Serling from The Twilight Zone, he was Rod Serling from Night Gallery.

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After the black and white intro (which, unless I miss my guess, features Frankie yelling a line of dialogue from the episode “Something in the Walls”), things drift into what initially appears to be more or less standard operating procedure, with Axl, Hutch, and Kenny still crashing at the Heck’s house ‘til they can get their other place back, Sue coming home from school for the weekend, and Axl just kind being Axl. We get a few moments with Frankie venting about how tough it is to keep from going crazy with so many guys in the house (Mike, of course, can’t see how it’s been a real problem, possibly because he’s enjoying the opportunity to watch sports on several TV sets at once), only for Frankie to find Rita Glossner – guest star Brooke Shields – standing on her front doorstep and all but growling at her.

Frankie’s installment features one the most unexpected turns in the history of The Middle, but it’s one that—even though it’s obviously a little exaggerated for comedic effect—feels oddly realistic. Even though she’s been under the thumb of Rita Glossner for years upon years, but Frankie finally figures out a way that she can extract a little bit of revenge: egging the Glossners’ house. Hell, she’s even talked Sue into participating in her despicable plan, even though who’s only come home from college because her big plans for an alcohol-free weekend fell through when the only two people who signed up for her alcohol-free Halloween party were “Yeah Right” and “Nerd.” Alas, it doesn’t go as planned: they’re practically in mid-throw when Frankie is enveloped in a shadow and realizes that Rita is standing there. What happened next, though, was certainly out of nowhere, with Frankie apparently just snapping at the sight of Rita, feeling that Rita had ruined her only possible chance to salvage the evening, and just chasing her through the woods for all she was worth. Patricia Heaton clearly relished the opportunity to show her “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” side of her personality, if only while in mid-run, and if the whole thing played out in an intentionally over-the-top manner, with Shields playing sympathetic and Rita it looked amazing while it was going on, often like a proper horror movie.

So, for that matter, did the adventures of Axl, Hutch, Kenny vs. The Grim Reaper, which featured some surprisingly creepy moments as the mysterious reaper loitered silently around the outside of the Heck house, maybe waiting to escort one of the young men to their final destination. As usual, the Axl/Hutch relationship was great, particularly their moments spent standing around the kitchen curtains, but if there’s a most-memorable bit to the story—and arguably the most memorable bit of the episode as a whole—it’s when Kenny finally raises his head, turns around, and speaks up. I’ll be honest, I think I might’ve actually jumped, because I definitely didn’t see that coming. In fact, I’d pretty much given up hope of ever seeing Kenny turn around, let alone actually saying anything. But that was awesomely handled.

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And then there’s Brick, who gets the most Twilight Zone-y storyline of all by placing him in a scenario where, after seeing a painting of a little boy who looks suspiciously like him, begins to theorize that someday he’ll end up traveling through time, getting a place in Orson with Cindy, having four kids, and becoming the world’s foremost authority on fonts. It is absolutely preposterous, of course, and yet the back and forth between Brick and the elderly woman (future Cindy?) is great, as is Brick’s legitimate excitement about his future. There’s also what would certainly seem to be a nod in the dialogue to the classic episode “Time Enough at Last,” which I referenced in my intro. Ultimately, though, the great bit is the last shot, with the paper Brick had been looking for earlier flying away to reveal the name on the mailbox: HECK.

Oh, right, and let’s not forget the revelation that the Grim Reaper was actually Cindy, loitering around to pick up her candy from Brick, which is perfect, given her well-established tendency toward standing still and loitering silently for extended periods of time. To be fair, I actually thought it might’ve been Frankie under the Grim Reaper outfit, trying to scare Axl and company back to college. It wasn’t, of course, but the end result was the same, so I can live it.

No, “Halloween VI” is not a gateway-drug episode for new viewers to find their way into the series—because, really, who would expect the sixth installment of anything to be a good entry point?—but in addition to being one of those episodes that rewards longtime fans, it’s just plain entertaining.

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Stray observations:

  • “Imagine it was five college girls living here.” Frankie set Mike up, and he ran with it. Kudos.
  • Just when you think Eden Sher can’t look any cuter, she puts on a pair of cat ears and proves you wrong.
  • The best part of Frankie’s quest to catch up with Rita was when Rita was up against the tree and Frankie’s hand appeared from around the site, but that whole segment was directed particularly well.
  • The back-and-forth stuff between Axl and Hutch was all pretty great, but their debate over whether or not it was or possibly could’ve been the real Grim Reaper was outstanding.
  • I particularly liked Mike’s attempt to explain why he was upset about missing the football games by likening it to Brick having three books and being worried about going out because someone might spoil the ending. “If I have three books, why am I going out?” “EXACTLY!

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The Goldbergs: “Couples Costume”

Halloween: when you’re a kid, it’s all about the costumes and the candy. After that, it’s really just about the parties. Okay, fine, it’s still about the candy, too. It’s just that your days of trick-or-treating are numbered. There are a lot of points when you’re growing up that make you realize that you’re not a kid anymore, and the day that you don’t get to trick or treat anymore… Hell, they might as well let you go ahead and be able to buy cigarettes and booze, too, because there’s no question about it at that point: your childhood is effectively over.

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We’ve been watching Adam deal with that transition from boy to man this season, but with his beloved Dana in town for Halloween, he’s handling this particular milestone better than he might otherwise handle it. No, he doesn’t love the suggestion by Erica and Barry that he should ditch his trick-or-treating plans in favor of taking Dana to a haunted house, but at the same time, the idea of being her hero and saving her from being scared is just a little too romantic an idea to resist. Unfortunately, this decision is made after a prolonged discussion between Adam, Dana, and Beverly about how the couples costume that he and Dana have – she’s Ripley, he’s the Alien – just won’t work with Beverly’s Predator costume.

(Personally, I think they’re really pushing it with the date of that issue of Dark Horse Presents, but there are bigger geeks than me that’ll get on their case about that, so I’ll let them do it instead.)

After probably a few too many years of Beverly muscling in on Adam’s costumes and turning them into couples costumes whether he wanted them to be or not, she’s finally stuck: he’s part of a proper couple now, and she can’t reasonably weasel her way into making it a threesome…and thank god, because even just typing that sentence felt creepy. Still, she decides to give it one more try, attempting to prove to Adam that he needs his mother’s watchful eye because of all the crazies out there, particularly the ones who go around putting razor blades in kids’ candy. Before she can even utilize her beautiful visual aid, however, Adam pops up, reveals his alternative plans with Dana, and heads out, flustering Bev to the point that she loses track of her razor candy and doesn’t realize that Murray has found it and thrown it away.

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This is when the two storylines begin to diverge significantly, with Adam and Dana heading off to the haunted house. Things start off sweetly for the couple, but they kind of fall apart when, after getting inside the house, Adam uses Dana as a human shield before running off and leaving her behind. It goes over about as well as you’d expect, but with the added craptacular bonus that she also lost her ring in the house somewhere. Needless to say, she opts to spend the rest of the evening without Adam, leaving him desperate to figure out how to fix the jam he’s in.

Meanwhile, Bev has realized that she has no idea where the razor candy is and fears the worst, resulting in her spontaneous decision to run all over town, swiping the candy bags of whatever kids she finds and taking them back home to check them for razors. It is, of course, crazy Beverly Goldberg logic, which is to say that it makes no real sense at all, but she sticks to her self-created plan until Murray finally steps in to admit that he threw away the candy. It’s right about at this moment of realization that the kids begin to attack the house in search of their missing candy, and…well, that’s when things started to venture a little too far over the top in Bev’s story. Not that Bev isn’t regularly over the top, but things were just so exaggerated, with her effectively grabbing the kids off the street and threatening them.

Having Murray serve as the voice of reason is certainly entertaining, but maybe not so entertaining that we need to keep seeing quite this much crazy from Bev in the future. What would be much more interesting is the side of the Murray / Bev relationship that we glimpsed for a moment, when he’s willing to dress up in a couples costume for her to make her happy. That would be something different, and different would be good, since The Goldbergs occasionally feels like it’s experiencing some growing pains. Not in a “we’re going down, abandon ship” kind of way—it should be clear to anyone who reads these reviews on a weekly basis that the series is continuing to deliver consistently entertaining episodes—but in the sense that it’s a show about three kids, all of whom are growing up and needing their parents a little bit less every day, and they can’t keep falling back on that concept week after week.

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Of course, this is a transitional period for the kids, and it’s only inevitable that there are going to be some occasions when they think they’re capable of handling something on their own, only to discover that they’re very, very wrong. Like, say, when Barry and Erica try to help Adam on his quest to find Dana’s ring and salvage his relationship with her, only for Barry to get scared and hurt himself and for Erica to start flirting with Anton, thereby necessitating that Bev step in to save the day. It’s funny up to a point, but as far as the last few minutes of the episode go, the comedy and the craziness aren’t nearly as effective as the sweet and sentimental moments that wrap things up. That’s where The Goldbergs thrives.

Stray observations:

  • I could be wrong, but this may well have been the first episode in the series’ run to date that pretty much could’ve taken place in 2015. There were ‘80s touchstones scattered throughout, yes, but virtually none of them screamed “only in the ‘80s.”
  • The whole costume montage at the beginning was great, but even though I laughed out loud at the Mork and Indy gag, the ED-209 was the best. If the closing tag existed solely to make the expense of that costume worth doing, then mission accomplished.
  • Street toughs and kidnappers were always a big concern when I was growing up, along with razors in candy. It’s a wonder I made it out of childhood alive.
  • “I’m Suck Norris.” Awesome.
  • Pops may not have had a lot to do this episode, but answering the door for the trick-or-treaters that one time made his presence worthwhile.
  • We really got to see the softer side of Jeff Garlin in his performance this week, not only with Murray’s couples-costume offer, but also just the way he calmly and quietly tried to handle damage control after Bev’s insanity. I’d love to see more of that Murray.
  • I’m betting that a lot of guys are looking at Hayley Orrantia a lot differently after seeing Erica in her Halloween costume. Oh, my

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