The Middle: “Land of the Lost”

If supermarkets suddenly notice an upswing in their pea sales tomorrow, you can thank The Middle for that. And as long as you’re doling out acknowledgments of gratitude, you might as well also thank The Middle for turning in an episode capable of making you laugh, smile, sigh, and ruminate on your own mortality, which is a pretty remarkable accomplishment for any sitcom, let alone one in its seventh season.

First, let’s talk about the kids. Yes, all of them. All three Heck children get a chance to shine in some capacity tonight, but we’ll start by spotlighting a pairing we don’t see very often: Sue and Brick. In an effort to be the cool big sister, Sue invites Brick up to visit her at college, making sure to play up the fact that the school’s library has 52,000 books and – wait for it – a book elevator. Needless to say, Brick needs a moment to collect himself, but it isn’t long before he’s busy packing his bags full of unnecessary items and ready to embark on his great expedition, and Sue’s excited for him to be there, which lasts right up until she spots Logan, the shirtless Abercrombie greeter from the mall who agreed to be her prom date.

If you’ve wondered where Logan’s been since that fateful night, wonder no more: Sue managed to get his cell phone number down wrong, resulting in her sending a text that he never received and him wondering why he never heard from her. Miraculously, the chemistry that existed between them before is still there, and even though he’s come up to the school for a buddy’s soccer game, he doesn’t hesitate to drop those dudes like hot potatoes and meet Sue for dinner. Unfortunately, in her haste to make a good second impression on Logan, Sue is quick to send Brick on his way to the library on his own, a decision which of course proves to be a terrible one and results in Sue having to bail on dinner. Good thing, then, that Logan is the perfect guy: his instant reaction is to volunteer to help Sue find Brick. They do eventually succeed in their quest, thankfully, but so much time has passed by that point that dinner never manages to materialize. As expected, this does not particularly endear Brick to Sue, but in fairness, Brick is pretty pissed at Sue for screwing up his big college library plans, so it kind of evens out in the long run. Besides, what’s most important is that Logan still likes Sue, and Sue clearly still likes Logan, and beyond that, who really cares, right?

Sue’s dinner with Logan isn’t the only thing that fails to come to fruition: Axl never manages to meet Sue and Brick for pizza, either. It was only ever a loose verbal commitment, so it’s not like promises were actually broken, but we do end up seeing a fair amount of Axl, thanks to a very illuminating subplot which reveals that he, Hutch, and Kenny haven’t actually been renting their place as much as paying a couple of pals who are illegally subletting it to them. Sure, it seems completely above board to leave your rent underneath a rock once a month, so you can imagine their shock when they’re thrown out, although the reason for their expulsion seems to be less about the subletting situation and more about the fact that the place is unfit for human habitation. “Shouldn’t that be our judgment?” asks Axl, reasonably. Sadly, though, it isn’t, which is why the episode ends with all three guys getting situated at the Heck house.

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If we hadn’t spent the previous six seasons getting to know Mike Heck and being able to tell the difference between Mike in a good mood and Mike in a bad mood, then his storyline tonight’s episode wouldn’t have worked nearly as well, but what might’ve been an indiscernible distinction between those two states was pretty obvious to those of us who’ve gotten to know him over the years. He might always be quiet, but to sit quietly in the living room with the TV off is very un-Mike-like behavior, as is his ignoring of Frankie’s unabashed motorcycle-themed come-on (“Wanna take a biker babe on a little ride?”), but to take a pass on watching a Colts game… Well, geez, for Mike, that’s about a hairsbreadth away from being committable behavior!

At a loss in regards to what Mike’s problem might be and with no other immediate thoughts about how to solve the mystery on her own, Frankie falls back on the family’s all-purpose problem solver: Reverend Tim Tom. Not that anyone who’s seen Mike and the Rev interact in the past even remotely believed that a cheery thematically-appropriate number would get Mike to open up, not even one delivered via ukulele, but darned if he didn’t give it his best shot. (In his defense, Frankie’s internal battle between trusting in the Rev’s skills and knowing her husband would’ve thrown off anyone’s game.) The visit can’t be said to be a complete loss, however: after Tim Tom says toodle-oo, Mike finally – if begrudgingly – begins to open up to Frankie.

So what’s gotten him so distracted and in a deep blue funk lately? It’s the fact that Frankie’s going to be turning 50. It’s one of those answers that almost certainly made husbands and wives alike do a face palm and mutter “not good” under their respective breaths, but in short order he manages to explain himself: the fact that they’re both 50 means that they’re both getting old, and it scares him that after a lifetime of always knowing what the next thing is going to be, he’s hit a point where the next thing just might be death. It’s a disconcerting realization for anyone, and Frankie’s only real response is to crack open a beer and hand it to Mike before suggesting that maybe they should consider living their lives like the people in the bone-density medicine ads. Thankfully, before they can invest in big sun visors and start refurbishing furniture, their almost-empty nest is suddenly filled to the brim with all three kids plus Axl’s two roommates.

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It’s like Paddy McAloon sang: “Darling, it’s a life of surprise: it’s no help growing older or wiser.” Sometimes there can be excitement in not knowing what the next thing is. Based on the episode’s closing moments, it seems like there’s going to be plenty of excitement in Mike’s life for quite some time to come.

Stray observations:

  • Really, where Frankie went wrong was buying a can of hope peas. When you’re in a marriage that’s lasted as long as Mike and Frankie’s, you really should know that you can’t survive on hope. In the long run, it’s all about love and understanding. Also, if you’re in an economic situation like the Hecks have spent most of their marital lives, it helps to have a good sense of humor. For instance, if my wife didn’t have a sense of humor, she wouldn’t understand why I’m laughing as I’m writing this paragraph. She’d just look at what I’ve written with befuddlement and ask, “What’s so funny about peas, love, and understanding?” Instead, she stares at me blankly for a few seconds, barely restrains herself from rolling her eyes, and changes the subject…but, hey, at least she gets it!
  • It’s amazing how much of a mental picture can be created by a mere nine words: “Cindy’s parents are making her try out for volleyball.”
  • “Excuse me, Logan: would you say this is going well?”
  • I knew it was going to happen, but I still laughed when Frankie tried to play basketball with Mike and asked, “You think you can stop me?” and he promptly smacked down the ball.
  • “What is this, Downtown Abbey?”
  • It’s been years since I first saw him, but I nonetheless knew the actor playing Axl’s landlord in a heartbeat: his name is Mark L. Taylor, and I remember him from when he was one of the co-stars of the sitcom House Calls late in its run. I don’t know that he necessarily warrants a Random Roles interview, but I know I’d be up for doing one with him in a heartbeat.
  • “We’ll find him.” “Who?” Always knew it was coming, never didn’t laugh.
  • I wonder if there’s any sort of concert album for “The Lord’s Luau for Leprosy.”
  • Lastly, in case you weren’t aware, Paul Hipp, the fella who plays Rev. Tim Tom, isn’t just acting when he picks up a guitar and starts singing: he’s a proper recording artist, one with a new album entitled The Remote Distance. Better yet, the video for its first single, “Happy Birthday to Me,” features the one and only Norman Lear. Enjoy!

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The Goldbergs: “Boy Barry”

They say a man’s face is his castle, and the mustache is the moat of the mouth. Actually, it’s possible that no one actually says that, but it’s nonetheless one of the lines delivered during the course of tonight’s episode of The Goldbergs, an ode to the awesomeness of the ‘stache, particularly the one sported by Tom Selleck circa Magnum. P.I.

Sorry, did I say it was an ode to the awesomeness to the ‘stache? Actually, it’s more of an ode to the power of friendship, and how a friendship can go completely off the rails when your significant other doesn’t like your friend nearly as much as you do. But there’s definitely some serious ‘stache love going on, too, make no mistake about that.

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We’ve seen the friendship between Murray and Bill Lewis growing over the course of David Koechner’s first few appearances, but their relationship has turned into a bromance that rivals the relationship of J.D. and Turk on “Scrubs.” (Maybe they can croon “Guy Love” next time around?) Unfortunately, the bond between the boys is really starting to rankle Bev, who is not exactly Bill’s biggest fan, to put it mildly, and after their shared facial hair brings them so close together that Bill buys Murray a comb for his face furniture, Bev can stand no more: she draws a ‘stache in the sand and asks Murray to shave it off for her. He won’t do it. This, as you might expect, is basically a declaration of war, as far as Bev’s concerned.

First she tries to befriend Bill, at which point she explains that what he’s missing is a woman in his life to tell him when he’s doing things that are wrong and stupid. Oddly, this is an aspect of romantic relationships that he has not missed, and it isn’t long before he realizes that she’s trying to change him because she’s threatened by him. Harsh but oddly poetic words are exchanged and battle lines are drawn, but Bev draws first blood in the overnight hours when she shaves off Murray’s ‘stache while he’s sleeping, putting Murray in a position that he truly loathes: having to talk…and about feelings, no less!

When Murray, Bev, and Bill all sit down for a tête-à-tête, things go south pretty quickly, with the blame for the conversational failure landing squarely on Bill, who – by his own admission – overplays his hand by putting Murray in a “it’s her or me” situation. Still, even though Murray chooses Bev, he tells her after Bill’s departure that even though she’s proven unequivocally that she’s in charge, he still liked having a friend, and he wished that she’d liked him, too.

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Meanwhile, Bill’s daughter is dealing with her own friendship and relationship woes, with Lainey struggling to understand the inner workings of her boyfriend (much as we all do) and making the mistake of listening to Erica when she says that she’s come up with an idea about how to teach Barry a lesson by making him jealous. Unfortunately, Erica’s plan proves a little too successful: not only does she manage to convince him that Lainey is in love with Boy George, but she sells him on the idea of matching George’s wardrobe as a way of truly winning Lainey’s heart. It’s hilarious, make no mistake, but when he finds out that he’s been had, he abruptly breaks up with her, concluding that Erica’s been right all along: he’s not good enough for Lainey, and he never was.

Finding herself trapped in a situation she never wanted, Lainey follows more of Erica’s advice in an attempt to get Barry back, but this time it seems like Erica’s suggestion is spot on: if anyone would appreciate the gesture of doing something completely embarrassing in public in order to show their love, it’s Barry. Unfortunately, Lainey’s popularity and general gorgeousness means that busting rhymes under the moniker McDLT isn’t cringe-worthy, it’s awesome, leaving poor Barry to be elbowed out of his own apology, more convinced than ever that he shouldn’t be in a relationship with Lainey…and that’s when our storylines coincide.

After Bev’s attempt to woo Murray by dressing up like Kate Jackson fails miserably, she overhears Erica finally succeeding in convincing Barry that he and Lainey really are right for each other and realizes that maybe Murray and Bill are right for each other, too. The next thing you know, Barry and Bev are running through the rain together, both on their way to the Lewis’s house. Bev beats him there by a considerable margin, but it provides her with time to apologize and acknowledge that Bill can provide Murray with things that she can’t, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. She also has time to tell Lainey just how much Barry cares for her, and although this kind of pisses Barry off at first – he spent all that time working on a speech for nothing? – it’s all forgotten when they start kissing.

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So it’s a happy ending for everyone, but there’s just one thing about the episode that sticks out like a sore thumb: Adam is virtually nowhere to be found. Thankfully, he gets to play a key role in the final tag of the episode, one which features a guest voice from one of the greatest action stars of the ‘70s and ‘80s. God bless you, Chuck Norris, for stepping in to read a letter which sounds suspiciously like it was written by Adam. I’m sure it couldn’t have been, though, because that was the real Chuck Norris!

Okay, all kidding aside, I’ll just close by saying what I rather expect everyone is feeling: this was one of the best episodes of The Goldbergs to date.

Stray observations:

  • “Didn’t you just talk to him?” This was my daughter’s immediate question when Tom Selleck was mentioned, which was followed immediately thereafter by her asking, “And didn’t you ask him about that show?” This is because I made her watch the opening credits of Magnum, P.I., assuring her that it had one of the best theme songs of the ‘80s. I stand by this position.
  • “I’m flying to England and challenging (Boy George) to a duel! And maybe slip him a demo tape. No! I’m not getting distracted!”
  • The running gag with Randy the car salesman was hysterical. (“I will no longer be a pawn in your family drama!”)
  • “It’s so smooth… Like a puppy’s paw…”
  • Death of a Salesmat. Awesome.
  • Lastly, because this is just the sort of thing that I do, if you’ve got any interest whatsoever in getting an education in the musical life and times of Boy George beyond his role as a punchline in tonight’s episode, here you go, and you’re welcome.

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