Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Middle: ”Major Anxiety” / The Goldbergs: “The Facts of Bleeping Life”

Illustration for article titled iThe Middle/i: ”Major Anxiety” / iThe Goldbergs/i: “The Facts of Bleeping Life”
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The Middle: “Major Anxiety”

These past few seasons have seen The Middle going through a certain amount of evolution as a result of the kids getting older and growing up, including Axl’s struggle to graduate from high school and survive his first year of college and Sue’s slow transition from an awkward young girl into an awkward young woman. But despite assurances that this is the Year of Sue, many eyes are squarely on Brick at the moment, who seems to be increasingly more aware of his own weirdness and is developing at least a cursory interest in trying to do something about it.

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While that may sound great in theory, trying to shape Brick’s personality into something approximating normalcy has always proven more trouble than it’s worth for Frankie and Mike, which is why their reaction to his request for a chat all but gives Frankie a facial tic and inspires Mike to quietly attempt to step out of the conversation altogether. (Nice try, but no dice.) Brick’s spontaneous decision to pursue popularity makes sense for a kid who has a long history of turning on a dime to do something completely unexpected, and Frankie tries her best to suggest possible methods of transitioning into being a more social person, pointedly zeroing in on the idea of less reading and more chatting, but it’s obvious it’s going to be an uphill battle when Brick abruptly rises to his feet and strolls away.

Despite appearances to the contrary, Brick really is trying, checking in with Axl to get some insight into being popular (even if the only real insight he gleans is that he should probably keep his social-status expectations realistic), even attempting to chat with a female classmate with a profound forehead, but to use his own words, “it did not go well.” Frankie tries to help him hone his small talk skills by telling him that he should pretend he’s on a talk show, but given the look of utter bewilderment he offers her, it’s clear that he’s not getting nearly as much out of the experience as she is. Still, at least one key piece of information emerges: he’s decided that he wants to attend the Fall Fantasy Dance, and that he’s willing to go stag, no less.

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And so he goes, looking spiffy in his coat and tie, and although he’s got all of two minutes worth of dance lessons and takes longer than that to decide for absolute certain if he’s even going to walk in the door. We never really find out how things go for him while he’s at the dance, aside from the fact that he texts to request pickup at the exact moment Frankie and Mike walk back through the front door, backpedals on his request right after they get back into the school parking lot, and when he finally does emerge from the event, he looks confused, upset, and utterly drained. Atticus Shaffer regularly delivers comedically, but both his expressions and his delivery sell the dramatic side of the situation when he won’t commit to how he lost his shoe, can’t confirm if he had a good time, and ultimately just says, “I don’t really want to talk about it.” Anyone who’s ever experienced the awkwardness of a intermediate or junior high dance has probably never forgotten what it was like, but looking and listening to Brick in that moment certainly brought it all back to me in a rush.

Unlike my own dance experiences at that age, however, Brick managed to have some semblance of a happy ending, with a quirky young lass named Cindy showing up at the Hecks’ front door the next day to return Brick’s shoe – she found it under a table – and invite him to go get frozen yogurt. In typical Brick fashion, he thanks her but says he’s full and closes the door in her face, but Frankie moves fast and explains that he’s just been asked out, leading him to grab his jacket and run for the door. Again, we’re left not really knowing how things went, but thanks to his rapid-fire series of texts during the closing tag, it seems like we’re liable to see Cindy again soon.

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While Brick’s ensconced in the dance, Frankie and Mike get a few very nice scenes together, during which they discuss their youngest son’s eccentricities, acknowledge that they probably could’ve done more to help make him less socially awkward, and ultimately rationalize that Brick’s Brick and was probably always destined to be, so they’ve done pretty well by him. Oh, and they also make out. Hey, it doesn’t matter how old you are: if there’s still any sort of spark in your relationship, there’s just something about being alone in the car in a parking lot that turns it into a flame.

The remainder of the episode seems as though it’s going to be devoted almost entirely to Axl’s last-minute struggle to figure out what his major is going to be, but what looked to be a throwaway storyline about Sue’s newfound addiction to coffee – because if there’s anybody who needs to be a little more caffeinated, it’s Sue Heck – unexpectedly dovetailed into Axl’s uncertainty about the future and led to some great brother/sister time, including nice moments on the computer (on KickinItTeenStyle.com!) and some particularly poignant stuff on the roof.

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Given Brick’s efforts to explore new sides of himself and Sue showing some unexpected spunk in refusing to back down about going to Axl’s college if he’s going to steal her major, it’s clear that both of his siblings are growing up faster than Axl himself is. But he’s getting there. Slowly, yes, but he’s getting there.

Stray observations:

  • Mike is such a dad’s dad: he doesn’t want to be involved in serious conversations with his kids if he can help it, preferring instead to watch TV whenever the opportunity presents itself. He’s kind of my spirit animal.
  • After declaring that he’d better stop slacking off when it comes to picking a major, Axl then declares that he’s going to take a nap and then put six majors on a dart board and select one that way.
  • As much as I would’ve probably enjoyed seeing a bit more of hyper-caffeinated Sue Heck, I think it was probably the right choice to leave ‘em wanting more. Also, between that and the scene where Sue’s going cold turkey from coffee, Eden Sher clearly has herself another episode to send for Emmy consideration. (It’s got to pay off eventually, dammit!)
  • “I am a famous actor, starring in a movie about sports highlights. Look, I even brought a clip!”
  • Nice to see Darren, even if it was only a glorified cameo during Frankie’s faux talk show, but the best moment in that whole scene was Brick’s reaction to Axl’s ignorance about what engineers do: “That’s just embarrassing.”
  • I love that the sum total of Frankie’s knowledge of dancing seems to be limited to the Hustle and the Swim.
  • “Argh! This was so much easier when I wanted to be a fireman or Superman. God, I wish I was still 17.”
  • I’m not saying it was a great Brick impression, but kudos to Gabriel Iglesias for attempting the under-the-breath whisper in the mid-Middle promo for Cristela.
  • Best callback of the night: seeing that Brick does indeed appear to still be carrying his school books in the pizza carrier that he rescued from the dumpster in the season premiere.
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The Goldbergs: “The Facts of Bleeping Life”

Okay, I hate to start this review by being that guy, but I need to get it off my chest now, because otherwise it’s just going to fester:

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I can accept that The Goldbergs takes place in the highly nebulous year of 1980-something, where they can be watching the opening of Al Capone’s vault one week and then attending the premiere of Return of the Jedi a few weeks later, but, goddammit, I am a professional pop culture journalist, I know my shit, and I cannot and should not be expected to tolerate an episode which opens with Adam and Barry covering Twisted Sister’s 1984 single, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” shifts to Bev getting primed for the 1981 wedding of Charles and Diana, and then jumps to Erica and Lainey, beside themselves with excitement as they wait for MTV to play the video for the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” which wasn’t released as a single until 1989!

Ahem.

Okay, now that I’ve acknowledged my dissatisfaction with the episode’s pop culture chronology and temporarily gotten that out of my system, here’s the praise: this was the most emotionally satisfying installment of The Goldbergs to date.

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As funny as the series has been since its inception, there’s been an occasional tendency for the characters to drift into near-cartoonish territory, like Bev when she’s cooing over Adam to an absurd degree or Murray when he’s howling at the top of his lungs, which results in the viewer being less likely to be caught up in the show’s legitimately sentimental moments. This week, however, hit the right notes from start to finish, leading to a conclusion which actually made me a little misty for a moment.

The episode’s structure is particularly solid, beginning with the surprise of taking what appears to be a storyline about Adam and Barry starting a band – you can call them Barry and the Hendersons if you wish, but I’m far more partial to Little House on the Barry – before drawing Erica and Lainey into the storyline and picking up the Barry / Lainey story thread from the Season One finale. The use of the Chuck and Di nuptials is nice, too, as it brings out Bev’s romantic tendencies and, more unexpectedly, Murray’s softer side, but then they manage to tie the whole shebang together and put a bow on it.

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What makes it work so well? First and foremost, Bev comes across more grounded than we’ve ever seen her: when the boys perform for her and Pops, she’s just as proud of their efforts as you’d expect a mother to be, but when they try to get her to book them to play when she and Murray renew their vows, she says no. There have been past episodes when she would’ve said yes because her baby boys can do no wrong, only to spend the remainder of the proceedings trying to figure out how to backpedal without hurting their feelings, but this reaction felt real rather than something contrived to drive the plot: she wants her dream wedding, and not even her kids are going to keep her from getting it.

Murray’s characterization is spot on as well: he doesn’t give a shit about renewing his vows (“Marriage is not like a magazine subscription!”) and he’s only doing it because if Bev’s not happy, then he’s going to be miserable, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to put off writing his vows for as long as possible. Is it likely that Bev wouldn’t recognize the theme song from Family Ties, given how well she seems to know the theme to The Facts of Life? Well, I’ll let that one slide, mostly because I’m a sucker for ‘80s sitcom theme songs…and for anything that ends with a “sha-la-la-la.” But it’s actually very sweet to see him realize that his well-intentioned cop-out has only served to upset the woman he loves and decide to do something to repair the emotional damage he’s done.

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In this episode, Adam really doesn’t do much except get kicked to the curb, but given that he spent much of the first two episodes in the spotlight, it’s not really giving him the shaft to let Barry take center stage for a bit. We’ll clearly be seeing less-than-bright Barry recurring on a regular basis, but this week gave us a glimpse of the romantic side that he generally keeps buried beneath his bluster (not unlike his father), and given the way Lainey assures him that he won’t win her over, only to smile as she walks away, it’s clear that their story isn’t over yet.

Before wrapping up, let’s zoom in on that ending, shall we? From the moment “Eternal Flame” kicks in, it’s as if all the comedy has been sucked out of the joint, leaving pure romance…and if that seems like hyperbole, I’ll just direct you to Wendi McLendon-Covey’s performance after she comes down the stairs, which has a completely different tone from literally any other dialogue she’s delivered since the show first debuted. Or the reveal of Pops in his tux. Or Murray, standing there with a smile on his face, knowing full well that he’s giving the woman who’s too good for him the wedding of her dreams. Oh, sure, it only came about because he pissed her off and he knew he had to fix it, but it doesn’t matter: when she delivers the “sha-la-la-la,” you know he’s won her heart all over again.

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I’m still not happy about the pop culture inconsistencies, but I can overlook them because, damn, this was a great episode of The Goldbergs.

Stray observations:

  • I’m glad Barry respects the power of the codpiece…as if I’d expect any less from him.
  • I love the look of constipation on Pops’s face during the band’s performance, as well as the best compliment he can muster upon their completion: “Wow, sounds like nobody’s gonna take it!”
  • Murray Goldberg: he’s not the biggest fan of slacks, but he can be very romantic.
  • The “remember when MTV used to play videos?” joke is overplayed, but the episode gets high marks for mentioning the agony of waiting for your favorite video to come on, not to mention Erica’s vicious but wholly warranted reaction to Barry unplugging the TV just as “Eternal Flame” had started.
  • Adam’s visions of life as a rock star were hilarious, but the two words that made me laugh hardest of all were “Professor Bananas.”
  • “Your breath smells like cat food.” ”I can assure you it’s people food.”
  • Remember when it used to be about the music, the mansion, and Chuck Norris? Boy, I sure do.
  • Despite the narrated suggestion that Lainey is the Yoko Ono of the band, I submit the alternate theory that, given Adam’s Spinal Tap shirt in the early minutes of the episode and the familiarity of Adam and Barry’s reconciliation scene, Lainey is actually the Jeanine Pettibone of the band. Discuss.
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