The Middle: “Mother’s Day Reservations”

If you’re a fan of The Middle, then you didn’t need to know the title, scan the plot synopsis, or even check the calendar to suspect that this evening’s installment was about Mother’s Day. All you had to do was see Frankie Heck strut onto the screen wearing a pair of yellow pants.

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You don’t easily forget yellow pants…or, at the very least, Frankie certainly doesn’t, because that single item of clothing encapsulates everything that’s ever gone wrong for her on Mother’s Day. No matter how many times she’s tried in the past to get her family to deliver something approximating a perfect day of bliss, it’s still always gone up in flames. As such, there’s no reason to believe that this year will be any different, but damned if Frankie doesn’t give it another try, promenading around the kitchen in her Mother’s Day Presents from Hell ensemble in an effort to underline to Mike that she’s not screwing around this time: she wants a good Mother’s Day, dammit, and since she’s telling him exactly what she wants – a family trip to My Country ‘Tis of Tea – he’d damned well better make it happen.

Sadly, she doesn’t realize that Mike’s going to have to go online to make the reservation for tea, which is so far outside of his comfort zone that it isn’t even funny…well, you know, except that it actually is. Again, it’s an instance where they make the most out of a one-note joke, namely that Mike’s an unapologetic Luddite when it comes to computers, but it earns bonus points – at least from me – for using it as an excuse to bring on the old gang from the quarry for a quick scene.

While Mike’s trying to work out how to make an online reservation without accidentally ordering a 10-piece tea set, he uses the kids’ ostensible maturity as an excuse to pawn off the task of finding Frankie a decent gift. As ever, Axl is oblivious to the awfulness of his gifts, and it’s well-documented that Brick can’t be trusted to successfully complete any such assignment, so it’s down to Sue to surreptitiously find out what Frankie wants for Mother’s Day, which she does by casually asking her what she’d buy if – by some crazy bit of luck – she won $15.00 in the lottery. Although Frankie never actually answers Sue’s question, instead noting that she really needs to get Mike to chip in, she does come back with a question of her own: when she becomes a mom herself, is there anything she’d do differently?

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It’s a question for which there can be no good answer, so Mike pretty much nails it when he asks Frankie, “Why do you go looking for trouble?” And after Sue says that she’d try to be more organized as a mother, Frankie decides to try and change her ways by starting small, with a junk drawer. Rather than focusing solely on that task, however, she decides to also ask her two sons what they’d change about her as a mom, so Axl tells her – without a moment’s hesitation – that she’s completely stubborn and refuses to listen to reason, while Brick cheerfully offers a laundry list of other things, one which begins with him hitting the bull’s eye with the most valid arrow in his quiver: “Well, first of all, I wouldn’t take home the wrong baby…”

But during the moments when the kids aren’t unintentionally ripping Frankie’s heart into little pieces and stomping on it, they’re actually trying their hardest to come up with a Mother’s Day present that really is perfect for her. The only problem is that either their ideas turn out to be ill-advised (turquoise jewelry) or so spot-on that she’s already got the gift they’ve considered (bathroom magazine rack). In the end, they go with salad hands, which seems to be something that was arrived at out of utter desperation, but one thing’s for certain: Frankie can’t say that they didn’t put enough effort into the gift-selecting process.

That’s not to say that things can’t still go terribly wrong, of course, which is what happens across the board when the family – plus Frankie’s mom, Pat – arrive for tea, only to discover that Mike’s reservation isn’t on file, resulting in a 45-minute wait for a table that provides just enough time for Frankie to upset her mother by indicating that she was disappointed with the way Pat raised her (and doing so in a way which unabashedly echoes Sue’s comments to Frankie). And after being seated at their table, just when things look like they could be taking an upswing, Frankie’s sister calls, which causes Frankie to realize that – unlike Janet – she never actually got around to buying Pat a present. In a desperate attempt to salvage the situation, Frankie takes the kids’ present to her and – sight unseen – passes it off as her present to her mom, at which point it’s “hello, salad hands” and “goodbye. any chance at having a pleasant, sedate spot of tea.”

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It’s pitiful yet poignant to see three generations of Spence women sobbing over how they feel about their respective mothers and daughters, but as a husband and a father, it should come as no surprise that my sympathies – and the biggest of my laughs – came when Mike stood up, stepped away from the table, and wandered into the bathroom to wait for the whole thing to blow over. It’s certainly a far better move than his alternative plan, which was to tell them all how stupid they were being, but it also reveals a wisdom that took me way longer to work out than it probably should have: sometimes there is no right thing to say, so your best bet is to just shut your mouth and let the problem at hand blow over.

And, indeed, things do blow over, providing a happy ending for Frankie and Pat, who - while Frankie is returning the salad hands - both end up being praised for having raised good kids. They’re not perfect kids, but they’re good, and at the end of the day, that’s really all a mom wants.

Well, that and a decent Mother’s Day present.

Stray observations:

  • Of the jokes revolving around Frankie’s lack of organization, the best was all three kids raising their hand about having missed the field trip to the Children’s Museum. But I did laugh at the idea of Sue auditioning for cheerleading using dirty gym socks as pom-poms.
  • “If you don’t take reservations, then why’d you pick up the phone?”
  • I’m not surprised that the kids actually made the ham-and-frosting rolls. I am, however, surprised that Frankie didn’t like them, although I’m glad she at least conceded that it was indeed an idea worth trying.
  • “The woman already has everything! Why must we continue to spoil her?”
  • Wait, so we’re not supposed to appease our children with television? My daughter’s going to be very disappointed when I tell her this, so I’d better wait until after she finishes watching The Goldbergs to break it to her…and then let her watch a Simpsons episode to cool down afterwards.
  • I will be sorely disappointed if we don’t get another reference to Mike being a member of the Chamomile Club somewhere down the line.
  • “What is this, a hallway dork summit?”
  • It’s a shame we couldn’t at least get a cutaway to Molly Shannon when Pat was talking to Janet, but so it goes.
  • As ever, bonus points for offering yet another reference to Don’s Oriental.
  • Remember, kids: when in doubt, buy your mom jewelry that matches her throbbing vein.

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The Goldbergs, “Bill/Murray”

I miss MTV.

Not that this week’s episode was really about MTV, but it was central enough to the plot that it’s worth making the observation that – like so many things spotted in The Goldbergs – if you didn’t come of age in the ‘80s, you can’t fully appreciate how amazing it was to be presented with a network that offered 24 hours of music…or how heartbreaking it was to see it slowly but surely change as it grew older. Away went the programming that captivated a generation, fading out in favor of original series that had little or nothing to do with what put the “M” in MTV in the first place, leaving a channel which bore almost no resemblance to the one we fell in love with.

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So the moral of this story is that change sucks, right?

Well, no, not really, although that particular change did suck, and I’ll never get over it, ever. (I hate you, MTV!) My real point is that change is inevitable, whether you like it or not, and life’s a lot easier if you accept that. You don’t have to love it, but you do have to accept it, because if you don’t, you’re going to waste a whole time fighting a war you’re never going to win.

When it comes to her kids, Beverly Goldberg’s fighting that war every week, generally approaching any new development in her children’s lives by asking herself, “Is this going to affect how much time I’m able to spend loving these gorgeous creatures I created?” And if the answer is “yes,” then she generally wants to put a stop to it immediately. But we’ve seen a lot of growth in Bev this season, which is evident in how she deals with Erica’s college plans. Sure, she immediately shoots down any suggestion that her only daughter might go to school across the ocean, across the country, or basically anywhere outside of the Jenkintown Funk Academy, but she quickly accepts Julliard as a possibility, even though it’s still a bit of a distance away, because it’ll allow Erica to live her dream while still being close enough for a regular amount of (s)mothering.

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First, though, Bev’s got to ignore her tendency toward mom logic, an instinct which is so strongly embedded that not even the combined wills of Stephen Tobolowsky and Tim Meadows can convince her that Erica isn’t a shoo-in for Julliard. Inspired by the power of MTV, Bev suddenly turns into Erich von Stroheim, trying to collaborate with Adam to create the best possible submission tape for Erica to send to Julliard, but the plan fails to come to fruition, partially due to the difficulties inherent in getting a white stallion into the Goldberg’s basement, but mostly because Bev realizes that her desire to create a show-stopping production for her daughter has caused her to lose sight of something very important: you don’t need a show-stopping production to make it big when you’ve got real talent.

I’m kidding, of course: the music industry chews up and spits out talented people all the time, leaving them psychologically scarred for the rest of their lives. But Bev does realize that if Erica is ever going to get into Julliard, it’s not going to be because of a big, bombastic video, it’s going to be because of her musical abilities, which is why she just tells her to take her guitar and do what she does best. Will it be enough? Time will tell.

This week’s other storyline brings back David Koechner as Lainey’s dad, Bill Lewis, who’s drawn back into Murray’s orbit after Barry and Lainey are repeatedly busted for making out at school. The two end up together in the principal’s office mostly because Principal Ball is scared to death of Bev, but after briefly bonding over their shared hatred of the New York Giants, the two dads realize that they have plenty of other things in common, and the next thing you know, Murray’s found himself an actual, honest to God friend.

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As you might imagine, this is initially an extremely disconcerting development for Murray, who’s come to enjoy a certain degree of solitude in his life (or as much as he can manage with a wife, three kids, and a father-in-law who always seems to be visiting), but the realization of their shared appreciation of eating, sitting, and watching TV soon makes it impossible for the two guys to keep away from each other. The picture-perfect relationship comes to a jarring conclusion, however, when Bill unexpectedly opens up to Murray about how traumatic it was when his wife left him, which causes Murray to freak out and bail out of the friendship. Rather understandably, Bill is pissed off about this, but after a few words of wisdom from Pops and a reminder that friendship is about being there during the good times and the bad, Murray decides to extend the hand of friendship once more, and – voila! – it’s Bill and Murray, together again.

Stray observations:

  • Kudos for the use of a-ha’s “Take on Me,” because I love those guys, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I got excited earlier this year when it was announced that they’re back together and are going to be releasing a new album. But “Take on Me” is not the best song on Hunting High and Low. This is.

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  • “Everyone knows this is the best bar across the street from the school!”
  • I love that Tim Meadows’ character’s attempt to be the “cool guidance counselor” involves having a Rush poster on his wall.
  • “Everybody loves jiggly girls!”
  • I don’t think you understand just how close I am to starting a petition for a Dave Kim spinoff.
  • Having noted the use of “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” during the Bill & Murray montage, I’m going to unabashedly use this forum to share the link to an interview I did with Jack Hues of Wang Chung a few years ago, because I’m very proud of it - Random Roles isn’t the only time I do my research, you know - and because, really, how often do you get an organic opportunity to bring up the fact that you once interviewed the lead singer of Wang Chung?
  • Murray’s Bill Murray “imitations” absolutely slayed me. (“I’m Bill Murray. Meatballs and Scrooged!”)
  • Lastly, having been provided with a plotline that delves at least a little bit into the phenomenon of MTV, this seems like as good a time as any to make myself feel old and reflect momentarily on the very first video I ever saw on the network…and the fact that I actually remember that video should give you an idea of just how monumental the discovery of a 24-hour music video channel was to me:

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