The Middle: “Not Mother’s Day”

After experiencing virtually nothing but excruciating returns from Mother’s Day over the course of The Middle’s run, not to mention the way things apparently went down during all of those long, dark years before we started seeing the adventures of the Heck family on a weekly basis, it’s no wonder that Frankie would decide that Mother’s Day has outlived its usefulness and that she no longer wishes to celebrate it. (This is mildly disappointing to Brick, who’d actually started working on a card in advance, but he quickly destroys it, so no problem there.) Instead, Frankie admits that she’d just as soon the kids were nice to her all year round instead of just one day a year, which promptly elicits a groan from Axl, so it’s back to a complete and total lack of celebration. When Mike reminds her that her mother is going to be coming for a visit, she quickly rationalizes that her mother will be as fine with a Not Mother’s Day as she is. This, of course, is because this is Frankie’s world, and everyone else is just along for the ride.

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And, hey, as long as Frankie’s driving, she might as well head to the grocery store, right? While she’s in line with a rotisserie chicken, nibbling away at as much of it as she can get away with in a public setting where she hasn’t actually paid for it yet, she discovers that she actually can’t pay for it, having left her wallet at home. The kind gentleman standing behind her in line offers to pay for her transaction, asking in return only that she “pay it forward.” When she gets home and relates her story to the family, their initial instinct is to believe that he was hitting on her, but she’s focused in on her conviction that she’s found a new idea for Mother’s Day, asking everyone to take a moment to deliver a little “pay it forward” action themselves by drawing names from a hat and doing something nice for the person they pick.

While it’s no surprise that things don’t go as delightfully as Frankie had hoped, the episode does manage to deliver a few surprises in regards to how things play out. To tell the shortest story first, Axl picks his own name, so to pay himself forward, he buys a pair of bad-ass boots from a second hand store and calls it a day…or tries to, at least. Although he’s initially so excited about the boots that he literally wears them 24 hours a day, they eventually leave his feet so sore that he trades them in and gets a bunch of shirts instead. Mike picks Sue’s name and has the very sweet idea of taking Sue’s beloved Woofy Dog to get him cleaned up and repaired, but it’s so old and worn that it ends up being all but unrecognizable by the time he gets it back, and while it still seems to Mike that he’s done a good thing, the end result is devastating to Sue, although she at least holds it together enough that Mike seems to still think that she’s happy.

By the time Sue gets Woofy Dog back, though, she’s already started to get bummed out about her own attempt at paying it forward: relinquishing her room to Brick for the summer while she’s doing her stint at Dollywood. Brick, perhaps invigorated by the smell of “baby powder and hope,” is so excited about having his own room for the first time in his life that he pretty much kicks her out the room straightaway, and in only a few short hours, he’s completely rebuilt the place to meet his own specifications. The combination of Brick’s actions coupled with Woofy Dog’s reconstruction collides with Sue’s increasing nervousness about heading to Dollywood for the summer, and suddenly she’s spiraling into depression. So who ends up being the voice of reason to bring her back from the abyss? Axl, oddly enough.

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As this season has progressed, so has the relationship between Axl and Sue, and it’s been nothing but positive. Sure, they occasionally fall back into their old patterns, but it’s so great to see them finding common ground as they grow older. Even more surprising, though, was the sudden burst of legitimate insight from Axl about why Sue should absolutely, positively not bail on going to Dollywood for the summer. I’m not saying I’m holding my breath for an Axl Heck: Guidance Counselor spinoff anytime soon, but you have to admit, he’s showing growth.

But as strong as the Axl / Sue scene is, this episode’s MVP is – once again – Neil Flynn, who’s seriously killing it this season with the expansion of Mike Heck into more than just a big lug who’s only happy when he’s at home and not being bothered. We’ve seen Mike paired with Frankie’s dad before, and the back-and-forth between Flynn and Jerry Van Dyke is fantastic, but – correct me if I’m wrong –I think this was the first time in seven seasons that Mike and Pat have ever really shared any significant scenes together.

When Pat draws Mike’s name, she leaves him befuddled when she says that she’ll “pay it forward” by never asking him to dance again, but it turns out to be a reference to when, at Janet’s wedding, she asked Mike to dance with her, he said, “No,” which surprises Mike, who clearly doesn’t remember it and admits that he’s surprised that she does. Her response: “I don’t think there’s an expiration date on humiliation.” Ouch. And it gets even more painful when he tries to apologize for his actions 20 years earlier, but she dismisses them, only to follow up by delivering a detail-laden reminiscence of the experience that makes Mike feel even guiltier than he already did.

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It isn’t long after that when Pat decides that she wants to go home early – it’s a Castle thing, you wouldn’t understand – but on the drive back, Mike feels obligate to try one more time with his apology, this time laying his soul bare (or certainly way more bare than we usually see it), telling her that he hates that he made her feel so bad, and admitting that, having lost his mother when he was young, “you’ve kind of been the only mom I’ve got.” You can see from Pat’s face that the importance of this remark is not lost on her, and it’s certainly not lost on us, but just when you think you’ve seen the best Mike moment of the episode, suddenly he’s dancing with Pat to King Harvest in a gas station parking lot. It’s a beautiful thing. In fact, it’s so beautiful that I’m not going to waste any words on Frankie’s attempt to “pay it forward” in the grocery store, a sequence which has one of those painful endings that shows Frankie at her worst.

So, wait, it’s an episode called “Not Mother’s Day,” and the least successful storyline belonged to the mother? You know, maybe it really is time for Frankie to put a bullet in Mother’s Day.

Stray observations:

  • Well, it’s about time we finally got a reference to the rabbit’s whereabouts, but I think it’s probably time to fear the worst about its fate.
  • Raise your hand if you recognized Vernee Watson as the grocery cashier. I’m thinking it might be time for me to circle back to her about doing a Random Roles interview. (I asked her a few years ago, and she was reticent because she doesn’t really like talking about herself, but it’s been long enough that maybe she’ll reconsider.)
  • “Woofy Dog can’t even absorb my tears. Now they just roll off!”

The Goldbergs: “Smother’s Day”

There are some movies that are seen by the masses as definitive ‘80s movies— Ghostbusters, E.T, Back to the Future, anything from the early John Hughes oeuvre—and then there are those ‘80s movies that strike you as magical while leaving others at a loss to understand your adoration of them. For instance, I have an abiding love for Electric Dreams, which is about the love between a man and his home computer, and his home computer’s love for the cellist who lives upstairs and looks like Virginia Madsen. I do not claim that it is a film for the ages, but when I first saw it at the age of 14, I thought it was swell. I still do.

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This seems to be approximately how Adam F. Goldberg felt about SpaceCamp, a film which, although it certainly has its fans, does not generally pop up when the average person is listing off the greatest ‘80s movies ever. But, of course, it’s not like you had to actually see SpaceCamp for it to have had an effect on you: just knowing that there really was such a thing as a camp where you’d go and participate in astronaut training was enough to make most kids run straight to their parents and beg to go…which, of course, is exactly what Adam did.

Not right away, though. No, first he had to put together an elaborate video presentation co-starring Pops as both a multi-armed alien and a military man and featuring both a clay representation of Adam, a.k.a. Adam Clayburgh, and the Millennium Falcon. The utterly blank look on Murray’s face speaks volumes, but rather than letting his stunned silence speak for itself, he quickly finds his tongue and says no, after which he snaps at Pops to stop encouraging Adam. In response, Pops—looking dapper in his multi-armed alien getup from the video—informs Murray with a slight martini-inspired slur, “I have to be honest: I don’t know what any of this is, I just like spending time with the boy.” (This line is almost certainly the closest George Segal and Pops have come to meeting on the flow chart.)

Adam’s not going to give up that easily, though: his next move is to drag Murray to the mall to see him take a trip on the Gyrotron 2000 simulator. As inspirational moments go, it proves be somewhat lacking—long story short: Adam needs a change of trousers afterwards—but despite his apparent total lack of aptitude for anything athletic, his fervor for SpaceCamp remains unyielding. So, however, does Murray’s resolve that it’s a moronic idea. Indeed, he claims to have never had any particular hopes or dreams, which leads Adam to make a quick stop to see Pop Pop to find out if Murray’s claims are true. As it turns out, they mostly are, but what he’s conveniently neglected to mention is that he actually did have a brief dream that came to naught: to be a ventriloquist. Fortunately, Pop Pop still has Murray’s dummy, and for a nominal fee, he gives it to Adam, so that he can present it to Murray.

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Murray immediately tries to shrug off any suggestion that he ever really had an interest in ventriloquism, of course, but when pressed to give it another go, he finally does so, confirming that he’s actually an amazing ventriloquist. (I strongly suspect that Garlin isn’t nearly as strong in the ventriloquism field as his character, but the expressions he makes to the camera when he’s pretending to be throwing his voice are absolutely hysterical.) But just because he’s remembered his youthful love of ventriloquism doesn’t mean he’s sold on sending Adam to SpaceCamp, which causes Adam to get a trifle sassy and tell Murray that he’s as bad as Pop Pop. This, for the record, is something you should apparently never say to Murray Goldberg…or perhaps it’s exactly what you should say to him, since it results in Murray revealing a few things about his own childhood that tell Adam far more than he’d ever known about his father. It also leads Murray to reconsider his own status as a father, which in turn results in Adam getting the trip to SpaceCamp that he always wanted, because he doesn’t want to be the one to stand in the way of his son’s dreams. Now that’s just a damned fine dad. You earned that hug, Murray, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.

But, hey, this is the series’ Mother’s Day episode, so let’s get to talking about that now, shall we? We don’t generally get to see the depths of pettiness and vindictiveness to which Beverly Goldberg will slip to extract revenge on someone who’s wronged her—that tends to happen offscreen more often than not—but it’s all out in the open this time, and it’s aimed squarely at Barry and Erica, who make the mistake of A) forgetting Mother’s Day, and B) trying to save their asses with the horrifyingly desperate move of scribbling out a couple of “coupons” for her to cash in at some point in the future. Her response is to pull open a drawer filled to the brim with such coupons and inform them that she’s decided to cash them in.

It only takes a short length of time in Coupon Hell before Barry and Erica decide that they’ve had all they can stand and can’t stands no more, declaring all of the coupons to be invalid. In response, Beverly empties both of their rooms—yes, including the things under Barry’s mattress—and stops doing any and all mom-related things for them. It isn’t long before Erica‘s wearing a garbage bag, Barry‘s created some sort of outfit that‘s mostly bathmat-related, and Lainey’s getting all of the attention that they used to get from Bev, not to mention the fresh pancakes. After a few more humiliating acts of desperation, including some really terrible, half-assed mom-centric compositions, Barry and Erica decide that the best possible way to win back their mother’s heart is to make her breakfast the next day, as an I’m-sorry note of sorts. Instead, they nearly burn the damned house down in a sequence which is brilliantly orchestrated and features just about every bad-cook-in-the-kitchen sitcom cliche that you could possibly imagine, but the mere fact that they cared enough to try is enough to bring back the Bev that they both know and love, even if they don’t show the latter as often as they perhaps should.

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It’s a major surprise to find The Goldbergs delivering one of their best episodes of the season only a few weeks before the season finale, but that’s what they’ve done with “Smother’s Day.” It’s got a lot of heart, each of its two plotlines shows a side of a Goldberg parent that we haven’t seen much of, and—perhaps most impressively—neither of those plotlines particularly uses the ‘80s as a crutch. Even with the major SpaceCamp leanings at the beginning of the episode, Adam’s story is really more about the father-son relationship he has with Murray as well as the one that Murray has with PopPop, just as the Mother’s Day storyline is less about the holiday and more about the bond Bev has with her babies. In turn, the episode ends up being just like that bond, which is to say that it’s very strong indeed.

Stray observations:

  • Adam’s giddiness when he realizes that he’s remembered Mother’s Day and his siblings haven’t remembered was enough to make me giddy. (“What’s wrong, did you guys forget and I’m the only decent child in this family?”)
  • “My system! My delicate system!”
  • It’s true: Bev really is quite good at putting cheeses on meats and shrimps.
  • “Whatever this is, I don’t want it, I don’t need it.” “It’s me, your grandson.” “I know.”
  • Rather than just say outright that Judd Hirsch is a national treasure, let’s pretend that I offered up a number of specific reasons as to why this is true, and then I ended it by saying, “And that is why you never trust a Polynesian.
  • I love the fact that Erica attempts to defend her incredibly awful trashbag dress by claiming that she was more or less emulating Molly Ringwald’s character in Pretty in Pink.
  • “Jam your fist up your old pal. It’ll feel nice.” Another career-high line for George Segal, surely.

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