The Middle: “Not So Silent Night”

The title of this year’s Christmas episode of The Middle was “Not So Silent Night,” and it’s certainly hard to argue with its appropriateness, what with all the yelling that’s going on through a significant chunk of the proceedings, but it might’ve just as well been called “A Bottle of Christmas Spirit.”

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Yeah, that’s right: I’m offering a rare flash of TV critic cred making a “bottle episode” joke. Of course, now I’ve completely nullified that cred by taking a sentence to explain the joke, but what can I say? I’ve got to be me.

In fact, there’s actually something notable about the title as it stands, although I had to actually do a quick double-check to be sure I was right: it’s the first time The Middle has done a Christmas episode that didn’t have the word “Christmas” in the title. That’s rather fitting as well, since this is very much an episode that deserves to stand out.

In fact, there’s actually something notable about the title as it stands, although I had to actually do a quick double-check to be sure I was right: it’s the first time The Middle has done a Christmas episode that didn’t have the word “Christmas” in the title. That’s somehow rather fitting as well, since this is very much an episode that deserves to stand out.

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Even though it’s not like we don’t generally see all of the members of the Heck family in every single episode, there’s something extra nice about having them all together, with everyone there for the long haul and not in a particular hurry to get anywhere…at first, that is. Like so many folks who are religious in their hearts and minds but not necessarily in their pews on Sunday mornings, the Hecks may not manage to make it to church on a weekly basis, but they still feel a certain obligation to attend the annual Christmas Eve service. That’s why there’s such a mad panic when Frankie, who’s been trying to make sure she can get the family prepped, ready, and out the door in time to avoid getting stuck in an overflow room, suddenly realizes that they’re going to suffer the fate she feared they would.

Actually, to say that she realizes it suddenly isn’t quite right: first we get an all-too-real rundown of all the various not-quite-right times in the Heck house, from Frankie’s watch, which hasn’t run quite right since accidentally dropped it in the toilet, to the microwave clock that’s broken in such a way that only Brick can be bothered to work out what time it really is. Of course, Old Man Mike pipes up that they could just call to find out what time it is, but everyone would rather mock him for his antiquated ideas than utilize them to actually get the answer, so it comes down to Axl belatedly solving the problem by pulling out his phone and revealing that they’re far, far later than Frankie had intended for them to be.

Naturally, the whole house erupts into chaos, with people frantically getting dressed as they wander hither and yon, but when Frankie sees herself in the mirror as she’s trying to find a halfway presentable wardrobe in the middle of her bedroom full of dirty clothes and shattered dreams, she suddenly has an epiphany: since there’s no way that they’ll ever get to sit in a decent spot at this point anyway, then why not bail on going to the church and just watch a Christmas Eve service on television, thereby getting their dose of religion without the hassle?

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Mike wants to make sure this isn’t a false alarm, tentatively touching his tie and saying, “Once this thing’s off, it’s off,” but this is for real: Frankie’s decided that this is the way things are going to go this Christmas.

In Frankie’s defense, it seems like a can’t-miss plan on the surface, but that’s been the case with more than a few plans over the years that have ultimately turned into abject failures. Plus, there are a couple of competing plans going on the background that doesn’t exactly help it turn Frankie’s idea into the big success of the Christmas season. First, there’s Sue’s cheery insistence that she’ll ensure that they’ll all have a smile on their faces if she can just take a family photo, which is met with mild disinterest at best, but she nonetheless manages to sway everyone—yes, even Mike—into participation. Then there’s the squabble between Axl and Brick over their Christmas present for Frankie, which is another bottle of the same perfume they’ve gotten her for the past several years, but they end up working it out at least to the point where it’s wrapped and ready for her.

That neither of these situations ends up working out exactly as intended practically goes without saying—welcome to the wonderful world of sitcoms—but things really go from a perfect plan to a perfect disaster in an impressively short amount of time.

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The idea of maintaining the same solemnity while watching a service on TV as when actually sitting in a church seems easy enough on the surface, but there are so many easy opportunities for distraction that everyone’s interest quickly begins to drift away. (Well, everyone’s but Mike’s, but he didn’t really have much interest to begin with.) This frustrates Frankie to some extent, but things completely fall apart when Sue, in the midst of trying to take the family picture and photo-shop a Santa hat on top of Mike’s head, is horrified to realize that the computer has apparently gone belly up, sending all of the family’s photos from the better part of the last decade into oblivion.

As soon as it becomes evident that the photos are irretrievable, at least by the Hecks’ limited I.T. knowledge, pandemonium breaks out, with everyone either getting terribly upset or blaming someone else for the situation. Sue feels the need to repeatedly reiterate that she didn’t do anything wrong, accusing Axl’s shoddy cord for causing the issue. Frankie more or less indicates that it’s Mike’s fault because she said that they needed a new computer but he didn’t think they needed to get one. Axl is, in his oh-so-Axl way, upset about how he no longer has a photographic record of one of his greatest stunts, which leads to a physical gag by Charlie McDermott which has to seen to be fully appreciated. Brick is bemoaning how he’s lost the photos he took of every page in The Winds of War and then has a freak-out about how he’s incapable of remembering things if he doesn’t have photos of them.

It’s right about then that Frankie has a minor nervous breakdown, collapsing on the floor and sobbing, unable to simultaneously handle the fact that she can’t access the photos on the computer or find the box where she’s stored the pre-computer photos. Oh, sure, it’s played more or less for laughs, but there’s something about Frankie’s crying combined with the look of helplessness and increasing concern on the faces of the kids as they go into her room and try to console her that nonetheless hits home. It’s a question we’re all stuck trying to answer at some point or other: what are you supposed to do when you can’t fix what’s broke?

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Mike’s solution is, shall we say, unique: he doesn’t do anything. It’s a bold move, one which could only be played by someone who’s been married long enough to know definitively that neither he nor Frankie are going anywhere no matter how it plays out. It’s also a move that reveals just how concerned the kids are about their mother, because they refuse to accept it, with Sue trying so hard to pull Mike off the couch and make him go see Frankie that he ends up crashing onto the floor. The instant reaction to Mike rising to his feet feels like it might’ve been a callback to Sue saying last week how she was “still a little scared of Dad,” and his anger and bewilderment about the whole situation is such that Frankie’s perfume ends up being accidentally knocked to the floor, its stench instantly filling the whole kitchen. As everyone is gagging and running for cover, Frankie emerges from the bedroom at last, and after seeing the insanity unfolding before her eyes, she decides that maybe actually going to church wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.

And so the episode eases toward its close, with everyone more or less in a better mood now that they’re basked in the light of a new day on Christmas morning, but Mike still has one trick up his sleeve: he’s found the missing photos from the pre-computer era. It’s not the happiest of all possible endings, but it shows that even though Mike might’ve developed an instinct as to when he shouldn’t get involved in something, he’s also got one that tells him when to step in and solve the problems that he’s actually capable of solving, hence his quiet but diligent search to find the photos. It’s moments like this that help to underline why, despite all their differences, he and Frankie have still managed to stay more or less happily married…and, yes, it’s moments like this that make The Middle one of the most realistic sitcoms on TV. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Stray observations:

  • Terror has a new name: it’s the Gingerbread Potato, with nutmeg and chives .
  • I’m not saying that I don’t feel bad for the kid, but if it’s done in an offhanded way, I still generally laugh when we learn of some other manner in which Frankie and/or Mike have forgotten about Brick. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, like when I grumbled about how there was no way that Frankie and Mike would’ve forgotten Brick so quickly after Sue left for college, but I laughed tonight when we learned that they once forgot to include him in a family Christmas card photo, and I laughed at Brick’s quick, semi-devastating observation about Frankie’s bemoaning of lost photos from key family events: “I’m not hearing a lot of Brick in there.”
  • Frankie’s lingering annoyance over Axl giving away saved seats was pretty funny, with him showing a sympathetic side (“He was a World War II veteran!”) and her showing no mercy. (“Anybody can buy one of those hats!”)
  • Sue’s deals to get her siblings to participate in the photo were hilarious, with Brick showing off his bartering skills and Axl giving explicit instructions about how she needs to take care while washing his clothes. (“Fabric softener on anything that touches my business!”)
  • “If you’re not in the picture, they’ll think you’re dead.” “Good!”
  • “Do we have the Cloud?” “Just the black one over our heads.”
  • “This whole damned house is a system failure!”
  • I’m not 100% sure that this is the Soul Train compilation that they were referring to in the final few minutes of the episode, but it’s a damned fine compilation either way. That said, I now find myself in desperate need of a episode that reveals how that particular purchase came to pass in the first place.

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The Goldbergs: “A Christmas Story”

From virtually the moment The Goldbergs landed on ABC’s prime-time lineup, there have been two recurring questions asked of Adam F. Goldberg:

  1. When are we going to see Adam’s bar mitzvah?
  2. When are we going to see the Goldberg family celebrate Hanukkah?

The answer to the first question is that it has definitely been discussed—Goldberg has said repeatedly that he’d like to do a bar mitzvah episode (although that may just be because he’s got a great Steven Spielberg story to put in it)—and as he remarked during the Goldbergs panel at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, “If we were going to do it, it would be this season.” In other words, you can hold your breath ‘til about May of next year, but after that, we’ll probably just have to write it off as having taken place back in 1980-something and move on with our lives. That, or complain about it on social media ‘til you die. Your choice.

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For now, let’s just be happy that not only did we finally get a Hanukkah episode out of The Goldbergs, but it was—wait for it—super.

Sorry. It had to be done. Moving on.

Goldberg has underlined in past interviews that Hanukkah was never a huge deal around his house when he was growing up, and he’s kept that consistent for the fictionalized version of his youth, too, with no one being particularly excited about the requisite cuisine and all of the kids being underwhelmed by their eight days of presents, owing to the fact that the awesomeness of the gifts had a tendency to drop exponentially as the days went by. Sure, Barry walks away with plenty of new underpants, which is a win for Bev, but it’s evident that the family’s Hanukkah enthusiasm level is at an all-time low, which in turn make Bev feel like she’s failed at family…unlike, say, Virginia Kremp across the street, who seems to come up a winner at every turn.

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Fascinated by Virginia’s success at having her family actually want to spend time with her during the holidays, Bev decides that the solution to her problems is to put a Christmas-y spin on Hanukkah and pump it up so much that the average person would perceive it as being a bit similar. They’d be wrong, of course, because we’re talking about a Hanukkah bush, which in no way resembles a Christmas tree, and…well, actually, let’s just take the one example and make a blanket statement that if you’re seeing a resemblance between Super Hanukkah and Christmas, you’re wrong, wrong, wrong.

Nah, just kidding: it’s obvious that Bev is just borrowing the Christmas template and trying to convince herself that she’s doing it in the name of family. That plan lasts right up until Pops strolls into the house and practically loses his mind over the way Bev has seemingly wiped away years upon years of tradition in favor of basically just trying to buy her family’s love. It only gets worse when Virginia shows up with additional holiday decorations and innocently asks Bev to tell her the origins of the Hanukkah bush, her off-the-cuff response is so painful for Pops that he storms out…but not before getting the chance to witness Murray coming home in the Santa suit that Virginia Kremp asked him to wear for an event.

Speaking of painful, this is as good a time as any to bring up the episode’s other subplot, which involves brother battling brother over quality time…or to be more specific, the holidays are usually a time when Adam gets to enjoy more time playing the game of Ball Ball because so many of Barry’s friends are out of town, and it hasn’t occurred to him that Barry’s relationship with Lainey is going to cut into his time with his brother. Suddenly, Barry doesn’t even recognize Adam’s Ball Ball federation anymore. Not cool, man. Not cool at all.

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Thankfully, Lainey is awesome and wants to make sure that she’s not causing a rift between the brothers, so when Adam’s anger about the situation boils over, she tells Adam with no hint of malice that she’s heading home so that he can have his quality time with Barry. Unfortunately, her absence just makes Barry want to leave Adam behind and go see his girl at her house, which leads Adam to do something he’s been barred from doing in the Goldberg house: he dares Barry.

And then he double-dares him.

And then he triple-dog dares him.

At that point, all you can really do is sit back and enjoy the ride as the horror unfolds, but at least Adam takes a comedic route with his revenge, getting Barry to stick his tongue to a tetherball pole. Yes, it sticks. And when Barry feigns apology and gets Adam in for a hug, he manages to get enough of a hold on him that Adam gets stuck, too. What follows is a swholly subtitled but urprisingly effective scene where the brothers apologize to each other and, after a bit of wiggling, manage to walk the pole and themselves back to their house, where they are promptly spotted by Murray, who declares—not inaccurately—“I’ve raised morons.” But at least they’re morons who’ve worked out their problems by the end of the episode.

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In the meantime, though, Super Hanukkah rages on, and Pops is so pissed that when he finally does return to the homestead, he’s dressed as Hanukkah Harry (more or less) and doing his best to bring up as many previous events in their family’s history as possible in order to remind Bev and the kids what the holiday is really all about. He even has time to break out his banjo and adapt a few Christmas carols to his purposes, but things go awry when a slight shoving incident leads to further mouthing-off between Bev and Pops. After returning to their respective corners for a bit, they both cool off, and Bev realizes what Pops has been trying to tell her: it’s not about making old holidays sizzle and pop, it’s about making sure everyone remembers why the holiday was important in the first place.

So how does it all end? Why, the same way A Christmas Story does, silly: everybody goes out for Chinese.

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Stray observations:

  • I have no proof that this ever happened, but I like to imagine Adam F. Goldberg sitting in his office by himself, first sneering in a high voice, “Why haven’t you done a Hanukkah episode?” and then growling, “I‘m so sick of hearing about a Hanukkah episode. You want a Hanukkah episode? Oh, I’ll give you a Hanukkah episode!” Cut to a shot of a desktop, onto which drops a copy of the script for the Hanukkah episode of The Goldbergs…emblazoned with the words “A Christmas Story.”
  • It’s such a great visual gag when Virginia Kremp initially tries to get Murray to play Santa and he follows Bev’s “he’d love to” by replying, “Or….” and then making a mad dash out of the room.
  • I’m not even Jewish, but I still can’t believe that, in the wake of the accidental combustion of Bev’s “religious topiary,” no one shouted, “Burning bush!”
  • I can appreciate Murray’s reason for continuing to wear the Santa suit around the house.
  • I’m not making a thing out of this, but I do feel like I need to acknowledge it because I was actually working at a record store at the time: Neil Diamond’s The Christmas Album, which was the first one he ever recorded, didn’t come out until 1992.

  • Lastly, there’s no way that I can end this piece without offering up the series of tweets that took place earlier this evening when I made a remark in regards to the closing-credits photo of Adam F. Goldberg sitting on Santa’s lap:

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It’s like I just got my very own Super Hannukah present from the real Beverly Goldberg. Happy holidays, everyone. See you in January!

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