The Middle: “Not Your Brother’s Drop Off”

It’s been a few months since we last checked in with the Heck family, but given the way things played out over the course of last season, there was precious little chance that this season would kick off in any way other than with Sue being completely beside herself with excitement about starting college, and – no surprise here – The Middle did not disappoint on that front.

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After literally spending the entire summer packing and prepping for her entry into higher education, Sue’s down to the last six days before her departure when we first really get into the episode, and she’s practically a whirling dervish of excitement at this point. Axl, however, is decidedly less thrilled about her impending arrival at what was previously only his college, and he’d just as soon bail out on the whole family drop-off rigmarole, rationalizing that he’s done his part by even deigning to allow her to attend the same school as him. Inevitably, he’s outvoted and ends up forced to participate, which means that the longstanding sibling tension between Axl and Sue serves as the device that keeps the episode moving, but it can’t really be said to be the driving force of the proceedings.

What Sue really wants is for her college drop-off experience to be exactly the same as Axl’s, which is a reasonable enough desire: as his younger sister, she’s perpetually walking in his shadow and saying, “Wow, I want to do that, too!” Unfortunately, in this instance, the fact that she’s doing exactly the same thing is having its effect on how Frankie’s feeling about her impending departure, which is to say that she’s not really feeling much of anything.

This kind of makes sense: as Frankie observes, she already knows all of the moves that Sue’s about to make because she’s already seen Axl make them, thereby making it much less disconcerting a scenario for her. Plus, we know from the previous six seasons that Sue is decidedly more prone to emotion than Frankie, so it only stands to reason that Sue would be more broken up about leaving than her mom would be. Still, there’s more than a little bit of a ring of truth to Mike’s words when he teasingly says to Frankie, “You’re a monster!”

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Mike, meanwhile, is decidedly being affected by Sue’s impending departure, but he’s dealing with the situation in the same way that he deals with anything which might possibly bring him to the brink of displaying emotion: he’s shunting his feelings off to the side in favor of being practical. As such, he’s spent most of the summer trying to make up for lost time and teach her everything he thinks she’ll need to know in the real world. This would be a Herculean task for any educator, but when the student in question is Sue, it’s even more of an ordeal. Still, he does his best to impart such nuggets of wisdom as how to change a tire, how to reset a circuit breaker, and how to balance a checkbook, to the point where he’s driving her – and everyone else – a little bit crazy.

As all of these developments are going on, Brick is, as ever, in a world of his own, starting eighth grade with all due optimism and enjoying the opportunity to take a hall pass, go to the bathroom, and read to his heart’s content. While in mid-read, however, he’s unexpectedly visited by Cindy, who seemingly uses his inability to make a run for it as an opportunity to tell him that she wants to take their relationship to the next level. Knowing neither what the next level is or, indeed, even what level they’re on currently, Brick seeks romantic counsel from Axl, which – as Frankie does not hesitate to tell him – is really something he should never do, and while we don’t manage to find out any further details about the status of the Brick / Cindy relationship by the end of the episode, at least that story arc is set into motion.

Unsurprisingly, the best part of the episode doesn’t kick in until the Hecks are actually in their vehicles – because of course it takes two cars to get all of Sue’s stuff to college – and we get one of The Middle’s classic car scenes, except that it’s kicked up a notch, utilizing walkie-talkies to keep all of the family members in contact with each other. I make no apologies for laughing at Axl farting into the phone, but I do acknowledge that I actually laughed harder at Brick’s follow-up to Sue’s declaration that it was disgusting. (“It’s worse back here.”) If Eden Sher got big points for the saga of Sue’s hair during the first half of the proceedings, then the points were doubled when she was in the car, trying to keep her plans rolling along and beginning the doling out of her top-10 catch phrases.

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Even though they’re in separate cars, Sue still successfully manages to annoy Axl to the point where he feels the need to speed off, but in his efforts to punch the gas and escape, the centrifugal force apparently loosens the knot on the ropes that are tying things to the roof, sending some of Sue’s belongings flying into Mike’s windshield and underneath the wheels, popping one of the tires. Mike blames Sue for not having learned how to tie a proper knot, Sue blames Axl for driving too fast, tempers flare, and when Mike’s decision to make Sue change the flat tire blows up in his face, he ends up blowing up at Frankie and announces that she’s faking her sadness about Sue leaving, which in turn makes Sue mad at Frankie.

Yes, by the end of the episode, Frankie has apologized to Sue and finds herself crying for real, which is really the only way things could’ve ended, and although Mike never actually tells Sue that he loves her, she tells him, and he acknowledges it in his own way: by saying, “All right, here’s your mom.” When we leave Sue, she’s all unpacked and ready for her roommate to arrive (alas, we’ll have to wait ‘til next week to see that first encounter), and Mike and Frankie are sitting at home on the couch, with Mike finally admitting to Frankie just how tough it was for him to let Sue go. Unfortunately, the episode ended up a bit of a sour note – c’mon, there’s no way that Frankie would’ve actually forgotten that they still had one more child in the house – but given the sweetness that preceded it, it’s only a minor blemish on a mostly strong season premiere.

Stray observations:

  • Apparently, Frankie’s line at the beginning of the episode about how Sue could “put one item in the truck” was written at some point when they were going to be taking Sue to school in a truck. That, or she said “trunk.” But I would’ve sworn it was “truck.”
  • I’ve written before about how there are occasional moments when it seems like we’re seeing the actor shine through the character, and the smirk Axl after he’d finished bitching but before telling his parents, “Okay, yeah, I am done now,” that sure seemed like we were looking at Charlie McDermott.
  • Neil Flynn had some great line reading tonight, but my favorite moment was probably when he abruptly declared that this was neither the year of Sue nor the year of Brick but, rather, “The Year of the Colts!”
  • I didn’t really feel the need to dwell on it during the review, but I think Sue’s new hairdo is super cute and - as was no doubt the intent - makes her look older, which is perfect for her transition into college.
  • “What is wrong with this family?” “That is not a question that we’re going to answer tonight.”
  • “This is Sue, by the way.”

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The Goldbergs: “A Kick-Ass Risky Business Party”

We’ve all heard the cliché about how the more things change, the more they say the same, but The Goldbergs managed to kick off its third season with things both changing and staying the same.

What changed? Inevitably, the most obvious change with the series is the one that’s the most audible: Sean Giambrone’s voice, which in turn affects the voice of the character he plays: Adam Goldberg. The decision is made almost immediately to mine Adam’s vocal inconsistencies for all the comedy they’re worth, having him warble Martika’s “Toy Soldiers,” a decision which – as with so many of the cringeworthy moments on this series – turns out to have been based on an actual moment in the real Adam Goldberg’s youth. (Personally, I liked “More Than You Know” better. Then again, I always was kind of a rebel.) Another change this season is that A.J. Michalka has gotten the call-up to series-regular status, which means that we’ll be seeing more of Laney than ever, and just to prove it, a significant chunk of the season premiere revolves around her.

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As for the staying-the-same portion of the proceedings, well, hey, when you know that viewers love the ‘80s movies references, then what better way to kick off the season than by paying tribute to one of the great teen movies of that particular decade?

Mind you, this isn’t a full-on homage to Risky Business. Unlike the series’ Goonies and Ferris Bueller episodes. In fact, it’s arguably that it’s really just an excuse to begin with a bang, first giving Barry a chance to Tom Cruise the floor and score a big laugh almost immediately, and then following that by putting a Goldbergs spin on the Porsche-in-the-water scene from the film, thereby resulting in another laugh-out-loud moment. Beyond that, the only remaining Risky Business takes place when Laney throws a party while her father is out of town, but that’s fine: to get two big laughs before the opening credits roll is still a damned fine way to kick off a season.

When the party is still in the discussion stage, Barry gets so excited that he decides to make a list of things they need to get for the event, but given his tendency toward being a visual thinker, he spells it out so precisely that Bev ends up in the loop on their plans and steps in to put the kibosh on any such get-together. Her biggest interest, though, is in taking Laney under her wing and doing what she can to fix the poor girl’s life in the six days she’ll have access to her. Originally, Laney plans to just tell Bev what she wants to hear in order to keep her happy, but it isn’t long before she realizes that she actually kind of likes having access to a mom figure, and she’s thoroughly swayed when Bev shows up at the school for the annual “Demanding of Excellence” and demands excellence not just for her own kids but for Laney, too. Suddenly the party is off.

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Yes, it’s pretty much a given that Erica will feel that Laney has betrayed her, just as it’s to be expected that Laney will realize sooner than later that the pros of having Bev as a mother are outweighed by the cons. That revelation occurs when Bev shows up outside Laney’s classroom to present her with an SAT prep book and an assurance that, despite her cute little plans of pursuing a career as a dancer, she most certainly will be going to college. In turn, Erica gets to say “I told you so,” and in the blink of an eye, the party is back on again, but it inevitably gets out of hand, thereby providing Bev with a chance to step in and save the day, and – as surely everyone suspected from the beginning – to deliver the classic Risky Business line, “Sometimes you just gotta say, ‘What the fuck.’”

Still, as memorable as it may be to see Beverly Goldberg dancing to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the big winner of the episode is the storyline that goes without Risky Business references: the long-distance romance between Adam and Dana.

Last season ended with the heartbreaking revelation that TV’s cutest teen couple were being separated, with Dana’s family moving to Washington, but Adam isn’t letting a little thing like his girlfriend being on the other side of the country get in his way, opting to talk to her on the phone as often as possible.Even better, Murray’s just fine with it…until he realizes that he isn’t talking to Danielle down the street but, rather, Dana in Seattle, at which point he declares Adam’s love too expensive and vows to cancel the family’s long-distance plan, thereby effectively ending the relationship. Refusing to let his love die, Adam decides to utilize the best technology available to him in 1980-something: the fax machine in the teacher’s lounge. Unfortunately for him, he gets busted while trying to use it. Fortunately for us, this means that we get Tim Meadows guest-starring as the guidance counselor who performs the bust and subsequently drags Murray into the office for a meeting about Adam’s transgression.

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After getting a few laughs from Meadows’ straight-faced cluelessness, which he does to perfection, we shift gears and give Barry the spotlight as he helps Adam try to keep the fires of romance burning between him and Dana with a rap penned by Big Tasty. It’s absolutely terrible, but it’s also absolutely hilarious, and if the green screen is probably a bit more high-tech that Barry would probably really have, it’s too funny for it to matter. When Adam is forced to admit that the video is bad - or as Pops says with slightly more diplomacy, “It’s not great”- his obvious woe over the situation leads Pops to remind Murray that he actually used to call Bev long-distance when he was in ROTC. When Murray argues that he was an adult at the time, Pops counters by observing, “Just because he’s a kid doesn’t mean his feelings aren’t real.”

And with that Murray sees the light: he stops Adam from penning his break-up missive to Dana and instead offers him 10 minutes with Dana every night, vowing to have his stopwatch ready. Indeed, when Adam calls Dana to share the experience of watching Halley’s Comet with her, Murray is right there with the watch…and when it hits the 10-minute mark, he ignores it. For all their differences, it looks like Murray’s seeing more and more of himself in Adam every day.

Stray observations:

  • Poor Curtis Armstrong: forever known as “the guy who played Booger.”
  • “I’m very flangry!” Anyone else have the sneaking suspicion that the real Beverly Goldberg actually did make a sweatshirt that looked like that?
  • Laney’s showing questionable taste in boys? “That’s fair,” concedes Barry.
  • In case you hadn’t heard, Dave Kim likes ‘em thick.
  • Stephen Tobolowsky’s delivery of the words “sweet Jesus” were only matched in their brilliance by the way he handled being “mothered” by Bev.
  • “Feather Locklear.” That is all.
  • There are so many great things about the Big Tasty and Li’l Yum Yum video - starting with Adam rapping, “That’s not my name, girl” - that I can’t begin to list them all, but I will say that my favorite bits were actually pieces of text. First of all, I loved that they took the time to find just the right font to match the credits on MTV videos back in the day as well as the fact that the label was listed as “Barry Goldberg Records and Sports Entertainment.” I also laughed at Big Tasty getting a “Producer by” and “Preformed by” credit.
  • You know a party’s raging when there’s a pizza on the turntable. Still the best lazy party cliche ever.
  • Even though I knew it was coming, I still laughed at Meadows appearing at the exact instant Erica ripped the tab off his flyer for guitar lessons.
  • Lastly, I can’t resist mentioning that I was actually fortunate enough to be on the set while they were filming the scene where Barry, Erica, and Laney are horrified by Bev’s unexpected arrival at the school. This is because the actual, honest-to-God Adam F. Goldberg was kind enough to invite me to visit the set while I was in town for the Television Critics Association press tour, so I took him up on it. As you can see, I gave it a thumb’s up. As you can also see, he is way too excited to be standing next to a TV critic.

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