There really haven’t been enough of them to make it a hard and fast rule, but when an episode of The Middle kicks off with a scene featuring the family in the car, there’s a pretty strong chance that you’re going be in for a top-notch installment of the show. Mind you, “One Kid at a Time” isn’t an episode that you’d want to offer up as a starting point for someone who’s never tuned in to the series before, but it’s highly rewarding for viewers who are already invested in these characters.
The logistics of picking your kids up from their various after-school activities can be a bear under the best of circumstances, but trying to make the process mesh successfully enough to keep everyone in enough of a good mood to go out to dinner as a family… well, that’s just a fool’s errand. Nonetheless, that’s the plan of action that Frankie and Mike are attempting to bring to fruition. Oh, who are we kidding? Mike’s just the wheel man for this operation, nothing more. As ever, Frankie’s the one who’s running point, answering all questions and concerns with the words, “Look, this is just what we’re doing, okay?” As with most things in the Hecks’ lives, however, the end result proves to be so far from the original intent as to be laughable, with the kids’ incongruous restaurant preferences (“Don’s Oriental Food!” “Rib Town America!” “Colonial Diner!”) being delivered in such an increasingly loud and angry manner that they ultimately end up eating cereal at home. Talk about a disappointing expedition. Brick doesn’t even get to go to the library, for God’s sake!
As the kids go their separate ways for the evening, with Brick pitifully hauling the phone book to his room, grumbling, “I guess I’ll read this tonight,” Frankie and Mike find themselves so out of sorts about the way things went with their dinner plans that they go down a road of contemplation that few parents ever admit to traveling: What if, instead of three kids, they only had one? (Or, as Mike cheerfully suggests, none?) The end result of this ruminating is the decision to try and dedicate a full day to each of the kids. Fair enough, except that Axl thinks it’s the stupidest idea in the world, Sue’s so beside herself with excitement that she instantly plans out every possible aspect of her day, and Brick… well, he just wants to go to the library. Man, I love that kid. It’s like looking in the mirror every Wednesday night at 8.
Once things shift into focusing on the kids and their respective days, the show adopts some unique beats to deliver the various stories, possibly to make each a bit distinctive. The idea of letting Axl drag his parents to play paintball is an unexpected but effective turn, setting into motion the realization that it’s going to be impossible for each kid and both parents to be completely happy throughout the day. In this case, Axl and Mike bond like nobody’s business, to the point where they decide to sacrifice Frankie in order to win the game, and it’s a bond that carries through to their encounter in the parking lot a bit later. For her part, Frankie’s clearly not exactly having a ball, but she accepts Mike’s premise that they should just embrace the fact that Axl’s enjoying himself. (“Our teenage son is having fun with us, his parents. Do you know how rare that is? It’s like finding oil in your backyard!”)
Although we only get a brief reunion between Axl and Cassidy, who’s been MIA since declaring her intentions a few episodes back, her appearance inspires a great father-son moment where Axl explains that she’s not just some “random girl,” as Mike theorizes, but his actual girlfriend. More than that, he actually has feelings for her. It’s as close to sweet as you’re going to get with an Axl/Mike scene, with a great callback to how Mike feels at least as strongly about the cat at the quarry as he does his wife, closing with Mike underlining his dedication to Frankie by refusing to keep Axl’s new girlfriend a secret to Frankie but at least saying, “I’ll give you a couple of seconds head start.” (Surely I’m not the only one who saw echoes of their own mother in Frankie when she started spitting out her demands for details about Cassidy.)
It’s no surprise that Sue’s day is positively exhausting for everyone except for Sue, as she starts the proceedings at 4:45 a.m. by demanding that her parents watch the sun rise with her, then sends them on a wild ride which features everything from petting puppies at the shelter to playing “Dance Dance Revolution” (or some approximation thereof). Funny stuff and pretty much exactly what you’d expect from Sue’s perfect day… until, that is, she puts in a last-second request to see her mom’s old prom dresses.
It’s established from the get-go that, as with Axl and Mike, Sue’s day is something that’s more in Frankie’s ballpark than Mike’s, which is why it’s no surprise that mother and daughter also earn a bonding moment, but this one tugs a little harder at the heartstrings, revealing that Frankie’s pointedly kept very, very quiet about her high school history as a cheerleader and her position on the prom court. This is something that’s come up before, with Frankie showing concern about Sue constantly pursuing endeavors for which she has no particular qualifications beyond her unbridled enthusiasm. It’s clearly a heartbreaker for Sue, who asks, “Why wouldn’t you tell me? Is it because you think I’m not like that?” (Of course, this comes on the heels of Sue’s funny yet poignant realization, “So you were coordinated?”) In the end, it only takes a few moments of her 10 p.m. reflection for Sue’s sunny disposition to return and decide, “I’m going for it all! I’m never gonna stop trying out!” Yeah, you can see why Frankie’s glad to toss back that drink Mike’s made for her.
And so we come to Brick’s day, which, as is unfortunately appropriate for a last child, gets short shrift in the episode, compared to the other two. This is ironic, given that, in the grand scheme of things, Brick’s request is the least labor-intensive of the three kids, but between the drive to Indianapolis and their total lack of interest in the Planet Nowhere saga, you can see why Frankie and Mike both tried to figure out some way to steer things someplace more in their favor. Similarly, though, you can see why Brick basically lost his shit when he ended up being forced to endure a day of shoe shopping. In Frankie’s defense, she did at least try to get him to trade out his special day for a later date when they were better prepared to endure his request, but you can’t blame Brick for being pissed off about finding himself in the same position he’s spent his entire life: last place.
All told, “One Kid in a Time” wrapped up in a somewhat ineffective fashion. Despite Brick’s claims, it’s unlikely that getting yelled at by his parents would be enough to fully salvage the day for him. But as a whole, the episode deserves major kudos for venturing outside the typical format of the series to explore Frankie and Mike’s relationships with the kids on an individual basis.
- The Middle is one of the few sitcoms where it isn’t distracting to see people eating generic cereals. Because you know the Hecks would be eating generic cereals even if they weren’t a sitcom family. That’s just their income bracket. And, hey, here’s a fun question to unabashedly ramp up comments: What’s your favorite generic cereal that’s an unabashed rip-off of a brand-name cereal?
- “It’s just impossible to do anything with these people!”
- Oh, sure, living the life of Bill Bixby circa the early 1970s sounds great, but without a Harry Nilsson theme song to light the way…
- “I was an only child for two years. I’m good.”
- I laughed way too hard at that poor little boy at paintball all but sobbing to Frankie, “But… but it’s my birthday!”
- There wasn’t a lot to it, but I loved the sight gag of Cassidy speeding away on the heels of Mike informing her that “Axl’s in trouble.”
- “That’s it: I’m getting the boots.”
- Lastly, I'm on my last night of the Television Critics Association press tour as I write these words, and I'm both really exhausted and a little tipsy (thanks for that, Vegas set visit), but I have to share my little Middle-related moment that was my favorite moment of the tour. After the cast and creators of the show did their panel for the TCA audience, I was standing next to their publicist, and Eden Sher walked up to us. She looked at my nametag, her jaw dropped, and she looked up at me and said, "You're Will Harris. You're Will Harris! Oh, my God!" And she launched at me and gave me the biggest hug you can imagine. Turns out they'd been chatting in the green room before the panel, talking about how some of the show's biggest supporters were going to be in the audience, and my name came up, so it was fresh on her mind, and when we saw me… well, she was happy to meet me, obviously. I think I'm still blushing…