The Middle: “Operation Infiltration”

It’s getting so that it’s impossible for The Middle to do an episode that doesn’t feature at least one storyline that feels in some way like a gift to the show’s fans, but that’s what happens when a show’s been around for as long as this one has been. In this case, all of the storylines felt like gifts to some extent, even if some were slightly more successful than others.

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First of all, even though we got confirmation last week that Sue had indeed gotten into college, we still didn’t know for sure whether or not she’d gotten the financial aid package she needed to cover the costs of her education. Thankfully, she did, which proved to be a nice, funny way to pick off the proceedings and set into motion the idea of Sue visiting Axl at school. By sitcom coincidence, Sue reaches out to her brother to see about staying with him just as he’s learning from Devin that she really wants him to have a strong, loving relationship with his sister. This, of course, is the antithesis of the entire Axl/Sue dynamic, so it’s a testimony to how strong Axl’s feelings are for Devin that he’d put up with so much to try and present himself as the man she wants him to be, even if it’s all an act.

And it doesn’t take Sue long to realize that it’s all an act, hence her decision to attend the college party, only doing so because she knows Axl doesn’t want her there, and then dancing her heart out, much to his chagrin. It was in no way surprising that Axl finally reached a point where he’d had all he could stand and couldn’t stand anymore, admitting to Devin that he’d been trying to pull the wool over her eyes. Except – April Fool! – she was actually teasing him all along, so he needn’t have been so loving to his sister. Ah, well, so it goes. What’s most important is that Sue liked the opportunity to have the upper hand in a battle, loved the chance to extract at least a little bit of revenge for all the shitty treatment she’s had to deal with from Axl over the years, and, perhaps most importantly, now she’s got the pictures to prove that she and her brother are close. Oh, sure, it’s an illusion, but she knows he loves her, no matter how shitty he may act towards her, so the photos will help see her through the tougher times.

Brick and Frankie share a storyline this week, with Brick gearing up for a trip to a robotics expedition – one which Frankie is reminded that she volunteered to chaperone – by trying to work out a way to increase the size of his friend group and sit next to a new pal on the bus ride. He pays a visit to his old pal Dr. Fulton (welcome back, Dave Foley) and runs his plan by him, which he deems sound enough in theory, even if he underlines to Brick that three isn’t always the best number when it comes to friendship. Brick, meanwhile, argues that the expression “third wheel” isn’t taking into account that a third wheel actually adds stability. So there.

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Alas, Brick’s big plans for sitting next to his new pal fail to pan out as planned, due to a weasely little punk trying to sit three to a seat rather than two and his mother letting him get away with it, thereby leaving Brick sitting by himself. but what’s most interesting about the bus ride and the repercussions thereof is the fact that we see Frankie getting upset about something reasonable for a change, handling her argument in a reasonable manner, and not really embarrassing herself in the process. And after she has a brief conversation with Dr. Fulton which makes her cognizant of the fact that she’s guilty of acting the same way in the past as Brick’s friend’s mother just did, she tries to apologize to the other mother, only to find that the other mother has her back. It’s a side of Frankie we almost never get to see, and it’s wonderful. Not as wonderful as the last second switcheroo where all of Frankie’s efforts to find someone to sit next to Brick prove to be a waste of time, as he promptly ends up sitting next to her, anyway, but still pretty darned wonderful.

Lastly, we have Mike and his brother Rusty (Norm Macdonald) sitting around shooting the shit, drinking, and playing Risk. It’s a weirdly funny segment, with Neil Flynn playing the requisite straight man to MacDonald, who delivers a lot of laughs, most of which are just Norm being Norm. It’s also a little dark at times, leaving us wondering exactly how many of Mike’s supposed comments to Rusty actually took place. (Did Mike really tell his brother that Jesus didn’t love him?) It’s a little hard to accept that Big Mike somehow never managed to clean the guys’ childhood bedroom, but Norm scores a laugh when he admits that not only had he never known it was there, but that he’d actually just been sleeping in the tire room. It’s certainly the least of the three storylines, but you’ll never find me complaining about a Norm Macdonald guest appearance on any series, especially not this one.

Stray observations:

  • The way ABC was promoting this week’s Wednesday night comedy lineup, you would’ve thought that it was going to be non-stop April Fool’s Day shenanigans from start to finish, but we can thank our lucky stars that that was apparently just the work of whoever put together the promos.
  • And on that note, this is the second time in less than a year that they’ve completely wasted a perfectly good surprise by blowing it in the commercial. Remember how, in advance of last year’s season finale, they gave away the Hecks’ Disneyworld / Disneyland error in the promo? Well, the commercial for this week’s episode totally spoiled the surprise of seeing Barry Goldberg at Axl’s college party. If I’d worked hard to pull off that cameo, only to see it given away in the commercial, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to resist the urge to punch someone in the face.
  • The day Dr. Fulton returns and doesn’t have a Shelly story is the day I don’t need Dave Foley to come back on The Middle anymore, because those are always the greatest parts of his guest spots.
  • Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dork-ret may be the most literary insult Axl has ever delivered to Sue.
  • I certainly hope the new X-Files series explores the link between Ebola and Area 51.
  • I’ll buy that the Mike & Rusty storyline only worked if Big Mike wasn’t around, but I still wish we could’ve seen John Collum at least briefly at the end.
  • Rusty referring to Frankie as “that short, angry lady” killed me.
  • Also worth noting: Sue’s rapid-fire run-through of the awful shit that Axl has done to her over the years. The running joke about how much glue played a part was funny, but so was the fact that Axl was apparently farting on Frankie’s stomach when Sue was still in there.

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The Goldbergs: ”The Adam Bomb”

Another week, another opportunity for The Goldbergs to kill it. That’s how it seems lately, anyway, but I’m certainly not complaining: any show that can get my tear ducts quivering two weeks in a row is definitely doing something right.

This episode was definitely awash in plenty of ‘80s pop culture, from Charles Barkley shoes to Castle Greyskull to Tiffany touring the malls of America, but as with the best Goldbergs episodes to date, the heart of the matter was the relationships between the members of the family, with the decade in which the series takes place being ultimately incidental to the real storylines, i.e. the brotherly love/hate relationship between Adam and Barry and the dream pusher / dream smusher relationship between Bev and Murray and how it relates to Erica.

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It must be said that the Adam and Barry battle is so completely all over the place – but in a good way – that I can’t even begin to cite all of the great little moments that were going on within it, although you can’t go wrong with starting out with a perfectly-executed practical joke (hiding Barry’s precious Charles Barkley shoe) that’s viewed as real by its victim, who in turn extracts his revenge (destroying Adam’s beloved Castle Greyskull) before being told that, hey, it was just a joke! Suddenly, the joke has turned serious, and a war is being waged, and even though Pops assures Adam that there are no winners in war, Barry begs to differ, ultimately breaking out his so-called “Adam bomb,” which is – both on the show and in real life – the sort of photograph that could destroy a man’s reputation. If we interviewed Adam F. Goldberg for 11 Questions, I suspect he’d say that he first felt successful when he felt comfortable enough to show that real photo on national television, because yikes.

Mind you, I had some problems with Barry bringing the war to a close as a result of being moved by the falling of the Berlin Wall and that performance by David Hasselhoff, because…well, hell, I don’t even know where to start on the chronological inconsistencies in that bit. But his utterly befuddled political and geographical explanation for why he’d had a change of heart was funny, as was the rap video that Adam helped him make to apologize to Lainey.

Erica’s storyline seemed at first like it was going to be a simple case of her wanting to be the American Robin Sparkles, only to realize that it was an unrealistic dream, which is kind of where it was heading until the very end. What proved equally important to the story, however, was the exploration of the Bev and Murray parenting dynamic. Normally she’s the dream pusher and he’s the dream smusher, but things didn’t quite stay on the usual track this time, with Murray opting to turn the tables. Not knowing how to handle the situation anymore, they seek aid from Miss Cinoman (Ana Gasteyer), asking her if she could do them a solid by actively destroying Erica’s dreams and shame her into quitting, possibly by using scare tactics or negative reinforcements. Naturally, she refuses, probably at least partially because Bev has a gift for crushing the poor woman’s soul, but then Bev realizes that she has the option to be Erica’s mom and her manager, or her “momager,” if you will.

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Unaware to Bev’s epiphany, Erica heads to the mall, where her big plan of passing her demo to Tiffany and being discovered ends up being the same plan as hundreds of other girls, and her back-up idea of heading to Tiffany’s tour bus is similarly echoed by the masses (including Miss Cinoman), leaving her utterly dejected. This is unfortunate, because Bev’s all gung ho at this point, which clearly horrifies Erica. But things wrap up in a positive way, thanks to – of all people – Murray, who comes to Erica’s room, gives her the money to record her demo, and admits that she should go for her dream, no how matter how scary it might be, because A) there’s no one else like her, no matter what they may have felt at the mall, and B) he can’t have her spending her life thinking that he was responsible for holding her back. If I hadn’t felt my eyelashes fluttering at that point, then it was all over when Erica ran out of her room and gave Murray a hug.

Yes, the show requires that you ignore the real world’s timeline, but if you can get past that, there are some profoundly moving moments waiting for you.

Stray observations:

  • I did not have a Howard the Duck shirt, but I did – and still do – have the novelization. I saw that movie in an early screening, I loved it then, and I still love it now. Like, to the point where I interviewed Thomas Dolby and asked him about the soundtrack. (Not ‘til the very end, though. I mean, what, like I wanted to get hung up on?)
  • Anyone else ever attend a mall concert? The closest I came was when John Wesley Harding performed inside Waterside, a mall-ish place on the water in Norfolk, Virginia. Great show.
  • Poor Barry. I hope we get to see a future episode where he goes to get his baseball card collectioned priced.
  • Rikki Gold? I could get behind that stage name.
  • “I’m going to be bigger than Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, but not Madonna, because I’m realistic.”
  • It felt a little out of character, but I loved Barry’s description of Adam as looking like a “sad little dandy.”
  • Erica is obsessed with Tiffany but wears a Cure t-shirt? Exactly how much suspension of disbelief must I accept?!?
  • The TastyGold Experience? There’s your post-series spin-off right there!
  • In closing, what say we all enjoy a little freedom?

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