The Middle: “Pam Freakin’ Staggs”
Last season, when Keegan-Michael Key turned up to play Reverend Deveaux in “The Hungry Games,” I observed that, “as a rule, The Middle isn’t a series that has gone out of its way to fill its fictional universe with big-name guest stars” and that its guest cast “tends to be populated by well-chosen utility players.” In making this distinction, however, I also indicated that the aforementioned Mr. Key actually fell between the two domains: a familiar face, yes, but probably not a household name for most.
But Kirstie Alley? Now there’s a big-name guest star. Better yet, she’s a big-name guest star who’s brought into the series in the most appropriate way possible for The Middle: via a callback.
That’s right: Kirstie Alley is Pam freakin’ Staggs.
You’re forgiven if you don’t remember the initial introduction of Ms. Staggs, who went to high school with Frankie, but if you’ve been watching the show long enough, then there’s a decent chance that you at least remember her status as “the Wheel of Fortune lady.” It’s a callback that goes all the way back to when I’d just started reviewing the series for TV Club, near the beginning of the third season. Not that I don’t still remember “Major Changes” like it was yesterday. I mean, you don’t readily forget an episode that features a scene where Frankie accidentally eats some of Axl’s toenail clippings. (Suddenly it’s all coming back to you now, too, isn’t it? You’re welcome.) What’s more relevant to this discussion, however, is that it’s also the episode where Frankie spirals into anger and depression over Pam Staggs’ winning a million dollars on Wheel, getting so frustrated that she storms out the door and drives to her parents’ house, where she seeks solace from her mother. In other words, it would not have felt in any way out of place to slip this song into the background at some point.
What we discover this week, though, is that Frankie’s bitterness about Pam winning a million dollars is surprisingly easy for her to set aside when Pam’s actually paying attention to her.
I expect plenty of us can relate. At some point when you’re going to school, you look up to someone who’s more popular and seems so much cooler than you do, but you only know them from afar because you’re not traveling in the same circles. Later in life, you meet them, and even though you know rationally that you’re on even footing, you still find yourself thinking, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe we’re talking to each other. This never would’ve happened in high school!” (When that happens, this Saturday Night Live sketch invariably comes to mind.) As it happens, that’s exactly what’s running through Frankie’s mind, but apparently the footfalls are so loud that they overpower the question that she should be asking herself: “Why is Pam Staggs paying attention to me?”
Eventually, of course, we find out why: Pam’s life is a mess, she’s all alone, but she thrives on attention, and Frankie’s the only person left in Orson that she even remotely knows, so she decides that Frankie’s going to be her brand new bestie, a situation that lasts right up until Pam accidentally slips up and drunkenly admits how she found the Herb to her Peaches. With Frankie’s devotion to Pam shaken, it isn’t long before the rift between the two of them grows even further, and once Pam admits that she’s merely a shell of the popular person she used to be, it turns out to be just as easy for Frankie to downshift back to her early position and find a certain degree of giddiness in the knowledge that Pam freakin’ Staggs actually envies her.
Although there were occasional slightly over-the-top moments where it felt like she was delivering a performance more appropriate for Modern Family than The Middle, I’d be hard pressed to suggest that the show could’ve utilized Alley any better than they did in this episode, especially not when, during Pam’s emotional breakdown at the end of the episode, I actually found myself reminded of her work as Rebecca Howe on Cheers. The chemistry between Alley and Patricia Heaton was great, with the latter particularly shining when Frankie returned home drunk after her ridiculously lengthy brunch with Pam, but because of the Pam storyline, we also got to see some really great stuff between Frankie and Mike, too, with the latter quickly losing patience for the woman his wife turns into when Pam freakin’ Staggs is around.
Now, granted, something else apparently also happens when Pam freakin’ Staggs is around: everyone else’s storylines get trimmed down to virtually nothing. That said, there were merits to each of them. I don’t know how much more mileage they could’ve gotten out of Sue’s efforts to find slightly outside-the-box activities that’d look impressive on her college applications, so kudos for getting the laughs and wrapping it up quickly. Similarly, they didn’t drag out the Devin Levin saga, taking it only through the end of the episode before being done with it and letting her admit that she does indeed want to date him. And as for Brick, I think my only disappointment was that we didn’t get to explore Far Out Parenting more, but otherwise the stuff with him and Mike was uniformly gold. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that we have an early contender for Line of the Year: “I’ve got to say, Brick, you’re annoying me the least this week.”
- I mentioned that I hadn’t forgotten “Major Changes” because of the toenail-ingesting scene, but what I had forgotten until I went back and revisited my review was it’s the episode to which I doled out the lowest rating I’ve ever given an installment of The Middle: a C-minus. Apparently, I felt like Frankie’s freakout in the episode was too rushed and didn’t feel earned.
- Another nice callback: Brick entering the room, referencing the noise from Sue’s oboe, and saying, “You take away my noisy toys, and this you’re allowing?”
- I didn’t specifically mention it above, but Patricia Heaton’s frantic performance when she ran in after her initial close encounter with Pam and demanded that everyone “be different” was downright fantastic. I even enjoyed the unrealistic cutaway to Frankie suddenly looking spiffy. Just how long was Pam standing on the porch, anyway?
- Kirstie Alley is one of those comediennes who can make me laugh and cringe simultaneously, and I was definitely doing both during her conversations with Kevin the bartender.
- There is nothing – I repeat, nothing – wrong with “old married people fun.”
- “Suds & Duds: You Don’t Have To Do Laundry To Drink.” If that isn’t actually Suds & Duds’ slogan, they’re really missing out.
- “You know, you and I can just get an apartment together…”
- I definitely cringe-laughed when Pam licked Mike, but I laughed very hard when we next saw Mike: he was in the bedroom, cleaning the spot where she licked him.
- “We didn’t all win a million dollars.” “Yeah, well, I did.” You have to figure that every million-dollar winner just sits around waiting for an opening like that.
The Goldbergs: “DannyDonnieJoeJonJordan”
I know I’m notorious for harping on how both The Middle and The Goldbergs are series which are at their best when they’re hewing closest to reality, but sometimes an episode can win you over with its sheer goofiness. Such is the case with this week’s installment, which is in no way the series’ best effort and yet the sheer enthusiasm of the proceedings still managed to make me laugh even at times when I knew it was being ridiculous.
First, though, let’s get the episode’s lesser storyline out of the way. Given how much Beverly Goldberg loves her children, it should come as no real surprise - even though we really haven’t seen a ton of it in evidence on the set of the show - that she’s a sentimentalist who saves all over kids’ arts and crafts work from throughout their lives. In fact, let’s just call a spade a spade: she’s a hoarder. A well-organized hoarder, granted, but a hoarder nonetheless. The idea that it would reach a point where the entire garage is filled with boxes of the stuff, though, is great for a visual gag but hard to really buy into. That said, we also get the Great Goldberg Avalanche gag, which is funny, and the various examples of the kids’ artwork - be it the originals, the forgeries, or the pieces done by some other family’s kids - were invariably worth a smile at the very least. Also, the image of Murray wandering around the landfill, cursing up a blue streak, was just about worth the price of admission in its own right.
Okay, onward to New Kids on the Block.
Yes, I know this is one of those sketchy timeline situations - given that NKOTB mania was at its peak in ’88 and ‘89, Erica would barely have had time to put away her New Kids stuff by the end of the decade, so it can’t have been that old a box - but I can appreciate wanting to mock your sister for her lapses in pop culture taste, only to find yourself realizing after the fact that maybe she was onto something after all. I myself became a big fan of a-ha after my sister had tossed them aside, which would’ve been just after the Scoundrel Days album, only to suddenly feel like I might be the only heterosexual male in America who still followed the band. They’re really good, I swear. In fact, I’ve got all nine of their studio albums! But I digress when I should be making the point that the episode does a nice job of tackling the weirdness that exists between brothers and sisters when it comes to what you like and what they like and fighting the desire to mock something just because your sibling appreciates it.
Ultimately, though, the episode’s greatest successes aren’t what it achieves on an emotional level but, rather, the way they handle the fandom. The video of Erica extolling her love to Jonathan is classic stuff in its own right, but seeing Adam and Barry reproducing the New Kids video? That’s just about the best thing ever, especially when coupled with the footage of the real Adam at the end.
Oh, actually, there’s something else about this episode that stands out, and it’s an aspect that stands out in the other storyline as well: there are a number of extremely well-executed back-and-forths. There’s Bev and Murray at the table while she’s sorting through artwork, there’s Murray and Pops outside by the moving van, and then there’s the inevitable Barry and Adam conversations, most notably their in-depth discussion about which of the New Kids they’re the most like. It just goes to show you that, even when an episode of the show is only fair to middling, the cast’s performances are generally still strong enough to win you over.
- I can’t claim that I ever went through a full-fledged New Kids on the Block phase - having worked at a record store and sold their albums, merchandise, and concert tickets when Hangin’ Tough was all the rage, I all but loathed them during that particular era - but I will say that they did manage to win me over for about three minutes with this track from the Step by Step album which may be the only occasion when the term “Beatle-esque” can reasonably be used to describe a NKOTB song.