The Middle: “Risky Business”

This week was a significant one in the history of The Middle, with the series at long last offering up a moment in the life of one of its characters that was so long in coming that it’s likely that many fans had begun to wonder if it was ever going to happen.

Yes, that’s right: Rusty finally had a good idea.

After 17 days at college, Sue has finally returned home, and her excitement level about setting foot back into Casa de Heck is off the charts…or as Mike puts it, “No one’s ever been this excited to come into this house.” Frankie and Mike more or less take a step back to let her get it out of her system, but Brick de-sentimentalizes the situation in an instant, responding to her burst of emotion about how lucky she is to have a little brother by reminding her that it’s her turn to empty the dishwasher. Okay, so maybe Sue’s over-romanticized her homecoming somewhat – she does have a history of doing that sort of thing – but if you lived on campus at any point during your collegiate career, then you know that it actually does feel oddly pleasant to return home that first time.

As it happens, though, this one of those rare instances where Sue is guilty less of being overenthusiastic than she is of overcompensation as she tries not to not reveal just how awful the situation has gotten with her roommate, Holly. Not that she’s willing to admit this to anyone. Not to her family, and not even to Brad, who is – as ever – ecstatic to see her and ready to paint the town red and see the new shrubs outside Arby’s. Unfortunately, he’s not in a position to take his car (“My dad tried to show me how to change the oil, and it did not go well”), and when he takes a gander at the inside of Sue’s car, the jig is up: she’s forced to admit that things are so terrible with her mean, selfish, and downright tacky roommate that she’s taken to living in her car. Naturally, Brad will not stand idly by and see Sue treated in such a fashion, so he volunteers to play the role of her boyfriend in a tour de force entitled Turnabout is Fair Play.

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From a comedic standpoint, Brad and Sue portraying boyfriend and girlfriend proves to be a complete success, but threatening to do “naughty stuff that married people do” before announcing his plans to “jump my lady’s bones,” making assurances of his slovenliness while straightening his toiletries in a very precise manner, and using the word “saucy” do very little to sell his story. In fairness, Sue’s not exactly hitting the heights of credibility with her dialogue, but after disappearing under the duvet and faking intimacy by audibly chanting, “And kick, and kick, and kick” fails to keep Holly and her “friend” rutting on the other side of the room, Brad feels that he’s failed Sue with his dismal performance. For her part, though, Sue assures Brad that he’s a great fake boyfriend and an even better friend…and that’s when it happens.

Okay, let’s not kid around here: there is no one who has ever watched an episode featuring Brad who didn’t at least think, “I wonder if he’s gay,” and after six seasons of Sue seemingly being completely oblivious to that possibility, there was every possibility that we could’ve gotten an episode where she finally finds out and she’s all, like, “What?!? Are you sure?”

Instead, The Middle set aside the comedy in order to tug at our heartstrings, giving us a moment where Brad – clearly basking in the glow of Sue’s comments about their friendship – suddenly decides that the time is right to come right out and tell her, only for her to surprise him by beating him to the punch and simply say, “I know.” The abrupt shift in expression on Sue’s face when she realizes what he’s going to say… Well, look, how many times can I say it? She deserves an Emmy nomination. But if the rules are such that Brock Ciarlelli can earn a nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series, then he more than earned an Emmy nod himself tonight.

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In the wake of Brad’s big announcement, Sue decides that if he’s strong enough to do what he did, then she’s strong enough to do what she needs to do…or at least strong enough to narc on Holly, anyway. Eh, close enough: it’s still a nice little tie-in.

Although it’s fair to say that Brad and Sue ended up being the MVPs of this week’s episode, it’s not like everything else was just throwaway material. In fact, as indicated way back at the beginning of this review, Norm MacDonald returned as Mike’s brother, Rusty, and this time he brought with him a business plan that wasn’t completely absurd, which is just another way of expressing what Mike said in much funnier fashion: “The monkey finally typed a sentence.” Still, the idea of Li’l Rivals really was a decent one, as first evidenced by the mere fact that Mike wanted Rusty to tell him more about the pitch, even as Frankie attempted to telepathically contact him and tell him to shut up. Not entirely unlike Sue, it turns out that Mike’s been putting on a brave face himself lately: he’s in a rut, he feels like he’s between doing the same stuff for too long, and his ego was clearly bruised when he tried for a management position and failed to get it. He wants to do something that’ll reinvigorate him, and Rusty’s plan seems to be just what the doctor ordered.

Although highly dubious, Frankie begrudgingly tells Mike to go forth and collaborate with his brother, which he does. It’s rough going on occasion when it comes to trying to keep Rusty consistently on task – three words: Pope vs. Bobcat – and making sure that they meet the appointments that Rusty’s made for them, but in a complete subverting of expectations, things actually pan out. Sure, not without Mike doing a complete belly flop in front of a board room full of businessmen, but even at that, Rusty’s idea is so strong that the company actually puts in an order. Given the history of the Heck family, it’s hard to imagine Li’l Rivals will suddenly become such a success that they’ll be able to get their finances up to date and start saving – let’s not kid ourselves here – but it sure is nice to have opportunity to say “Mike Heck wins!” for a change.

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Last but not least (except in terms of which is the best storyline of the episode, in which case “least” is spot on), Axl wants to ride Mike’s new motorcycle and is stunned that Mike’s not going to let him. First he suggests that Brick would be emotionally scarred by the disappointment of his brother not reaching the heights of coolness that he so richly deserves. When that fails after Brick’s only response is to remind Axl that it’s his turn to take out the garbage, Axl seeks sympathy from Frankie, who doesn’t even want Mike to ride the bike and, in a typically poor choice words, admits that she could get over it Mike got mangled (God forbid) but she’d never recover if her eldest child suffered such a fate. In rebellion, Axl decides that the best possible way to convince his parents that he’s responsible enough to handle the motorcycle is to do a whole bunch of super-dangerous stuff and show how he never fails to walk away unscathed.

It’s a goofy idea, and it only gets goofier as we see doing stuff like riding an inner tube off the roof onto a trampoline and into the pool and, uh, eating a bunch of sticks of butter. Look, some of the ideas are goofier than others, but you have to admire Axl’s insistence on seeing his stupid plan through to its conclusion, even if the best he gets out of it is the opportunity to sit behind Mike on the motorcycle and hold on tight. Brick’s along-for-the-ride participation in the shenanigans results in a few laughs, too, including the closing bit where it turns out that Frankie and Mike refusing to let him walk home from the library at night actually was pretty reasonable on their part.

Stray observations:

  • Call me crazy, but I don’t think those five minutes of Selma taught Axl as much as he thinks they did.
  • “Smack me in the croutons like you mean it!”
  • Frankie’s reaction to Mike’s ongoing midlife-crisis checklist: “If the next thing is a hot young blonde, I just want to know so I can stop putting in the effort. Yeah, that’s right: this is me trying. “
  • Brad had so many great lines this week, but my favorite of his exclamations may have been “That’s a stage laugh, Sue!” and “You’re living in your car…and you’re breaking out!”
  • “I’ve been sleeping in a desk char with wheels. Waking up on the other side of the room is more disconcerting than you’d think!”
  • “Were astronauts concerned about safety when they flew to the moon?” “Presumably so.”
  • “We played sex chicken and lost.”
  • “I don’t know if you have any jurisdiction over this, but…I don’t think she should be a nurse!”
  • For anyone who’s interested, I was fortunate enough to be able to chat with Brock Ciarlelli, Eden Sher, and executive producers DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler in advance of this week’s episode about Brad’s big moment. You can read the resulting piece right here.
  • Lastly, Rusty might’ve been onto something with that whole Big Bird / Hitler thing. Just sayin’.

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The Goldbergs: “I Caddyshacked the Pool”

Never in my life have I felt so glad that I never attended a school with a pool.

Guys across America cringed as they watched and listened to poor Adam suffering through the repercussions of his changing voice, but this week The Goldbergs doubled-down on the emotional damage by doling out a pool episode, one which serves to remind us that both boys and girls are capable of cringing at the thought of people seeing them at their worst. Unfortunately, Adam’s level of embarrassment is real bad, which is why he’s doing everything in his power to come up with an excuse – no matter how lame it might sound – to get himself out of having to swim, including a contagious butt rash, irritable bowel syndrome, and some sort of fungus “down there.” Even more unfortunately, the coach is onto his trickery and meets with Beverly about how Adam is getting a failing grade in gym. She dodges all his accusations, even matching his claim that Adam’s supposedly a secret operative for the CIA by saying, “That’s classified,” but she walks out of the school on a mission to find out exactly what the heck is up with Adam.

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What’s up is that Adam is kind of freaking out about all of the changes in his life and is quite happy staying home and just chilling out while watching reruns of “Gimme a Break,” never to put his body on display again. It doesn’t last, of course: once Beverly gets home, she both gives him an earful about his behavior while also providing him with the opportunity to put on the new jams she’s bought him. He’s decidedly less enthused than she is, however, resulting in a back-and-forth between Adam, Beverly, and Murray that features a number of top-notch synonyms for “balls” – my personal favorite: yam bag – and a vow from Adam that he wouldn’t even go swimming if George Lucas invited him to a pool party on Dagobah. (He would, however, at least go check it out, because opportunities like that don’t grow on trees.) Bev tries confronting Adam again his bedroom, but her “repeat after me” only serves to further frustrate him, leaving more annoyed than ever…until, that is, he sits down with Pops and watches Caddyshack and has a brilliant idea of how to keep himself and everyone else out of the pool: throw in a Baby Ruth and pretend that it’s, uh, something else.

Funny stuff, right? Sure, until the coach puts the hammer down and demands that the guilty party admit to their shenanigans, at which point Adam freaks out and does whatever he can to shift blame to innocent people…like, say, Dave Kim! Worse, his body image is still terrible, which leads even way-out-of-his-element Murray to come into Adam’s room and tell his son that he’s got a beautiful body. Yikes. Thankfully, Adam eventually takes responsibility for his actions, feeling guilty about the whole thing.

Meanwhile, Erica has watched the “We Are the World” video, and possibly because of the song’s unheard of accomplishment of getting both Kenny Rogers and Kenny Loggins in the same room, she’s seen the light and has decided to devote herself to changing the world, leaping headlong into a plan to raise money for charity. Naturally, everybody loves the idea except for Barry, who declared his sister to be a poseur, but Erica won’t be stopped: she founds a social awareness club at school and is an instant high-school media sensation…well, you know, by everyone but Barry.

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After he continues to argue with her incessantly, sticking her with a ridiculous number of issues to fight back against while he’s ultimately far more interested in getting a pair of free Air Jordans, Barry finally just decides to start his own charity…or “Barity,” if you will. Despite everything she’s accomplished, up to and including the original protest songs she’s composed, which are both funny and entertaining, Erica just gets so fed up with Barry that she bails out. In turn, Barry feels guilty and hands over the funds he’d set aside for his shoes, so he passes the profits onto her. Brotherly and sisterly love wins out again…with the emphasis on again. Not that the episode wasn’t funny, but it hasn’t been that long since we’ve seen an ending where either Barry or Erica realize they’ve been wrong about something and do what they can to backpedal and fix things. Maybe we could put a moratorium on that for a bit, eh?

Stray observations:

  • “Easy on the P-word. What is this, a disco?”
  • Nice Bennigan’s shout-out.
  • “Merch is where it’s at!”
  • Sucks to be Dave Kim. Not just because he was falsely accused, but also because of how awful it must be to live a life without nougat.
  • Brian Callen continues to kill it as Coach Meller. Even if he does still seem to think that Adam’s last name is Goldfarb.

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