The Middle: “Siblings and Sombreros”

Nothing makes a fan of The Middle quite as giddy as having an episode kick off in the car.

By now, surely you know the standing rule with this series: You can’t go wrong with a scene that features the whole Heck clan in the confines of their vehicle. In this case, the family is taking a drive to…well, nowhere, really. It’s just a drive, an idea that is instantly called out as smelling like something that Frankie’s dealt, but it’s actually something of Mike’s devising, and as he’s pleased to inform the rest of the family, he’s got a full tank and an empty bladder and he can go all day. While he’s busy driving, Sue’s storyline for the week is quickly sketched out: she’s working on her senior page, and since she and Brad want to take a picture atop a giant cow while they’re wearing sombreros—because Señor Cow—Sue needs Axl to retrieve the family sombrero from college.

Anyone who believes that Axl will successfully bring back the sombrero in a timely fashion has clearly not been paying attention, because of course he doesn’t bring it back—hell, he’s not even sure if he has the thing anymore—and of course Sue can’t just sit on the cow in a random sombrero, so the whole thing ends with Frankie trying to play peacemaker and both kids assuring her that she just doesn’t get it, because that is what teenagers do.

Meanwhile, as Frankie’s dealing with two kids, Mike’s playing a little one-on-one with Brick, a situation which starts out with the school naming him Athlete of the Month, a ridiculous concept by anyone’s estimation. (In other words, you can’t blame Mike for asking, “Was it a written test sort of thing?”) But, no, Mike calls the school and is assured that it’s legit, and just to be absolutely sure it’s not some sort of foul-up, he also gets Brick to confirm that the gym teacher isn’t one of those guys who wants to make sure that everyone gets to win the award once. Having rarely gotten even so much as a glimmer of hope that Brick might have some semblance of an athletic gene, Mike immediately sets himself up to be heartbroken and starts contemplating in which sport Brick might have the most aptitude.

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That’s when Frankie and Mike meet in the middle—ha, I didn’t even mean to do that!—and quickly discover that both of them are so caught up in their respective child-rearing situations that they’re barely paying any attention to each other. When Mike finally does start listening, though, he assures Frankie that her best plan of attack is to just be honest with the kids, because if they’re asking for her honest opinion, then she should give it to them. He also tells her not to badmouth one kid to the other, but that bit doesn’t sink in, unfortunately.

First, though, let’s talk about Brick breaking Mike’s heart. Okay, maybe he doesn’t actually break it, but he certainly fails to live up to the expectations set by an Athlete of the Month award. Brick does, however, live up to everything we’ve ever known about him when Mike takes him to the tennis court and he breaks out a bunch of books and a can of Pringles but no racket. Finally, Mike works out what’s happened: Brick and his locker buddy have been wearing each other’s shorts, so the gym teacher gave the award to Brick because he thought he was the other kid. It’s pretty standard sitcom stuff as plot developments go, but it’s delivered well, so no complaints here.

As for the other two kids, sure, you knew it was going to happen that Frankie would tell Axl that Sue can be a little relentless, only for Axl to tell Sue what Frankie said, thereby leading Frankie to tell Sue that Axl can be kind of a jackass, resulting in a far more explosive fight than ever would’ve taken place if Frankie had kept her big mouth shut. And, yes, having Sue and Brad get stuck atop Señor Cow with no one else available to rescue them besides Axl is entering “give me a break” territory… or even Gimme A Break! territory, come to think of it. (Note to self: I may have come up with a new 100 Episodes pitch.) The whole thing still plays well, though, and even if the overly-sentimental ending – the kids work everything out on their, plan how things will go next year at college, and then go on a nice drive together – would’ve seemed out of character for Axl once upon a time, this season has seen him experiencing growth on enough occasions that I’ll allow it, mostly because of the smile that he earns from Sue as a result.

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Oh, and also because of the ending scene, with Mike saying, “Look, you know how I feel about your mother, but here’s the thing…” But I can neither confirm nor deny that I laughed at that bit, because I never know when my wife is going to read one of these things.

Stray observations:

  • “What weird stuff did you do now?” It really could’ve been any number of things.”
  • I have never faked a stomach cramp to read on the toilet. But I have hated my job enough to overstate my gastrointestinal situation and then slipped off to the bathroom to read on the toilet. Does that count?
  • “That’s great! Odd, but great!” How many times have I uttered those words?
  • Brad’s hat collection must truly be out of this world.
  • Patricia Heaton in a “Hoosier Daddy” shirt and PJ pants is a far more stirring sight than I would’ve anticipated. She rocked that look.
  • “We’re not going to be around forever.” “I’m hearing, ‘We’re not going to be around to hear them fight.’’’
  • I’m not sure which was funnier: Sue’s rapid-fire questions to Frankie about her use of the word “relentless” or Frankie’s rapid-fire riffing to counter them all.
  • I knew the second Sue said “scarecrow” that Brad was going to launch into “If I Only Had a Brain.” But that didn’t make it any less wonderful.
  • Best callback of the episode: Brick hauling his pizza-warming book bag.

The Goldbergs: “I Drank the Mold”

You know what sucks? Hanging around with a bunch of your friends who are making questionable decisions, having them get busted for it, and even though you’re not doing anything wrong, you somehow still manage to get in trouble, too.

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That’s more or less what happens to Adam when his mother surprises him on his birthday by inviting four of his friends over for a sleepover—or is it a slumber party?—and soon finds himself in the midst of a bacchanal. Okay, not really. In fact, it barely even qualifies as a party: The only moment that it approximates a rager is when Principal Ball’s son breaks out bottles of his dad’s homebrewed craft beer, only to discover too late that the beer isn’t even remotely ready for consumption, leading everyone who’s tasted it to retch violently. This is bad news for Adam’s buddies, all of whom indulged, but Adam’s worst crime is holding a bottle of the stuff when his mom comes down the stairs. It’s an awkward moment, one made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that Bev’s accompanied by a cowboy armed and ready to make balloon animals, and it only gets worse when Bev meets with the other kids’ parents and discover that they’ve decided to cut all ties between their kids.

And so they do, at least for awhile, anyway. But the storyline is ultimately less about Adam and his friends than it is Bev and the other parents, whose mutual inability to accept that any of their children might be to blame for the situation. We get a brief glimpse of the kids at school, trying their best to maintain the demand that they no longer have anything to do with each other, but it’s crystal clear that Adam’s not happy about it. Indeed, the next thing you know, he’s hustling into the kitchen to complain to Bev that he’s no angel and that he’s at least as much of a bad apple as the rest of his peers, and to prove it, he drinks the still-moldy leftover beer and promptly pukes. Thankfully, the gesture is enough to send Bev back to school, where she successfully manages to convince the other parents that they could do far more good for their kids and each other if they’re a united front. She also tries to make up for Adam’s birthday party by giving him tokens for the arcade, but in his post-puking state, he opts to settle for a few minutes with his mother rubbing his tummy to make it feel better, which is far more valuable.

Okay, now to my favorite plotline of the episode, mostly because when I fell in love with CDs, I fell hard, I fell fast, and I basically sold my entire comic book collection so that I could afford to build my own CD collection. In the end, all I really remember is that I sold a copy of the first issue of the first Punisher miniseries and I ended up with a Styx best-of disc for my trouble, and that really just is not a good trade no matter how you spin it. And yet CDs were just the best, the coolest thing ever when they first came out, and anybody who wasn’t willing to throw their tape collection under the bus in a heartbeat was living in the past, man.

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So it goes with Erica and Barry when they step into the best reproduction of a Sam Goody store that we possibly could’ve hoped for, falling in love with the longboxes and excited at the prospect of throwing away their hundreds of cassettes in favor of CDs. Only one problem: a new CD player is going to set them back about a grand, and the only person who might possibly be able to help them make that purchase is the least likely to be stirred by the prospect of what something sounds like. Still, as he says outright in the episode, Murray Goldberg is a fair man: All his daughter and son have to do is write the best song in the history of the world. Oh, right, and it has to have a vicious rap interlude, of course. (Any time we get to hear Barry rap, it’s a beautiful thing.)

In an effort to pull the wool over Murray’s eyes, since they just reasonably presume that he’s never heard a popular song ever, they decide to try playing him Elton John’s “Your Song.” But having lived on the planet for quite some time now, it turns he’s actually heard it before, so he just sits bemused until he can break the news to them gently and still suppress a giggle. Rather than play their original composition, the gripping “Love Ninja,” Erica and Barry are seriously bummed, Erica so much so that she’s playing “Your Song” on her acoustic guitar and doing so rather well… and that’s what sells Murray on letting them have the CD player. Really, though, it’s all downhill after Murray gets caught listening to Public Enemy. That constant back and forth between him and Barry was amazing stuff.

The ending of this episode, though, felt a little overstuffed. Bev and the other parents getting together is nice, as is Adam and his friends getting reunited, and so’s Murray having a sweet and lovely conversation with Erica, but it’s just so much long-term stuff unfolding so quickly, you know?

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Stray observations:

  • I generally don’t ask questions in an unabashed attempt to drive up the number of comments, but I’ll gladly kill two birds with one stone by asking a legitimate question that’s sure to end up inspiring comments in the process: What’s the first CD you ever owned? Mine was The Icicle Works’ If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy, Sing His Song, purchased used at Electric Smiles Records in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

  • Adam’s wearing a UHF shirt? Allow me rise slowly to my feet as I begin a slow clap of approval.
  • Pixie Sticks and Jolt Cola? Now that’s a party!
  • Anyone else’s dad brew their own beer? I don’t remember anything about the beer itself, but I know he made me some root beer that was pretty damned good… although this may be a rose-colored glasses kind of situation, because I also vaguely recall that it tasted like feet.
  • “Love Ninja” on mp3? Come on, Adam Goldberg, don’t let the fans down. Get that thing released ASAP! The robot shark demands it!
  • Damn, they ripped the Discman to shreds. Deservedly so, sure, but ouch nonetheless. Of course, my daughter said, “I don’t get it,” so I had to explain the joke, which failed to be funny in her eyes. Kids: What are you gonna do?

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