The Middle: “Steaming Pile of Guilt”

There’s an oft-repeated observation that sex is like pizza because – wait for it – even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. It’s one of those musings that generally results in manly men elbowing each other knowingly and/or exchanging high-fives, but here’s the thing: somewhere down the line, after the endorphins have faded, you’ll find yourself thinking about past pizzas…and that’s when it hits you that just because something’s “still pretty good” doesn’t mean that it’s actually all that great.

Are you starting to get an idea of how I felt about tonight’s episode of The Middle?

I certainly didn’t hate “Steaming Pile of Guilt.” In fact, not only were there were several moments within the episode that made me smile, there were even a couple that made me laugh out loud. But of the three storylines, one worked, one didn’t work as well as it seemed as though it should have, and one felt so tired and predictable that it actually kind of bummed me out.

Poor Sue. As if she hasn’t already suffered enough lately, what with the abrupt conclusion of her relationship with Darren last week, she’s saddled with a storyline that felt like it could’ve come from an episode of Saved by the Bell. It’s not that Sue striving to earn a Senior Superlative is so terribly out of character – actually, it’s exactly the sort of thing you would expect her to get excited about – but the way the concept was introduced, explored, and wrapped up all within the same episode just felt so…sitcom. Are we really supposed to believe that Sue, who’s spent all season making it her mission to make the most of her last year in high school, would wait until the last second to figure out which superlative she should pursue?

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Also, I’m not sure exactly how long Brad has been the head of the yearbook committee, but it must’ve been a pretty recent development, since Sue seemed to be as blindsided by the information as I was. That wasn’t the only instance of Brad not being on top of his game this week, either: after a long stretch of getting in, getting a laugh, and getting out for quite this was the first time in a long time that he was used in a way that felt like a step backwards. (I think I actually groaned when he told Sue, “You and I are going to come out in college!”) But the most egregious sin of the storyline came at the very end, when Sue started to speak out against the concept of Senior Superlatives. Seriously, is there anyone who didn’t instantly think, “And now she’s going to win one”?

Thankfully, Brick’s storyline wasn’t nearly as predictable, although the idea that Frankie and Mike would forget their son’s birthday…well, it’s not something you’d actually predict that they’d do, but nor is it something that would entirely surprise you, either. If you’re wondering, this was the storyline that was filled with the most smile-inspiring moments, among them Frankie’s foraging through the freezer somehow suddenly caused her to connect the dots and realize that they’d missed Brick’s birthday, her use of tabloid headlines to date key moments in her personal history, and Mike’s monkey-arm high-five. And the idea that Brick wanted his family’s undivided attention so that he could share with them the things that truly interest him? That was truly inspired.

Somewhere along the line, though, things went a little bit off the rails. Part of it may have been that the topics that Brick was interested in seemed almost desperately eccentric, but that was pretty well redeemed by the goodbye dances done by Axl, Sue, and Mike as they were each given the go-ahead to leave. (Seriously, the way Neil Flynn danced out of the room is now on my list of All-Time Great Middle Moments.) The real problem came when it was down to just Frankie and Brick, and Frankie reached a point of frustration that resulted in an angry rant which I’d guess probably sent most former Frankie haters back to their original setting. Yes, parents sometimes say harsh things in the heat of the moment, and then they have an instant surge of regret, offer apologies, and all may be forgiven, but that doesn’t mean it’s forgotten. The stuff Frankie said to Brick when she snapped started out funny but quickly turned cruel, the look on his face when he silently picked up his cake and walked out of the room was heartbreaking, and even though they ended up talking things out while eating cake in bed (because of course that’s something that Frankie and her son would bond over), man, what she said was harsh.

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But then we come to Axl and Devin, whose storyline was just perfect. Well, okay, maybe it wasn’t perfect, but it was extremely satisfying. We got the return of Weird Ashley in a way that was completely unexpected yet worked wonderfully within the established continuity of the show, we got a deeper look into Devin as a character, and although we got to see Axl being the brash and less-than-brilliant character he’s been since the beginning, we also saw his sensitive side with his reaction to Devin’s decision to open her heart to him. I know a lot of people have been hesitant to buy into Axl and Devin as a viable couple, but after this week, I’m betting there are a lot of people who’ve been swayed.

So it’s like I said: one storyline worked, one didn’t work as well as it seemed as though it should have, and one felt so tired and predictable that it actually kind of bummed me out. But the one storyline that worked? All I can say is that it’s a damned good thing that it worked really, really well.

Stray observations:

  • The Senior Superlatives storyline might not have worked as a whole, but Eden Sher still scored at least two laugh-out-loud moments: her walk when she was trying to sell herself to Brad as Biggest Flirt, and – cheap though it may have been – when she slammed her head into the locker. Damn, that made me laugh.
  • Weird Ashley was even weirder than usual, possibly to make up for lost time, but it was great to see her again, and it’s nice to know that we could potentially see her again…just as long as we don’t see her too often. (She’s definitely a best-in-small-doses kind of character.)
  • “Remembering birthdays is more of a mom thing.” Oh, Mike, you’re such an old-school dad.
  • Am I the only one who actually liked Sue’s “dramatic” hairstyle? Because call me crazy, but I liked it very much.
  • Best bit from the Axl / Devin spats: Axl arguing that he and Weird Ashley never dated, and Devin struggling to reconcile that claim with the pictures from three different proms that Ashley showed her.
  • Actually, I stand corrected: Eden Sher earned a third laugh-out-loud moment with her shocked delivery of the line, “That was a teacher!” And then a few seconds later, Brad earned an out-loud laugh, too, when he declared, “Tap dancing in a mermaid costume? Now that’s a talent!”
  • If I had to pick a favorite topic from Brick Talks, it’d probably be “Oddly Shaped Fruits.” But only because “The Glass is Half Music” seems less like a topic than a future off-Broadway production waiting to happen.
  • I discussed how we saw a different side of Axl during his storyline, but I neglected to mention that we saw a different side of him during Brick’s storyline, too. They’re very different people who have precious little in common, but Axl clearly knows more about Brick than anyone else in that house does, which is kind of sweet.

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The Goldbergs: “Barry Goldberg’s Day Off”

Last year, The Goldbergs offered up an episode-long homage to The Goonies (“Goldbergs Never Say Die!”), and given that it turned out to be both a fun little love letter to the film and a highlight of the series’ first season, it’s no surprise that they’ve decided to make it an annual tradition and pay tribute to a different ‘80s movie every year.

This year, the honoree is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, except - as you can see from the title - Mr. Bueller’s role is being filled by one Barry Goldberg…most of the time, anyway. As it turns out, Barry and Adam are both huge fans of the film, seemingly only taking time out from quoting dialogue to argue which of them is the Ferris of the family, since neither of them is willing to accept that they might be Cameron. Erica, of course, is cast in the Jennifer Grey role, because…well, she’s the sister, so who else is she going to be? But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

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With the Goldberg boys’ Ferris fandom firmly established, the next step is to construct a skeleton of a storyline on which to hang the various bits of Bueller, which starts with Laney getting elected to the homecoming court, along with her ex-boyfriend, Anthony. This infuriates Erica, because she thought Laney had agreed with her that the homecoming court was for stupid, lame losers (which she did, but she totally wanted to be a part of it anyway), and it also upsets Barry, because floats are, as we all know, the most romantic mode of transportation. In an effort to win back the heart of his girlfriend – which he hasn’t actually even lost yet – Barry decides that he’s going to have a day off that’s as epic as Ferris Bueller’s, and we’re off and running.

Well, almost. We’ve also got to work Bev and Murray into this equation, which is why Bev suddenly decides to take on a part-time job at a friend’s flower shop, thereby getting her out of the house and leaving Murray at home when Barry fakes a fever. Yes, it’s kind of an out-of-nowhere plot development, but it’s a necessary one, since it’s hard to picture Barry successfully sneaking past Bev to secure his day off but surprisingly easy to imagine him getting past Murray. (You’re imagining it right now, aren’t you?) Plus, there’s a funny little set-up to the idea of Bev being something other than a mother, with her constant refrain, “I could’ve been a lawyer!”

With all the pieces in places, the real Ferris-inspired fun begins, with Barry trying to borrow Pops’ Firebird, only to find out that Adam wants in on the day off, which results in all three of them heading over to pick up Laney. This also fails to turn out as Barry has planned, which becomes the recurring motif of the day, but there are still a number of wonderful recreations – or semi-recreations, at least – of key moments from the film, and it’s a joy to see them unfolding throughout the course of the episode.

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The reason “Barry Goldberg’s Day Off” works as well as it does is that it keeps you guessing about what sort of Ferris Bueller joke you’re going to get next. Some are near-Xeroxes of bits from the movie while others are more of a general homage. Sometimes there’s a line from the movie that’s delivered incidentally, as when Erica snaps, “I want out of this family,” while other times there’s unabashed recitation of material, but even then you’re not sure if it’ll turn out that Barry’s talking to Adam’s camera or if he’s talking to some classmate who doesn’t even know who he is. Oh, sure, the noisiest callback to the original film comes courtesy of Charlie Sheen, but I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t laugh at his reaction to being told he could leave the police station: “It’s about time: I feel like I’ve been waiting for 30 fucking years!”

The best part of the episode is the ending. Not only does Barry Goldberg finally get to live his dream and become Ferris Bueller, at least for the duration of “Twist and Shout,” delivering a performance which legitimizes Barry and Laney as a couple, but Adam realizes that his destiny is not to be Ferris or Cameron but – you guessed it – John Hughes. Okay, fair enough, it probably has an additional level of emotional heft to it because Adam F. Goldberg has made it abundantly clear that he’s putting a whole lot of his real life on the screen for this series, but it’s still a great moment.

Oh, right, I almost forgot: Bev bails on the flower shop job, having realized that she’s best suited to be a mom. But we already knew that anyway.

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“Barry Goldberg’s Day Off” isn’t The Goldbergs’ best episode - for better or worse, it’s too gimmicky to earn that title - but it’s definitely one of the best. Now we just have to sit back and see what movie they tackle in Season Three.

Stray observations:

  • First and foremost, go check out Adam F. Goldberg’s Twitter feed. It’s filled with screenshots from tonight’s episode side by side with moments from the original movie. You’ll love it…and you’ll also see how much love the guy put into this homage.
  • “I’ll be the Camden, the two of you can be the Fergus.” A) George Segal is awesome, and B) I would buy that t-shirt in a heartbeat.
  • “Are you saying ‘sweet butter’?”
  • If I were to give out an award for Best Line Reading, it would go to
    Sean Giambrone for his “Soft Pretzel Emperor” introduction.
  • We got a little too much Creepy Bev in the episode for my liking, particularly when she dived into the pool to save Barry, but Wendi McLendon-Covey’s delivery was way too funny for me to hate on that but so much.
  • I had never heard that “Ferris wasn’t real” theory. But apparently it’s actually a thing.
  • You want to know why this review took so long to post? Because all I really wanted to do was go watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off…until about 30 minutes ago, at which point all I wanted to do was go to bed. And with that, good night, folks.

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