The Middle: “Survey Says…”

As we move rapidly toward the end of The Middle’s seventh season, confident in the knowledge that an eight season has already been locked in, there’s no real concern that the series is going to end in a cliffhanger, but we’ve moving in a direction where it’s fair to start wondering exactly how much things are liable to change for the Hecks over the course of the summer.

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Boy, these kids are really growing up fast, aren’t they? Actually, it’s more appropriate to call it a growth spurt: Axl and Sue spent an extended amount of time going through the throes of adolescence – we’re talking the better part of six seasons – but over the course of this past year they’ve finally started to steer in the direction of adulthood. Granted, it’s been a slow process, but they’re definitely evolving away from the follies of youth and into a realm where they’re more aware of the responsibilities that await them when they’re finished with college. And in turn, Mike and Frankie are realizing that the tactics they once used to keep their children in line aren’t working as well as they used to, which is both starting to piss them off and making them long for the innocence of their children’s youth.

The structure of this week’s episode is interesting, using Brick’s trials and tribulations with graph paper as a very thin skeleton to drape the Frankie / Sue and Mike / Axl stories over. There’s really no need to go into great detail about the goings-on with the graph paper, except to say that the amount of effort that Brick puts into grading the quality of the paper is agonizing, hilarious, and something that’s hard to imagine any other show taking the time to do. The best moment in all of Brick’s scenes was probably the back-and-forth between Brick and Mike, with Brick asking Mike’s advice on how he should rate the graph paper, Mike effectively saying, “That’s fine, do whatever you want to do, I don’t really care,” and Brick still continuing to barrage him with questions. There’s not really a lot to it, but barring any plots involving Planet Nowhere, this still might well be the most perfectly Brick storyline in the run of the series to date. That’s a pretty awesome accomplishment at this point in the game.

Now we come to Axl and Sue, who’ve both reached turning points in their lives: he’s finally decided that the time has come to tell Mike that he’s tired of playing football, and she’s finally found a boyfriend whose interests have helped broaden her world view, for better or worse. In Sue’s case, her new fascination with what’s terrible in the world and what can be done to fix what’s wrong is helping her grow up, and you can’t argue with that. Unfortunately, nor are you allowed to argue with any of the sides that she might take in any particular battle, because she’s fully prepared to take you down if the circumstances demand it. She also doesn’t hesitate to leap to the defense of the many statements that come out of her new boyfriend Jeremy’s mouth.

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That’s right, Sue’s dating Protest Boy, a fact which Frankie learns when she drives up to the school to have lunch with her daughter. It doesn’t even take the entire meal for her to get totally sick of him, but she tries to keep a stiff upper lip throughout, Soon, though, she and Frankie really get into it, with Frankie declaring Jeremy to be “a knob” and telling her that if he wants to change the world, he should start by being less of a douche. It’s too much for Sue, who steps away from the conversation altogether, leaving Frankie in search of any sort of alcoholic beverage to help dull the pain.

And then there’s Axl, who can’t seem to get through to his dad that he’s tired of playing football and instead wants to spend the remainder of his time in college on his studies, possibly on an internship, and maybe even having fun. Mike can’t completely wrap his head around the situation, particularly not how Axl thinks he’s going to be able pay for his remaining education without having his football scholarship. It leads to a tense back-and-forth between father and son on the college campus, one which ends with Axl driving off in the Winnebago, leaving Mike standing all by his lonesome. Needless to say, he finds himself in need of a drink, too, and before too long, Mike and Frankie are together again, sitting at a bar that’s offering 10-cent drinks.

How much do they drink? Enough to result in a scene that starts out as one of the funniest in recent memory, thanks to Patricia Heaton’s skill at playing drunk, and ends up inspiring tears, courtesy of a tour-de-force performance by Neil Flynn. For as often as The Middle has been going to the “our kids are growing up, and things are never going to be the same again” well in recent weeks, hearing Mike reflect on how his fondest moments in life were when he was at the wheel, driving his family, takes things to a whole other level, and it’s a beautiful level, to be sure.

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The next morning, it’s basically a given that Mike’s going to reconcile with Axl about not playing football, but he’s right om with his remarks: at 22, Axl’s earned the right to make his own decisions. Meanwhile, when Sue returns home to do her laundry, she’s got a stern look on her face and originally has plans to stick to silence, but when she finally opens her mouth to say that she’s sorry that they fought, she’s not backing down: she explains that she’s got her own opinions, i.e. she’s not just matching hers to Jeremy’s, and she cares very deeply. In fact, she cares so much that it’s kind of freaking her out and making her wonder if she’s wasting her time caring when she’s just going end up like Frankie, anyway. Thankfully, Frankie assures Sue that she’s always going to care just enough. Somehow, that rings true.

Stray observations:

  • It’s such a perfectly Frankie line to reveal that she ran into Office Depot to buy a Snickers.
  • Bread heels and onion soup? Sounds like my house!
  • “So that’s a no on the mozzarella sticks, then?”
  • I laughed so hard at one of Sue’s political rants that I didn’t finish writing down my notes, but the one that referenced how she couldn’t enjoy a Bugs Bunny cartoon now because it’s like it’s mocking transgender bunnies… That was just awesome.
  • Hey, everybody, let’s kick back and watch a movie with too many white people!
  • I can’t entirely believe she’s still alive, but…we saw Doris! Hooray!

EDIT: Either because of a glitch or because I was freaking exhausted, my original grades for The Middle (A) and The Goldbergs (B+) ended up being transposed when the review was originally posted, and by the time I realized the error, I found that I couldn’t remember why I’d given The Goldbergs a B+ rather than an A-. In summation, the grades you see now are the grades I stand by, I apologize for the confusion, and in the future I’ll try to finish these things before dawn so that I can actually still be coherent by the time I’ve completed them.

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The Goldbergs: “Rush”

Ever since Johnny Atkins became a recurring member of The Goldbergs’ high school crowd, regularly spotlighting a new addition to his disconcertingly large Rush t-shirt collection, it’s seemed as though the series has been inching toward an episode which would take Atkins’ obsession with the work of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart and put it center stage…or has it? Is it possible that I simply took my own appreciation of Rush and deluded myself into developing a scenario where we’d actually get a Rush-centric episode?

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Well, either way, you can still probably imagine my excitement when an episode actually entitled “Rush” appeared on the horizon.

There’s a little bit of backpedaling involved, however, to take Johnny’s Rush fandom and put it center stage. It was already clarified earlier this season that Murray has disliked the lad from the first moment he met him, which is also approximately when it was established that Erica’s interest in Johnny was fleeting. (We’d guess that it fled at the precise moment that he tried to turn their date to the school dance into a threesome.) So what could possibly change the status quo between the two teens so suddenly that they’re making out before the opening credits have even started rolling?

Two words: “Tom Sawyer.”

With one listen to the iconic single, Erica is an instant Rush fan…and not just a casual, fly-by-night Rush fan, either. (Ironically, most casual Rush fans don’t actually own Fly by Night.) In short order, Erica is furiously making out with Johnny in his car, smitten by the man who’s introduced her to this glorious music, and precious little time has passed before she’s started playing keyboards and singing backup vocals for his Rush cover band.

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The latter event takes place mostly because Murray’s dislike for Johnny is so profound that when he bars Erica from going out with him, Erica gets pissed off and tries to work out how to annoy her dad as much as possible. Her solution: to not actually go anywhere and simply practice with Johnny’s band in the garage. Murray is beside himself about how to stop the relationship in its tracks, but Pops is trying to remind him as coolly and calmly as possible that he just needs to tolerate it for the timing being, lest he do more damage to his relationship with Erica by trying to force her to get rid of Johnny. Naturally, the wise old man knows best, but not only does Murray not follow suit on the advice Pops gives him, he actually corrals Erica’s family, friends, and coworkers and effectively stages an intervention to tell her what a complete shit heel she’s dating. In response, she assures them that she’s going to take Johnny’s side over the opinions of all of the “ass clowns” who’ve come over to talk trash about her boyfriend, confirming Lainey’s diagnosis that Erica is merely being stubborn and has decided to dig in rather than discuss the situation.

Naturally, it’s almost immediately thereafter that Erica manages to drive away Johnny, who “doesn’t put labels on things” but still manages to get pissed off when it becomes evident that Erica is really only in a relationship with him to make her dad angry. Left all by her lonesome, Erica is unsurprisingly open to conversation when her father reinitiates communication with her and admits something that we already knew: he was really just trying to be a good dad. Hey, at least he’s trying, right? Plus, when all’s said and done, Erica’s Rush phase proves to be decidedly short-lived: by the end of the episode, she’s already moved on to start emulating the look of The Cure.

Meanwhile, the rest of the episode is revolving around Adam’s birthday. More specifically, it’s about Bev’s decision to give Adam a fake Oscar for Best Son as a way of steering him toward her idea for his birthday party and how Barry’s reaction to the faux award causes Bev to shower him with all of the affection she usually lavishes on Adam. While Barry briefly believes that getting an upgrade to Mom’s Favorite is going to be the best thing ever – at long last, it’s his portrait that’s the biggest of the three kids – he soon realizes that he can’t possibly keep up with the amount of power chili and buttermilk that Bev wants him to devour.

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Similarly, Adam’s attempts to organize his own birthday party without the benefit of Bev’s assistance prove so frustrating that he eventually feels like he has no real choice but to concede that he wants Bev back, which he gets without a moment’s hesitation. Naturally, this is a deal which comes with all the strings attached and will lead Adam to be the victim of random snuggles for the remainder of his existence, but if it makes Bev happy, that’s what counts.

Stray observations:

  • As much as I may have twitched at the show’s creation of a strange alternate timeline where A Flock of Seagulls, Cyndi Lauper, and Debbie Gibson are all experiencing the height of their respective popularities at the same time. It was still worth it to see Jeff Schwartz’s Mike Score ‘do.
  • Rush: they’re from Canada, where “it’s super cold, so they have to rock super hard to stay warm.”
  • Stephen Lucas and George Spielberger are clearly names to watch.
  • Nice callback to ”Love Ninja.”
  • Arguably the most surprising moment of the episode, and some will undoubtedly feel that it’s one of the most surprising moments of the entire run of The Goldbergs to date, takes place when we get the requisite cut to a video-taped excerpt from Adam’s real life…specifically, from his bar mitzvah. After lo these many episodes, is that fake Oscar really as close as we’re going to get to seeing Adams’ bar mitzvah?
  • Lastly, if you’ve got a favorite Rush song and/or album, that’s what the comments section is for. Me, I saw them when they came to Hampton Coliseum when they were touring behind Grace Under Pressure, so I’ll always have a soft spot for that album, and I’ll never not love “Distant Early Warning.”

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