In the opening of this week’s episode of The Middle, Frankie bemoans how the winters in the Heck’s neck of the woods can be brutal, offering this as the reason why they particularly enjoy the first warm day of spring. As a TV critic, though, spring can really hang you up the most, due to the fact that it’s when most series end up delivering at least one episode that reveals just how exhausted the writers are and how badly they need a vacation. It’s been a very, very long time since The Middle has served up an installment that’s felt as unabashedly sitcom-y as “The Lanai” does, providing us with four storylines, all of which either fall flat, play out repetitively, or feel like they didn’t need to be told in the first place.

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This starts with the tale of the titular lanai (or patio, if you’d prefer to keep things a little less hoity-toity), which Dave and Jim have helped construct for Mike and Frankie. What seems like a nice gesture on their part is perceived by Brick as being little more than employees doing something for their boss because he’s their boss. This seems ludicrous to Mike at first, but before he’s even had a chance to finish scoffing at his son’s remark, he realizes that there really is a lack of friendship in the employee/employer relationship at his work, setting up a series of scenes where Mike tries and fails to redeem himself, with Brick basically giving him a “tsk, tsk” at every turn. In the end, after one last Hail Mary, it becomes evident that there’s no friendship between himself and Dave and Jim, and it likely never will be. Not exactly what you’d call the most upbeat storyline.

Frankie, meanwhile, is positively ecstatic about the fact that she’s finally gotten the lanai she’s purportedly always wanted, but her enjoyment is short-lived, due to her realization that a new family has finally moved in next door, and—oh, joy!—the husband and wife have three children, all of whom are super loud and love to play outside. Following a formula which quickly grows repetitive, Frankie keeps going over to visit the new neighbors and casually (but not really) trying to get the kids to either go inside or go somewhere else. She doesn’t really care where they go, frankly, just as long as they’re quiet. Eventually, their noise proves to be too much, resulting in an explosive conversation between Frankie and her neighbor, who explains that the reason her kids are being so rambunctious is that they’re used to living in an apartment and are just beside themselves about having so much space. Frankie understands and even looks a little apologetic, but to help shut them up, she starts having a stock of cookies beside her at all times, so she can hurl them over the fence as needed to calm down the wee beasties.

On to Axl and Hutch, who are sitting outside the RV, soaking up the sights of Halter Top Day and waiting for Kenny to fix them a grilled cheese sandwich, when a fellow student strolls up to the vehicle and asks for a sandwich. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to make money that involves someone else doing the heavy lifting, Axl shouts out, “Kenny! Order up!” And with that, so begins a scenario where Kenny’s doing all of the cooking and Axl and Hutch are working out how much cash they can pull in. As they slowly but surely begin to run out of ingredients, Axl assures a worried Hutch that there’s a time-proven method for handling the situation: keep cutting the quality until someone notices, by which point it won’t matter, since they’ll already be rich. Not long after that conversation, however, Kenny—fed up with the way Axl and Hutch have compromised his food art—quits as cook. Axl and Hutch stumble through for a bit longer, coming up with a few ingenious culinary inventions while they’re under the gun, but they soon retire for the day to count their money and make big plans for the future. Unfortunately, while doing so, they neglect to realize that they’ve left the burner on, resulting in a hole being burned in the roof. Oops.

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Lastly, there’s Sue, who—along with her roommate, Lexie—is participating in the dorm lottery, which apparently involves students to participate in a lottery at the end of every school year to determine where they’ll be living in the subsequent school year. Miraculously, they end up scoring the single biggest and nicest room on campus, and they’re so excited about their victory that they run straight to the room to start measuring it. In doing so, they meet the current residents, one of whom—Amber—has chronic fatigue syndrome, and having pulled one of the worst numbers in the lottery, they’re going to have to move somewhere that’s going to be majorly rough on Amber. Sue being Sue, she talks Lexie into agreeing to trade numbers with the girls, so that they can keep their room, and they’re feeling pretty noble about it until they see Amber playing volleyball and clearly not fatigued at all. In fact, it turns out that Amber has a twin sister. Who knew? Resigned to their fate, Sue and Lexie go check out their new new room. It’s awful. The end.

Okay, so it’s not as abrupt as all that, but looking back at the episode, it feels very much like an odds-and-sods affair that was thrown together as a stopgap measure. Even if it turns out to have been a well-considered effort, though, it’s still in no way up to the standards of a typical episode of The Middle.

Stray observations:

  • For anyone wondering about the absence of a Goldbergs review, I was originally planning to write up the clip show that filled the series’ usual space on the schedule, but the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t really see a point.
  • Mike seemingly gets through life by telling Frankie, “Anything for you, baby,” only to shake his head to anyone who’s been on the verge of building or fixing whatever she’s just asked him to handle.
  • “Yep: yelling’s annoying.”
  • This one little girl wasn’t allowed to watch Go, Diego, Go! So she got into her parents’ creme de mente, and…well, that’s probably enough for now.
  • Finally the RV warrants a joke I’d wanted since its first appearance: “It’s like Breaking Bad, but with grilled cheese!”
  • I don’t actually want to play Garbage Can Jenga. I’m just glad to know it exists.
  • I did love Frankie’s assurance about how bad the ticks would be in one attempt to get rid of the kids next door, only to be called on her claim later and have to counter it by saying, “Oh, well, there won’t be ticks there.
  • Just for anyone reading this and wondering, “Jesus, who shit in his cereal?” I’m riding on the high of actually getting a tax refund this year for the first time in half a decade, so I promise you that this isn’t just me having a bad day. This is just a sub-episode of the series. It happens. And that’s fine, just as long as it doesn’t become a recurring tendency.

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