Last week’s episode of The Middle was a slightly disappointing affair, which, in addition to offering a Sue storyline that felt depressingly recycled and somewhat cartoonish, brought up a few questions that the producers would’ve probably preferred for viewers to avoid contemplating… like, say, “If Axl’s professors are saying it’s mathematically impossible for him to get a passing grade in their class at this point, then wouldn’t it also be too late for him to drop the class without penalty?”
Well, yeah, probably. But the show’s clearly sticking with the premise as it’s been established whether you buy into it or not, and given how Axl’s academic woes led to so many fantastic moments in this week’s episode, I’m going to allow it.
There’s plenty of evidence to support the theory that holidays bring out the best in The Middle, but “Thanksgiving V” finds the show at its absolute best, turning in an installment that’s arguably the strongest Turkey Day installment in the series’ history. Sure, it’s possible that part of the reason I dug it so much is that it comes on the heels of an episode that I didn’t entirely love, but I don’t think so. Even setting aside the misfires of last week, we saw all of the series regulars getting a chance to shine at some point or other, the guest stars were all well-utilized, fans were thrown a few callbacks to earlier episodes, and surely everyone nodded their head at least once in recognition of actions or statements echoing those of someone in their own family.
That’s not just a top-notch Thanksgiving episode. That’s just good TV, period.
The proceedings kick off with Frankie and Sue prepping to venture into the horror show that is Midnight Madness shopping, with a nod toward the fact that—even though we haven’t seen her there recently—Sue is still working at the potato place and, as a result, actually has the money to buy her family decent Christmas presents this year. There’s also a quick reference to last year’s Thanksgiving fiasco when an obviously-relieved Frankie mentions to Mike that it’ll be a comparatively relaxing dinner this year, since his brother and dad won’t be there, Aunt Edie’s living it up in Branson (man, what I wouldn’t give to see that trip play out in a series of webisodes), and “there’s no Marines to offend.” Frankie also casually throws in that Mike needs to go pick up her parents, since her mom’s foot is giving her trouble and her dad’s decided he’s no longer fit to drive. While it inspires a great rant from Mike about how there are certain procedures one must follow before they stop driving, including a couple of wrecks and a family intervention, Axl steps in to save the day by offering to pick up his grandparents.
It’s merely a ploy, of course: Axl still hasn’t told his parents that he’s dropped those three classes, but—as he reveals to Brick—his plan is to tell his grandparents first, reasonably presuming that their more extensive life experience will give them better perspective and that they’ll see that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not such a big deal. In fact, his grandparents’ reaction is one of the funniest moments of the night, with Tag delivering a perfectly-timed “you dumb son of a bitch” and Pat hitting him with her rolled-up magazine and calling the situation “a disaster!” But that’s only the beginning of Axl’s miscalculations. In a series of events reminiscent of his attempts to tell his parents about his scholarship, only to be foiled at every attempt, Axl tries to find the perfect moment to break the news about how he’s had to lighten his class load by 75 percent, only to have someone else’s screw-up take center stage instead… starting with his grandparents.
There was a time when Jerry Van Dyke was only viewed as Dick Van Dyke’s younger brother, but nine seasons as Luther Van Dam on Coach secured his reputation as a damned funny comedian in his own right, and his work in tonight’s episode was yet another reminder of just how hilarious he can be. Beyond his reaction to Axl’s academic situation, it was a thing of beauty to watch Tag bounce between being petrified about how Pat was going to react when she found out he’d lost the money for their Christmas cruise playing online poker (which is particularly funny if you know that Van Dyke himself is actually a pretty great poker player) and his frightening intensity when trying to force Mike to follow his sketchily-orchestrated plan. Marsha Mason doesn’t get nearly as much to do—although, in fairness, her biggest job is really to be the straight man to Van Dyke, anyway—but she strikes some highly familiar grandmotherly notes when she helpfully provides Axl and Sue with articles she’s clipped for them on things like, for instance, the dangers of sexting. (“It’s not good, Sue,” says Pat, solemnly.)
The other big bombshell of the evening: Frankie’s abhorrent behavior while she and Sue were out on their Midnight Madness shopping expedition, which—what luck! —was captured on video and is broadcast on the local news. The shell-shocked look and actions of Sue after she and her mother returned from their trip indicated that there was more to the story that hadn’t yet been told, but given Sue’s tendency to make mountains out of molehills when it comes to ethical lapses, it was hard to say if the atrocity that had been committed was simply a case of Frankie convincing Sue to buy something for herself instead of a gift for someone else. The biggest surprise of the storyline, though, was the decision to have Frankie use the family’s economic situation as her defense, telling her judgy-eyed audience, “That’s what it takes to pull off Christmas with no money… and it’s not pretty!” I’m not saying that people don’t get way too insane on Black Friday (or Thursday or Wednesday or whenever the hell the sales start now), but she’s right: A lot of people do dive headlong into the insanity because it’s the only way they can afford really awesome presents on a really shitty budget. It’s why my mother did it, and it’s why my wife does it. Granted, they’ve never made it on the evening news, but I still appreciate the point that was being made.
Man, this really was a tightly-packed episode: I haven’t even gotten to the unexpected guests at the Heck’s table. Jack McBrayer teeters—you may say he’s already toppled—on the verge of being seen as a one-note comedian, but his innocent, flustered persona was put to perfect use in the episode as he was being fiercely hit on by Rusty’s (as it turns out) ex-wife, Marlene, played with just the right level of lasciviousness by Mary Birdsong. It’s a shame that Marlene’s wayward ways meant that we didn’t get a Norm MacDonald appearance, but as a plot development, their divorce is hardly a surprising one. Plus, the additional attendees made for some great visual gags, including the adding of new tables and chairs to accommodate everyone and Frankie having to keep whipping up new batches of instant potatoes.
Oh, and let’s not forget Brick’s lime Jell-O salad. I don’t know any other show that could’ve wrung that many laughs out of that concept, but it was easily my favorite running joke of the night, mostly because it was so multi-layered. You got an instant back-story dating back 10 years, jokes about Frankie’s predictability when it comes to forgetting to do things she’s promised to do, Brick’s tendency to shift into bitchiness at the drop of a hat (“Maybe we could do a taste test against the one you made”), sight gags about the consistency of the Jell-O (the best of which involved Brick sucking a Skittle onto the end of his straw), and an unexpected payoff with Brick becoming sick and almost comatose as a result of sucking down what Axl describes as “that pan of pus.” Yum!
Which, conveniently enough, brings us back to Axl, who does indeed finally get around to breaking the news to his parents that he’s dropped three out of his four classes, only to be blindsided by Mike’s decision to respond only with three calmly delivered words: “It’s your life.” And, man, there is just nothing worse than having one of your parents pull that shit on you. For the longest time, you’re convinced that the other shoe is still going to drop, just when you least expect it, and you’re going to get what’s coming to you… except it never does.
And if you’re like Axl, it doesn’t need to, because you already know exactly what would’ve been said if it had, so what’s the point? Once you’re in college, it really is just like Mike tells Axl: “It’s your life now, and it’s up to you how it all goes. It doesn’t matter what I want. It’s what you want.” By the end of the episode, Axl’s talking a good game about everything he’s planning to do when he gets back to college, but we all know that there’s no way he’s going to make good on all of those vows. What is pretty certain, though, is that when he fucks up in the future, he’ll know that he’s only got himself to blame.
Nice work, Mike.
- I had an advance screener of this week’s episode, so when I saw the dog make his brief appearance, I dropped a line to the producers and asked about the spelling of his name. I am redeemed: It is spelled just like the actor’s name. Sorry, “Colin Furth” fans.
- Also confirmed by the producers: the Rusty / Marlene divorce was completely incidental to the fact that Norm MacDonald’s schedule did not allow him to participate in the Thanksgiving episode. Rest assured, however, that they still plan to have Norm come back and hope to make it happen soon.
- Given that my family and I were driving through our neighborhood last weekend and saw more than a few houses already decked out in full holiday décor, Frankie’s description of Thanksgiving as “a pit stop on the racetrack to Christmas” in the opening moments of the episode really hit home… and not in a good way. I hate that it’s become that way.
- I liked Axl’s commentary on grandparents (they’re great if you want fudge, but if you need something real, forget it), but I liked Brick’s follow-up question better: “But they did bring fudge, right?”
- It was a throwaway visual gag, but I still loved Pat’s excitement about her light-up glasses from SkyMall.
- As noted, Jerry Van Dyke’s performance was consistently awesome, but excluding the fact that he was swayed into spending more money on online poker because “this cyber-girl comes up with a big rack, wanting me to buy more chips,” my favorite bits were the moments when he got frustrated at Mike for one reason or another. (“Well, then you shouldn’t have borrowed all that money!”)
- “You know there’s a bottle cap in there, right?” “Yep!”
- “This guy’s killing me! Who invited the happy cruiser?”
- Brick’s best non-Jell-O related gag was his initial uncertainty and eventual remembrance that Marlene absolutely did marry Uncle Rusty in their backyard.
- To close with a bit of unabashed self-promotion, the turnaround time between getting the interviews and needing to have them posted was so short that there was no point in pitching them to The A.V. Club, but on Friday I had a very nice chat with Jack McBrayer about his recurring role on the show—it’s over at Bullz-Eye.com—and then on Monday I had the honor of spending 15-20 minutes on the phone with the one and only Jerry Van Dyke, which you can find at Popdose.com.