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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Middle: “The Answer” / The Goldbergs: “Van People”

Illustration for article titled iThe Middle/i: “The Answer” / iThe Goldbergs/i: “Van People”
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The Middle: “The Answer”

It’s a rarity for The Middle to offer up a full-fledged cliffhanger like they did last week, but make no mistake: leaving viewers wondering whether or not Sue was going to accept Darrin’s proposal was very much a cliffhanger.


Not so much because people were desperate to know whether she said “yes” or “no,” I suspect, but because they wanted to see Mike’s reaction to the news. I mean, hey, I admit it, I was in that camp, and as a father of a daughter myself, I’m thrilled to say that I ran out of fingers when counting off phrases that I am excited at the prospect of using someday.

But now that we do know Sue’s answer and how things ultimately played out between her and Darrin, I find that I’m both sad for her because of what she had to leave behind and happy for her because of the experiences she’ll now be able to have.

When we first see Sue, she’s got a gaze which resembles that of a deer in headlights, and it’s a look which carries over to when we see her for the second time: not only is she still shell-shocked from Darrin’s proposal and concerned about how positively she may have responded to it, but she’s petrified at how poorly her parents might handle the news. They handle it very poorly indeed, which in turn sends her into an emotional spiral that leads her back into her bedroom to contemplate the situation, but after thinking long and hard about it (and thereby giving Frankie and Mike time to consider whether or not they’ve failed as parents), she ultimately decides that she doesn’t want to marry Darrin. Unfortunately, she’s kind of already told Darrin that she does want to marry him, which sets off a series of failed attempts by Sue to set him straight before she finally succeeds.

Is it ridiculous that it takes Sue as long as it does to finally say, “I don’t want to marry you”? Not when you consider her actions last season during “The Walk,” wherein she had five dates to the prom at one point because she felt bad saying “no” to any of the guys who’d asked her. Is it coincidence that I should be citing precedent from that particular episode, which ended with Sue and Darrin sharing a kiss and starting up their relationship again? Yeah, it probably is. But what I’m saying is that a pattern has been established with Sue’s behavior, and she was working well within that pattern this week.


What we also see this week is Sue trying to fight off the instincts that keep her comfortably ensconced in immaturity and start to grow up a little, even if that growth proves elusive for the majority of the episode, even reaching a point of desperation where she finds herself saying that, yes, she does want her daddy to fight her battles for her. But when she realizes the turmoil that her actions have caused in the family, she also remembers something about herself that we’ve never forgotten: Sue Heck is not a quitter. With that, she’s off to Darrin’s house to get the job done, for real this time.

Watching tonight’s episode brought to mind an unattributed quote that I’ve seen floating around the internet: “When a girl thinks of her future with her boyfriend, it’s normal, but when a guy thinks of his future with his girlfriend, he’s serious.”


Yeah, yeah, it’s clearly a completely sexist statement on the surface, because there are tons of guys who habitually think about spending the rest of their life with the girl they’re seeing, just as there are plenty of girls who could give a shit about the long-term prospects of the guy with whom they’re whiling away the hours. But I’m not really looking at it head on.

As a 17-year-old high school student, it is perfectly normal for Sue to be thinking of her future with her boyfriend, but the key word is “thinking.” That’s not to say that her thoughts about her future with Darrin aren’t serious, but they’re no more serious than any other “what if?” scenario that might cross her mind. Right now, her focus is on the issues that are right in front of her: graduating from high school, getting into college, and figuring out how to assist her parents in paying for her college education. Has she been imagining a future where Darrin’s in the picture? It would seem that she has, at least in some vague fashion, but Sue being the generally unshakeable optimist that she is, it’s probably not much more developed than theorizing, “Well, we’re together now, so why wouldn’t we be together in the future?”


And Darrin? Well, as a high school graduate who’s chosen his career path and is already trying to make inroads into that career, he’s thinking of his future with his girlfriend and, yes, his thoughts are serious. In fact, they’re very serious, because he doesn’t have to worry about the things that are keeping her up at night, because he’s moved past that stage of his life.

In other words, both this girl and this guy are thinking about exactly what they should be thinking about for where they are in life…and therein lies the problem: they’re not in the same place, and they never will be. Oh, sure, they could be, if only he was willing to wait for her to catch up. But he’s not. And even if he was, she cares too much for him to ask him to do that for her.


Well, probably, anyway. I mean, she is her mother’s daughter, after all, so it’s not impossible that she could say, “You’ll wait? Oh, gee, thanks, Darrin! Pick me up after college graduation?”

But, no, I really can’t imagine Sue doing anything but what she did: getting briefly upset before accepting the reality of the situation and walking away to find solace in the arms of her family, who’ve got a bed snuggle ready and waiting for her when she gets home.


Which reminds me: we haven’t even discussed the rest of the family. In the kickass-callback column, to have Axl take his C+ in Psychology and work out that the reason for Brick’s tics can be traced back to the fact that he’s had to spend years sitting in a lawn chair at the kitchen table…well, that’s just genius, frankly. It’s completely secondary to the Sue/Darrin storyline, obviously, but it’s still the sort of thing that longtime fans will geek out about, and rightfully so. Beyond that, Axl’s reaction to Sue’s proposal is perfectly in character, in that he finds himself evenly split between his instincts as a protective big brother and his desire to play the “I told you so” card. Similarly, I couldn’t help but notice that, as Sue was citing the things she hoped to experience in the future, when it came to the college experience, everything she listed was something that Axl had done. I found that gesture particularly moving, but maybe that’s just because I’ve got a little sister.

Then again, maybe it’s because The Middle has been – and continues to be – one of the most relatable series on television.


Stray observations:

  • One of these days, I hope we get more information about Brick eating an entire pencil over the course of a week, because that seems like a tale that’s more than worth telling.
  • Swaddling: the next big thing? Time will tell.
  • I have already expressed my love of just about everything that came out of Mike’s mouth tonight, so much so that it would be a pointless gesture to list off favorites, but let me also make note of Neil Flynn’s fantastic facial contortions when Frankie tells Sue that of course she can sleep in their bed. Not that I feel comfortable speaking for every father in the world, but I’m pretty sure that most of us have made faces like that after being unexpectedly informed that we’re going to be sleeping three to a bed for all the wrong reasons.
  • And to think that none of this would’ve happened if Axl hadn’t brought Darrin home for a playdate when he was four…
  • Just as a personal sidebar, this whole Darrin-proposing-to-Sue storyline reminded me of how befuddled I was in my junior year of high school when I asked someone to a dance - a senior who I’d become friends with because we were both SCA officers - and received a very sweet, apologetic “no” because she was engaged to a guy who’d graduated the previous year. I was completely blindsided - I hadn’t met her until that year and only knew her from school, so I had every reason to believe that she was single, and she was sweet enough that I was sure she’d say “yes” - so it was a confusing, heartbreaking moment, one which was made worse when I decided it was a good idea to go to the wedding that summer. It was, as anyone out of their teens and not harboring a crush on the bride would have known, a very, very terrible idea. Unfortunately, I was neither. Sigh.

The Goldbergs: “Van People”

After delivering a contender for Best Episode Ever last week, it was reasonable to presume that this week’s installment of The Goldbergs would be a step down, but while “Van People” isn’t quite the tour de force that “Cowboy Country” was, it’s certainly not a step backwards. Indeed, it finds the show continuing to move in the right direction, hitting some wonderful emotional notes while successfully incorporating a bit of silliness without it being a distraction.


Adam’s storyline revolves around class superlatives, which I don’t remember ever coming into play until my senior year of high school, but apparently some middle schools designate them as well, because Adam is semi-devastated when he fails to be named Class Clown but succeeds in being designated as his class’s Nicest Guy, which is just the worst thing ever.

Okay, so maybe it’s not, but it’s hard to call it a compliment when you consider how many rejections have started out with the words, “Look, you’re a nice guy, but…”


In hopes of salvaging his (non-existent) reputation as the funniest guy in his class, or at least beating out the not-as-funny-as-everyone-seems-to-think-he-is David Sirota, Adam tries to figure out how to sell his classmates on the idea that he’s hilarious, seeking advice from Pops, who breaks out his banjo and praising obscure comics from the Catskills. Concerned that his grandfather’s comedic points of reference may not current enough, Adam opts to memorize jokes from some of his own favorite stand-ups, including Sam Kinison, Gallagher, and Andrew “Dice” Clay, in hopes of impressing his peers. When his performance of the Diceman’s “Old Mother Hubbard” rhyme doesn’t go over so well with Pops, he instead decides to hone his skills as an insult comic on his family, only to bomb in a big, big way.

“The problem…is that you horribly misinterpreted my advice,” explains Pops, but when he gives Adam further advice, the kid goes on to misinterpret that, too, making a fake cake for his chemistry teacher, Mr. Woodburn (returning guest star Dan Bakkedahl), and breaking the poor man’s spirit in the process. In turn, Bev and Murray are called in to talk to the principal (Stephen Tobolowsky, also back for a return engagement), thereby tying Adam’s story into Barry and Erica’s adventures…but we’ll get to that. For now, all you need to know is that Adam realizes – thanks in no small part to Dana making him feel like shit, and reasonably so – that there’s nothing wrong with being a nice guy, so he makes amends to Mr. Woodburn, apologizes to Dana for getting so wound up, and all’s right with the world once more…well, you know, aside from the fact that he’s not Class Clown. But, hey, the Nicest Guy grew up to create his own sitcom, and the Class Clown ended up as a political commentator. You just never know what surprises adulthood is going to hold, do you?


The other big storyline of the episode revolves around Erica and Murray, who may not seem to be a lot alike on the surface but nonetheless share a tenacity and stubbornness which leads to major tension between them on a regular basis. In this instance, what almost brings them to blows is Erica’s refusal to fill up Murray’s gas tank when she uses the car, a conflict which finally comes to a head when she cons Barry into going in with her on a vehicle, so that they can bypass Murray’s gas-tank rules. Since Barry’s got the majority of the money, to say the least, he makes the purchase: a black van with bald tires, a busted headlight, and an oil leak.

Bev calls the vehicle a death trap, but Barry doesn’t care, because it makes him feel like he’s leading the A-Team, particularly after Erica gives him the go-ahead to paint a red stripe on the van. Unfortunately, Murray declares that they’re not allowed to set foot back in the house, and while Erica tries to put a positive spin on it, telling Barry to call it his “studio apartment of freedom,” it isn’t long before he’s miserable and starving. Fortunately, Bev senses his frustration and soon appears outside to offer him food, but Erica just gets even more pissed off , and – to tie this into Adam’s story – as Murray and Bev are talking to Adam’s principal, they discover that Erica’s planning to hop a bus and head to New York in order to avoid having to live under Murray’s roof.


As it turns out, though, it’s not true: when they get home, they find Erica sitting outside on the porch swing, staring into space. Stepping outside as Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s “The Way It Is” begins to play, Murray sits down and has a heart-to-heart talk with his daughter about their mutual stubbornness, and how he knows it’s an attribute that’s going to pay off for her in the long run. How does he know this? From personal experience: if he hadn’t had such an “I won’t back down” attitude, he wouldn’t have gotten pissed off at a guidance counselor who told him he’d never go to college, studied his ass off out of spite, and ended up getting into Penn State, where he first met Bev. And as Murray’s little girl snuggles into his shoulder, comfortable in the knowledge that maybe her father knows her a little better than she thought he did, Erica’s dad admits that she still can’t venture into the real world for a few more years, because he’s not ready to let her go yet. Endings don’t come much sweeter than that.

Stray observations:

  • As I mentioned above, I didn’t have to deal with class superlatives until I was a senior, but when that time came, I was named Most Dedicated. I still don’t really know what the hell that means - I presume it had something to do with the fact that I was always running for office, even though that was really just a desperate attempt to become popular - but I do know this: the photo they took of me to accompany this “honor” was by far the worst photo taken of me for a school publication at any point in my 12 years of public education. (My wife will vouch for me on this.)
  • Dave Kim gets Best Hair on a Man? I can get behind that.
  • While I respect Adam’s opinion that farts are a cheap way to get laughs, mostly because he’s right, I respect far more that he calls them “poots.”
  • “As a science teacher, I command you to stop right now, in the name of Stephen Hawking!”
  • I demand to know whether it was Alex Barnow, who wrote the episode, or George Segal that was responsible for Pops dropping the name of Harry “Bottle” McNaughton, as I spent way more time that I should have finding out who the hell Harry McNaughton was and why his nickname was “Bottle.” (To save you the trouble that I went through, here’s your answer.)
  • In the midst of all of the great father-daughter material, there’s also a little exploration of the husband-wife dynamic between Murray and Bev, the best bit being his clarification that he defines supporting Bev as sitting in his chair and yelling, ”Listen to your mother!”
  • “Erica wins! She called me the TV character I like!”
  • I hope we see the van again. I’d like to test my theory that I will laugh every time Barry “sings” the A-Team theme. (I’m virtually positive that I will.)
  • I’d just like to close by saying how much I dug the use of “The Way It Is” in the episode. I’m partial to Bruce Hornsby anyway because of the fact that he’s kinda sorta from my area (I’m in Chesapeake, Virginia, and he’s from Williamsburg), but the first time I ever really took a girl on a proper date, one where I drove and where I paid for everything, was to see Bruce Hornsby and The Range at Chrysler Hall on their The Way It Is tour. Sadly, there was to be no second date, but, damn, was it a good show…

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