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The Middle: “The Christmas Wall” / The Goldbergs, “The Most Handsome Boy on the Planet”

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The Middle: “The Christmas Wall”

If the producers of The Middle ever decide to hold a contest to pick a theme song for the series, I’d have to flip a coin between Jesus Jones’ “Real Real Real” and The Alarm’s “Absolute Reality,” because – and I realize I’ve said this before, but it’s no less true for that – there are precious few sitcoms that offer as many moments that feel like they’re ripped from real people’s lives. Granted, the storylines in this year’s Christmas episode weren’t necessarily all that elaborate, but they didn’t need to be.

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Things kick off with the Heck family on a shopping expedition to pick out the perfect artificial Christmas tree, although perfection and personal preferences ultimately take a backseat to the one that’s 50% off. In fairness, it’s probably best that Mike helped hurry along the decision-making process – per Frankie, they were parked in the loading zone, anyway – but when they get the very traditional-looking tree home, Mike discovers that he’s paid a price for picking the half-priced item: the top of the tree is MIA. Thus begins the saga of Mike, a man who hates going anywhere but home and work anyway, having to travel to no less than four different stores in an effort to get the tree he was supposed to have gotten in the first place, only to come up empty in the end…or, rather, with the bottom portion of the traditional-looking tree bearing the top from a pink tree. Neil Flynn is the master of frustrated expressions, which he gets to demonstrate repeatedly in this episode, but of those occasions, the best moments occur when he’s dealing with the sales clerk, who’s probably going to be haunted by memories of Mike Heck for the rest of his life, the poor bastard.

Axl may have the most absurd storyline of the episode, but damned if it wasn’t a funny one. What originally seemed like it was going to be just a Tarantino-esque conversation amongst the employees of Tree Wise Men – a subsidiary of Boss Co. – about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (“They wouldn’t let him play any reindeer games; that’s B.S., man”) turned into a full-fledged war of words between Axl and Sean over whether or not King Moonracer of the Island of Misfit Toys was, in fact, a toy or simply an awesome lion with wings. You know things are getting weird when Darren is put in a position where he has to be the voice of reason, but it was pretty great to see him deliberating on his decision for so long, only to try to make a mad dash for freedom rather than hurt his friends’ feelings by admitting that Axl was wrong. When he finally does, though, Axl sucks it up and accepts it, and the trio renew their bond of friendship by making snow angels together.

Given that this is the Year of Sue, it’s a bit of a bummer that Eden Sher didn’t get to do much in this episode, but without a specific storyline to call her own, she ends up being limited to helping play middle man to Darrin as he’s making his Rudolph judgment and reacting to Frankie’s decision to cut back on her Christmas spirit. Of course, given Sue’s love of each and every holiday, it’s funny to watch her shift from shock to horror when she realizes that her mother is serious about not being very Christmas-y, as well as when she tries and fails to figure out who’s responsible for traumatizing her mother so terribly, so she offers a blanket apology in hopes that it might help fix the problem, whatever it is. It doesn’t help, of course, but in the end, when Mike’s tale of woe sways Frankie to decorate the place after all, Sue is appropriately giddy.

Brick doesn’t get to do a huge amount more than Sue, but he does at least have a storyline of sorts, namely his fascination with the concept of Christmas letters and his desire to do one for the family. It seems pretty evident that the whole premise was established to give Brick a chance to write the Hecks’ Christmas letter, but so be it: from “Mom’s decided to stop wearing pants” to Mike and Frankie’s concerns about Sue “losin’ it,” it’s a letter worth waiting for.

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And so we come to Frankie, whose general holiday malaise inspires her to try and rediscover her Christmas spirit by refusing to embrace it. Oddly enough, the decision to blow off decorating the house and buying the appropriate wrapping paper and just kick back and enjoy the holiday does indeed reinvigorate her. Or maybe it’s the decision to follow in Axl’s footsteps and drop trou, crash on the couch, and eat snacks while watching crappy TV that causes the reinvigoration. Whatever the case, it works for her, and it probably would’ve seen her straight through to the end of the holiday season if Mike hadn’t admitted on Christmas Eve that he’d barely even celebrated Christmas until he started seeing her, and he actually kind of liked it. Once he said that, though, it was only inevitable that she’d say, “Aw, crap,” and shift into overdrive to get the whole house decorated by Christmas morning, making it a merry Christmas for all.

Stray observations:

  • Best callback of the episode: after Axl responds to Brick’s complaint about the smell of fake trees by telling him that if smelling weird was a reason not to bring things home, they would’ve left him at the hospital, Brick replies, “You did!
  • Putting together an artificial tree is so much less joyful than killing a real tree.
  • Hey, Frankie, I’m working on one of those billion-dollar bills for my daughter, so I’d love to see how you itemized the one you’ve been working on for Axl.
  • Biggest laugh of the episode for couples: Mike asking if Frankie walked the top of the tree into the bathroom because “I’m just sayin’: I find the remote in there all the time.”
  • “Emily! What up, girl? You and Marshall set a date yet?”
  • “Did you get into the eggnog already? There better be some left!”
  • “Is this because you think the holiday should be more about Jesus?”
  • Not that we didn’t know Frankie was a reality-TV junkie, but it’s nice to see that she’s branching out, genre-wise, to watch Chrome Underground.
  • It’s always nice to see Nancy Donahue stop by the show – have we seen her since the season premiere? – and I’ve gotta tell ya, I really thought Frankie was swaying her for a second there.
  • “Yes! Infinite Jest! I wanted this!”

The Goldbergs, “The Most Handsome Boy on the Planet”

For those of you who find Bev Goldberg’s closeness to her kids to be a little bit creepy at times, man, do I feel sorry for you, because there’s no way you’re not going to be having some fierce nightmares tonight after that mother-son photo shoot.

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Given that The Goldbergs takes place in the ‘80s, it’s a little surprising how little time we’ve spent in the mall, but the series makes up for that a bit this week, first by reminding us of the good old days when Spencer’s Gifts was a haven for mildly titillating merchandise – and, lest we forget, bad-ass black light posters – rather than the house of filth that it’s become. (Seriously, have you been into a Spencer’s recently? I’m embarrassed to take my daughter in there. I mean, I know they had less than family-friendly stuff on the shelves even way back in the day, but it didn’t used to be this bad.) While basking in the glow of his newly-purchased butt mug, however, Barry is approached by a sleazy gentleman named John Calabasas, a character that could never have been played by anyone but Rob Huebel, who assures our man Barry that a life of superstardom as a model is just around the corner.

Inevitably, Barry is stupid enough to believe the guy, and in turn Bev is supportive enough to instantly stroke him the necessary $100 check to get his modeling career started, rationalizing that the fact that the guy has a business card billing him as a “professional model finder” means that he must be legit. Still, Bev goes down to check out the place, just in case, but with her mom goggles still securely tightened, not only does she instantly decide that her snugglebug is gorgeous, but she gives off the radiant aura of a complete sucker, inspiring Calabasas to snow her into giving him another $100 check, this time to help secure her modeling career. That’s when the creepiness kicks in, and in the end the whole thing proves too much even for Barry, who finally shouts, “I don’t want to be a model anymore!” Bev doesn’t want to give up, envisioning the two of them as the Lennon and McCartney of mother-son modeling, but before she can do anything to fix the situation, Erica decides to bare her soul – and her portfolio – and admit that she’s had her own tragic run-in with Calabasas.

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Thankfully, Erica’s noble actions snap Bev out of her daze at least a little bit, sending Mama Bear to Calabasas’s studio to extract her revenge on the man who’s wronging her boy. After threatening to report him to the Better Business Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce, the six o’clock news, and maybe even his mother, Calabasas finally comes up with the best happy medium he’s willing to offer: making Barry a professional model, sort of, by putting him on the cover of his company’s brochure. It’s a small victory, yes, but it’s still a victory.

By the way, if it seems like I’m underselling this storyline, that’s mostly because the funniest bits of it were visual, making it hard to really explain if you haven’t seen it, but for those of us who lived through the ‘80s, there are a lot of all-too-familiar memories floating through the photo shoots, and they’re hysterical.

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The episode’s other storyline introduces Paul Sorvino to the universe of The Goldbergs, playing Murray’s dad…but let’s just call him Pop Pop, shall we? (From a casting standpoint, I don’t know that you could do much better than Sorvino for that role. He’s pretty perfect.) Adam and Murray spot Pop Pop walking by when they’re in line with Muscles Mirsky to see E.T. for the 10th time, and while Murray holds it together at first, it soon becomes apparent that the encounter with his dad has left Murray emotionally raw…so raw, in fact, that he bursts into tears during the film, leaving Adam horrified yet fascinated.

Naturally, Murray doesn’t want to discuss the matter, but Adam can’t resist playing the Han Solo in the situation and pulling the renegade move of inviting Pop Pop over to the house in an attempt to negotiate the strange relationship between his father and his grandfather. Although it comes out in funny fashion – and with some funny revelations, like the fact that Pop Pop has never forgiven Murray for turning him off the idea of investing in 7-Up because he hated clear soda – there’s some legitimate poignancy to the Murray / Pop Pop story, particularly his bitterness toward his sons over the fact that he had to raise them after his wife left. Watching Adam try to use E.T. as a way to bring out Pop Pop’s emotions, only to discover that his grandfather is basically the only person in the world who’s ever rooted for the Feds when watching the movie, is great stuff, as is the way Murray has double-standards when dealing with his father.

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The New Year’s Eve ending may have been a little bit pat with the father and son reunion (although I don’t think any of us would’ve guessed that Pop Pop would’ve brought beets as a peace offering), but I’ll give it a pass because I was so pleasantly surprised by getting to see the softer side of Murray this episode. If you’d told me last season that Jeff Garlin would be quoting one of the most moving moments from E.T. in an episode, I’d never have believed you, but they really seem to be doing their best to make Murray a guy who’s loud and angry – two attributes that Garlin inevitably hits out of the park without even trying – but still has a big ol’ heart.

Stray observations:

  • I bet we’d be surprised to find out how many supermodels were discovered in a Sizzler.
  • As someone who enjoys a good callback, I loved the recurring “When did you even have time to write that?”
  • The idea of movies playing in theaters for an entire year is almost hard to imagine nowadays.
  • Adam’s definition of a pretty good interaction with Pop Pop: he says more than three words and none of them are obscenities.
  • “You’ll be so rich and famous, you’ll be able to hurt people without consequence!”
  • Should Barry’s destiny lead him to start his own teen fashion line, at least we already know the name of the brand: Barry Comfortable.
  • I really wish this episode hadn’t put “Kokomo” back in my head. But not as much as I wish Bev would stop using the word “delicious” to describe her sons.
  • I laughed as Adam put on his red hoodie, hopped on his bike, and rode away.
  • For the record, a Mongolian tent made out of skins is a yurt. And, yes, I did Google it. I’m smart, but I’m not knowing-the-definition-of-yurt-off-the-top-of-my-head smart.
  • We’d better see Pop Pop again. Why? Well, I loved the interaction between him and Murray, but mostly it’s because I want to do Random Roles with Paul Sorvino, goddammit.
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