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The Middle: “The College Tour”

It’s always a treat to see an episode of The Middle – or any series, really – where characters that don’t generally set to share the spotlight are given an opportunity to shine together. Now, of course, after six seasons, it’s not like we haven’t seen Mike and Sue share storylines, and the same goes for plots which team Frankie and Axl, but in both instances, they’re still irregular enough events that it’s always nice when they’re paired up again. Be honest, though: who would’ve imagined we’d ever see Brick spending scenes with Ruth, Chuck, or Brad?

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When Mike sets off with Sue for her big weekend of touring the campus of various colleges she’s considering, Frankie figures she’ll use the opportunity to spend some quality time with Brick, a plan which lasts for, oh, about 15 seconds or so. I didn’t have my stopwatch out, but wowever long it was between when she told Brick about her idea and when Axl called to tell her that his coach was finally going to be putting him in a game, that’s how long the plan lasted. Inevitably, Brick’s less than thrilled about the idea of having to suffer through watching football, but it ends up not even mattering, since he also lets slip that he’s got a project due on Monday that’s, shall we say, still in the research phase. Frustrated with Brick but unwilling to miss Axl’s big game, Frankie makes a few calls, arranges for some folks to watch Brick, and heads off to stay the night at her first-born son’s bachelor pad, such as it is.

Mike and Sue’s college tour starts off much the way you’d expect: she’s giddy beyond belief, and he’s just barely tolerating it. Not that he’s not happy that his daughter is happy, but even setting aside the fact that the words “how much is this gonna cost me?” have rarely been far from his mind this season, the one constant about Mike is that no matter where he is, he’d still rather be at home. Also, he’s just not a demonstrative guy, which is why you can practically see him twitch when he crosses paths with Super Daddy Pancakes, a fellow who just can’t stop talking about how much he loves his daughter and what swell times they have together. Conversely, it’s been well established that, although Mike loves Sue, he and his daughter are on very different wavelengths, and their significant dissimilarities have led them to spend a limited amount of time together over the years. It’s something Mike’s aware of, but he can’t change how different he and Sue are, so the best he can do is just try to be as decent a dad as he’s able.

As such, he tries his best to roll with the realization that Sue has been calling herself “Native American” when filling out her college applications, does his best to be polite when she overcompensates to the point of basically embarrassing herself out of a chance of attending one of the schools (“Well, that school was a little bit out of our price range, anyway”), and when she gets upset, runs off, and closes the door behind her, he takes Frankie’s advice and asks her what’s wrong. Unfortunately, taking Frankie’s advice can’t change Mike’s instincts, so when she bears her soul and admits that she’s not sure she’s ready to leave home and go to college, he basically shrugs, pats her on the shoulder, and says, “Well, it’ll be better in the morning!”

As it turns out, it is better in the morning, at least for Sue, but after another encounter with Super Daddy Pancakes, Mike begins second-guessing his fathering and finally just asks Sue outright if she ever feels bad that he wasn’t the same kind of dad as that guy. What results is a sweet discussion in which Sue reels off a list of reasons why Mike really is the Best Dad Ever, just like his coffee mug says (because mugs don’t lie), and in which I was on the verge of bawling. Why? Well, you can certainly blame part of it on Sue’s reminiscences about why Mike’s been a great father, but what was even more moving were the expressions on Mike’s face. It’s about as close as I’ve ever seen Mike get to expressing his emotions…and he did it in the dark, so of course no one else witnessed it! Still, we saw his face, the big ol’ softie.

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Things don’t go quite as planned on Frankie’s expedition, either. Aside from the fact that she quickly realizes that her son’s living just slightly above a state of squalor, which causes her motherly “well, let me just straighten up a little” instincts to kick in, she also has to endure the sight of Axl bombing big time when he (briefly) hits the field. That’s when another set of motherly instincts kick in: the need to hold her baby boy and tell him that everything’s going to be okay. This is, as Mike informs her when she calls to tell him about the football fiasco, basically the last thing that Axl’s going to want to deal with, although you have to think that she might’ve picked up on that when he basically cringed his way out of her grasp to move from the sofa to his own chair.

Later, though, we find out that the reason for Axl’s discomfort is directly connected to a girl…the newly-introduced Devin Levin, to be specific. Having invited her to the game and provided her with the opportunity to see him at his worst, he reasonably presumes that he’ll never be able to face her again and promptly works out a way to make that viable while they’re attending the same college, concocting a very simple plan involving rooftop skulking and a change of majors. Frankie, ever ready with advice, actually provides Axl with a reasonable plan of act: own your mistake. It goes against his every instinct to take romantic advice from his mother, but he does it nonetheless and damned if it doesn’t work. Frankie, in turn, squeals with glee, as well she should.

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And Brick? Well, there’s not much to the actual plot of his storyline, which involves him having to make a working model car for his science class, but that’s okay, because his storyline is less about the plot than it is an excuse to bring in a couple of funny-in-small-doses characters that we haven’t seen much of recently – Ruth, Sue’s strict-parented teammate on the Wrestlerettes, and Chuck, who works at the quarry with Mike – and the single best funny-in-small-doses character in the history of the series, the one and only Brad. The comedic returns get funnier with each character: Ruth gets a few laughs just by being weird, Chuck gets more laughs by being an idiot, and Brad gets the most laughs just by being Brad. Oh, and also by describing his montage and by delivering the gospel of glitter: “More is more.” It’s a slight storyline, and we never really get clarification on how and why the car actually ends up working (although I like to imagine that there was a scene with Nancy Donahue, who took a shift with Brick and couldn’t resist fixing the vehicle when he wasn’t looking), but it’s consistently entertaining throughout, and isn’t that what matters?

Stray observations:

  • “The secret ingredient is love. I’m kidding. It’s cinnamon!” Super Daddy Pancakes, in a nutshell.
  • The last time Frankie and Brick did something special together? According to Brick, it’s when he got his tetanus shot, which says a lot about Brick’s definition of “special.”
  • Axl’s definition of cleaning the bathroom: “We’re flushing every time now!”
  • I hope we get a Trudy-centric episode at some point in the future, although I also kind of like the mystery of this relative who may not even be an actual relative.
  • “At a certain age, you should stop being excited about life.” Mike Heck’s motto.
  • I would’ve been fine with the laugh I got out of Mike suggesting that they meet up at a Stuckey’s to switch kids, but then he kicked it up a notch with the suggestion of tossing pillowcases over their heads, and I laughed even harder.
  • I’m not even going to try to pick my favorite Chuck quote. All I’ll say is that I’d watch a Chuck movie over a Joe Dirt sequel any day of the week.
  • Ball State is David Letterman’s alma mater. I don’t know anything else about Ball State, but I do know that much, at least.
  • Mike Heck: a man with the sensitivity of an Easter Island statue.
  • Frankie’s most perfectly mom-like line of the episode: “How about you buy your mom some breakfast? I’ll pay.”

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The Goldbergs: “I Rode A Hoverboard!”

The Goldbergs has yet to produce an episode that’s less than entertaining, but when you look back at the various episodes, the strongest efforts have been the ones that find that perfect blend of humor, heart, and ‘80s nostalgia. That’s why “I Rode A Hoverboard!” ranks right up there with “The Facts of Bleeping Life” as one of the best installments of the second season and one you can happily hold up to those who haven’t yet watched the show as being a perfect place for them to start.

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Given the title of the episode, there was never any chance that Adam’s storyline wouldn’t be the one to get all the attention: if you grew up in the ‘80s and watched Back to the Future II, then you wanted your very own hoverboard…and, yes, if you saw that interview with Robert Zemeckis where he claimed that hoverboards were a real thing, then you’re well within your rights to still feel the urge to spit whenever you hear his name. But while the promos for this episode heavily – and understandably – played up the fact that Adam was going to be trying to assure his friends that he’d ridden a hoverboard, you have no clue how substantial his web of lies becomes, nor how it started in the first place.

To film yourself singing and dancing to George Michael’s “Faith” is embarrassing enough, but to accidentally fall into a bookcase and end up with a compound fracture in the process takes it to a whole other level, so you can kind of understand what causes Adam to shirk his responsibilities to his friendship swear with Emmy “Muscles” Mirsky and trick her into unwittingly backing up his lie that he damaged himself by falling off a hoverboard. That said, his lie is questioned by so many people so quickly that you have to imagine that Adam is soon wishing he’d gone with Barry’s “ninja sharks” premise instead. But when Pops is telling him to lie his ass off to salvage his friendship with this “groovy dame,” and Erica’s assuring him that she can help teach him how to lie more successfully, what else is the kid gonna do?

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The scenes with Adam and Erica are a lot of fun, first with Erica doing her best to instruct her brother on the finer points of lying, then with their sad attempts to put together a fake video of Adam using a hoverboard while being suspended from a very visible rope, and finally with Erica producing a fake non-disclosure agreement to avoid having to show the incredibly unconvincing video to Adam’s science teacher. More poignant, though, are the scenes with Adam and Emmy. The pre-fracture conversation with the “do you like me, yes or no” note reestablishes the strength of their friendship, which in turn makes it rough to watch Emmy stand up for Adam’s hoverboard story to the point of getting punished but perfectly explicable when she lashes out at him for having lied to her. When he plays the tape of himself singing and dancing to “Faith,” it may be partially to stop the lies with his classmates, but it’s clear that the biggest reason is because he wants things to go back to the way they were before with him and Emmy. And so they do, but she doesn’t make it easy for him: first he’s got to offer a heartfelt speech about how what they have is more than friendship, then she’s got to let him suffer in silence for a bit, and then she forgives him. (Chicks, man…)

This week’s other major storyline revolves around Bev’s jealousy over the family’s sudden love affair with a new Chinese restaurant run by Dave Kim’s mom, and if that sounds like a slight idea for a plot, it’s actually a bit more substantial when viewed through the filter of the ‘80s, when every town in America wasn’t wall to wall with restaurants and Chinese food wasn’t nearly as common as it is nowadays. That said, what’s funniest about the premise is the different directions it takes, from Bev’s hysterical attempt to use a wok at home (“I’ll just drop this block of frozen broccoli into the boiling hot grease”) to her attempts to get her family banned from the restaurant (I love that she brought her own Polaroids for them to post on the wall) to the unexpected twist of selling Dave Kim on her own cooking, all done in the name of wanting her family to respect the food she’s making for them the way they respect the food they’re getting at the restaurant. The whole thing is kind of goofy, yes, but it works, probably because Wendi McLendon-Covey is so successful at selling how much cooking for her family means to Bev.

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Mind you, if you’ve become a big Barry fan, you may walk away from the episode a little bummed that we don’t get a ton of great quotable moments from him, but hopefully the fact that there’s a dish called Big Tasty Pork makes up for it in some small way.

Stray observations:

  • I’m sure it’s always been that prominent, but for whatever reason, my eye really caught the poster for The Black Hole this week. I do not apologize for loving that movie.
  • Nice shout-out to Bennigan’s.
  • “Tell me a lie.” ”I’m a fish.” I don’t know why that exchange made me laugh so hard, but it did.
  • Bev’s cooking might make some of you cringe - even I winced at the thought of her cheesing up a slice of watermelon - but there’s probably a whole article to be written about the evolution of the cheese-on-seafood combination.
  • I know Dan Bakkedahl has too much else going on to turn up on the show with any semblance of regularity, but I wish he would, because I’m pretty sure he was channeling one of my own science teachers.
  • As simple a joke as it may have been, I really laughed at Adam’s obvious need to correct Emmy’s implication that “Faith” was a Wham! song. (”Technically, it’s a George Michael solo effort.”)
  • Man, I sure hope we see more interaction between Erica and Dave Kim one of these days.

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