The Middle: “The Convention”

After indicating only last episode that Frankie wouldn’t be returning to work with Dr. Goodwin until January, it seemed fair enough to think that we wouldn’t be seeing a guest appearance from Jack McBrayer any sooner than that, either, The Middle pulled a fast one by delivering not only a McBrayer guest spot this week, but also an appearance by Cheryl Hines, beloved CEO of Smile Superstars International, the 13th largest dental chain in the country. God bless us, every one!

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If you’re paying attention to the calendar, then you may be aware that “The Convention” is the episode that falls between The Middle’s Thanksgiving and Christmas episodes, which is a pretty cushy spot when you’re talking about a series that has a longstanding history of doing some of its best work during their holiday-themed installments. Oddly enough, it has also evolved over the last couple of years into being an episode where Mike and Frankie end up going somewhere, leaving Brick to be watched by someone who doesn’t usually watch him.

Two years ago, Mike and Frankie had a romantic getaway at Frankie’s sister’s house, leaving Sue in charge, and just this past season, Mike took Sue on a college tour, Frankie stayed the weekend at Axl’s bachelor pad, and Brick got stuck with an assortment of different sitters, including Ruth from the Wrestlerettes, Chuck from the quarry, and—lest we forget—our old buddy Brad. This year, it’s Big Mike who’s drafted to head over to the Heck house and keep Brick company while his parents are elsewhere, but it ends up being a role-reversal situation where Brick ends up playing the parent, getting Big Mike to eat right, take a nap, and…well, you get the idea. It’s a simple premise, and it’s definitely not explored any more than a C-story really needs to be, but between being a good excuse to get John Cullum back on the show and an opportunity to hear Brick say some amusing one-liners (“I just need to pour myself a glass of juice and decompress”), it’s more than sufficiently strong enough to stay entertaining.

The other kids are the B-story of the week, with Sue—now sans roommate—finds herself suddenly drafted into having Axl as her roommate. If you’re wondering exactly when Holly hit the bricks, we were apparently supposed to infer that her departure happened as a result of Sue playing the narc at the end of “Risky Business,” a.k.a. Brad’s coming-out episode, but I for one did not realize that we were supposed to infer that particular development, and I can’t help but feel that I’m not alone on that front. Anyway, the siblings end up blending about as well as oil and water at first, but things begin to change when Axl’s natural tendency toward wooing new friends, and suddenly Sue’s dorm room is a hot bed of excitement, and she’s staying up and partying just as much as her brother is. The change in Sue’s popularity status doesn’t even last for the whole weekend, unfortunately, and things start to fall apart when she finds herself so exhausted that she sleeps through her alarm and, in turn, misses a test as well. Again, it’s not the most substantial storyline in the world, but it’s at least an entertaining one, and it features moments in both Axl’s and Sue’s living situations that I feel like we’ll be revisiting over the next few weeks.

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With that, we arrive at the storyline that provides the episode with its title as well as both of its high-profile guest stars. When Dr. Goodwin details the specifics of the new practice to Frankie, she couldn’t be less enthusiastic about the changes, but the idea of an “all expenses paid” trip to Des Moines is enough to change her spirits temporarily, especially when she realizes that Mike can tag along with her, thereby giving both of them a chance at a getaway.

At first, Frankie is all about the eye rolls when it comes to Dr. Summer Samuelson (the aforementioned Ms. Hines) and her absurdly enthusiastic patter filled with business buzz words and catchphrases but seemingly little substance. It isn’t long, though, before Frankie finds herself sucked into the Smile Superstars cult, dreaming of little more than the possibility of a winner’s retreat in Costa Rica, tingling all over at the possibilities…and, yes, the tingling continues unabated through the hotel stay, which is all kinds of awesome for Mike. The problem comes when the bill arrives, which is when Frankie and Mike learn the hard way that there’s a difference between “all expenses paid” and “we’ll pay for your room, but that’s it,” resulting in $674 in room service charges. Naturally, Frankie approaches Summer and tries to get her to fold these purely accidental expenses into the company’s overall bill, but while she admires her moxie, that’s a no go, good buddy. Still, Frankie’s sip of the Kool Aid was tasty enough that, even when it’s revealed that she’ll be paying for the excess hotel charges by making payments straight out of her paycheck over the course of the next few weeks, she’s still jazzed about the idea of getting back to work. It’ll never last, of course, but given that she’s still in enough of a good mood to smack Mike on the ass just as they’re about to walk through their front door, it should at least be entertaining ‘til it inevitably falls apart in a big way.

Stray observations:

  • Of course Frankie’s biggest concern about losing her desk would be that they hauled it off before she could rescue all the cookies she’d stockpiled within its drawers.
  • Top-notch parenting from Mike and Frankie when it comes to why they’re forcing Sue to accept Axl as her new roommate: “Sorry, we really just need him to not be here.”
  • I always appreciate when Frankie is excited about the stuff that hotels have that the Heck house doesn’t. You know, like a square shower head and dresser drawers that slide in and out properly.
  • “If a bird leaves the nest too early, he ends up on drugs in Indianapolis.” Great story, Big Mike.
  • I love that Sue very quickly concedes that she’s “still a little scared of Dad.”
  • I’m starting to think that I didn’t understand the Pythagorean Theorem nearly as much as I thought I did.
  • There was something so perfectly Sue about spending all that time formulating the perfect lie for her, only to be unable to deliver it because the mere thought of it made her so nervous that she had to throw up.
  • Probably my favorite scene in the whole episode was Mike, Frankie, and Dr. Goodwin squaring off in the hallway, with Mike getting increasingly angry and personal with his mocking of the doc, but I also loved Frankie’s line about how “they folded my underwear, it made me feel special.”

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The Goldbergs: “Wingmom”

Even though The Goldbergs has proven repeatedly that it doesn’t have to use the ‘80s as a comedy crutch and that the characters and their relationships are strong enough at this point to drive the plots, sometimes the show just can’t resist letting a pop culture concept take center stage. Truth be told, I’m just impressed at their restraint in waiting this long to deliver a Top Gun-themed episode.

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It should come as no surprise that a self-defined manly man like Barry Goldberg would be caught up in the frenzied adventures of Goose, Iceman, and Maverick, to the point of treating the family station wagon like it’s an F-14A Tomcat, and given what we know of Barry, it should also come as no surprise that his major take-away from the film is the general awesomeness of whatever branch of the military it was about and, yes, the shirtless beach volleyball. As such, when Barry and the other members of the JTP stumble upon the school’s ROTC booth, there’s no chance they’ll walk away without having signed up, but little does Barry know that he’s set himself down a path toward a career that his mother had long ago deemed completely unacceptable. So much for saying, “You’re welcome, America!”

But not so fast: Murray’s appreciation of the ROTC and what it did to help him find his way into adulthood is so profound that he’s willing to sign Barry’s permission slip behind Bev’s back. It’s a cardinal sin, to be sure, but it certainly shows just how serious Murray is about backing Barry’s decision to join up. Barry, meanwhile, finds his seriousness waning dramatically when he realizes that he’s in a rotten spot and wants out, so he does exactly what Murray has emphatically told him not to do: he goes to Bev and says, “Dad got me into this, so you need to get me out.” Instantly, she’s on the case, and heaven help poor Steven Tobolowsky…except, no, he’s not her target this time around, and he couldn’t be happier about that situation. In fact, he’s about as happy as Captain Wallace is miserable when he finds himself on the receiving end of Bev’s assurances that she’s going to be Barry’s “wingmom.”

Your appreciation of the whole “wingmom” thing will depend very heavily on how much of Bev’s non-stop barrage of over-the-top praise for Barry you can stand to listen to, since she’s effectively the yin to Capt. Wallace’s yang, building him up whenever he’s been torn down. It’s funny, but what starts out as Bev attempting to make the ROTC experience as painless as possible for Barry soon turns into Bev realizing that she’s effectively negating all of the aspects of the ROTC that made Murray into the man he is. This realization is hastened somewhat by Murray making sure that both his wife and his oldest son are aware that he knows what’s happening and that he’s not happy about, but he pointedly clarifies to Bev that virtually none of the life they have at the moment would be in place if he hadn’t been a part of the ROTC. As such, she lets Barry fly on his own, and—amazingly enough—he doesn’t completely crash and burn. Really, it’s the best we could’ve hoped for.

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The episode’s other storyline involves Adam and Pops, which is a pleasant change from how Adam had been more or less on the sidelines for the past few episodes. (Them’s the breaks when you’re a child actor.) Not to in any way diminish the excitement I felt when I realized that Judd Hirsch was in the episode, but the best guest star of the week was Rob Huebel, returning as the legendary Rob Calabasas, this time selling timeshares. Although Pops assures Adam that they’re only going to suffer through the spiel and take the free movie tickets they’re offering as “payment” for attending the seminar, the pitch is too good for him to resist, which sets further into motion the increasing realization that Pops is getting older and won’t be around forever. We’ve seen Adam struggle with Pops getting older in past episodes, but it really hits home for Adam when Erica notes that Pops was born in 1903, inspiring him to abruptly ask, “Holy crap, seriously?”

Yes, seriously. That’s why Adam wants to ensure that Pops at least feels young, which is how George Segal came to wear a “Frankie Say Relax” shirt in the episode., but the two bump heads in the process of trying to talk things out, and soon Adam has changed tactics and is just trying to make Pops jealous by hanging out with his other grandpa for awhile. The excitement level is decidedly muted, with Adam finding himself putting pennies into paper sleeve, but when he heads to the mall, only to find Erica and Pops there, too, things definitely start to heat up, with Pop-Pop realizing that Adam’s just trying to make Pops jealous…and he doesn’t care. In fact, he’s completely in favor of it!

Finally, Adam and Pops end up meeting back where they started the episode: in the arcade, with Pops challenging Adam to a game of Ms. Pac-Man for all the marbles, so to speak. It probably would’ve gone better for the old man if he hadn’t thought that the idea of the game was for the crazy, angry ghost to kill the pac-woman – whoopsie! – but the healing process has begun, and it comes to a conclusion when Adam delivers a sales pitch for his relationship with his grandfather. Needless to say, Pops invests in it 100 percent.

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Stray observations:

  • Funnily enough, I remember Top Gun far more for its soundtrack than I do for the film itself, which I actually didn’t see until many, many years after it hit home video. This is somewhat odd, now that I think about it, because I was generally seeing a movie every weekend back then, but looking at the other releases of that time frame, I’m of the suspicion that I probably passed on seeing Top Gun on its opening weekend in favor of seeing Short Circuit for a second time, and then the next week Poltergeist II: The Other Side came out, which was an absolute must-see. You can understand my dilemma, I’m sure.
  • Leave it to me to get excited about Adam’s Queen shirt featuring the cover of the A Kind of Magic album. If it wasn’t chosen intentionally because that that’s the album that gave us “One Vision,” a.k.a. the band’s contribution to the soundtrack of the other great fighter-jet movie of the mid-’80s, Iron Eagle, then let’s just pretend it was, because that’s certainly the first thing that occurred to me.
  • I’m having visions of a Goldbergs spin-off revolving around Rob Calabasas. Please someone make this happen. (Note to self: you could be that someone, dammit.)
  • Beverly Goldberg: the Delta Force of mothers.
  • Barry Goldberg: a sack of everything.
  • There were so many great potential nicknames for Barry that I couldn’t even pick a favorite. Although “Applesauce” really does have a nice ring to it.
  • In another food-related matter, I’m suddenly craving raisins.
  • Lastly, I am shocked, stunned, and appalled at all of the egregious ass-smacking during that volleyball game. Where the hell was the ref?!?

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