The Middle: “The Graduate”

It had to happen eventually: “The Year of Sue” is over…or is it?

At the very least, it isn’t over when this week’s episode kicks off. Indeed, when we first see Sue, she’s trying to make the most of every waking moment of the last seven days of her big year, starting with the wringing of as much as excitement as possible out of having received the family’s tickets for her graduation and getting giddy about the post-ceremony party. But that giddiness is soon just a faded memory: when she arrives at school the next day, her world begins to collapse around her.

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Sure, her class picture is great for a change, but it’s sitting atop someone else’s name, and her other big photographic moment – the sombrero shot – has her face smack dab in the middle of the page fold. All of this sucks, but it doesn’t make it any less upsetting when her yearbook vanishes into thin air, and then things only get worse from there: her illegal trip to Arby’s has cost her the attendance award we’ve seen her striving for more or less since the series began, her Sergeant at Arms duty of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the ceremony has been swiped out from under her (damn you, Ehlert!), and none of her varied extracurricular activities have earned her any of the much-vaunted “honor cords” to accompany her cap and gown, which – just to put a rancid cherry on top of the whole affair – is too big because they ran out of her size.

With all of this hitting her at once, is it any wonder that when graduation day finally arrives, she’s curled up on her bed, teetering toward catatonia and bemoaning how, despite all of her efforts to leave a mark and make a difference, the end result was a legacy of utter insignificance?

No. No, it is not.

Oh, wait, I missed one of the other things that really rankles Sue: the fact that Brick’s being offered the opportunity to skip a grade, which he takes as an opportunity to commandeer 50% of his sister’s graduation party. And when he gets RSVPs back from all of the kids in his social skills group, who – shocker! – have the night wide open on their calendars…well, we can only imagine that they removed the steam shooting out of Sue’s ears in post-production.

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Thankfully, Brick’s big plans don’t end up coming to fruition, although it’s not for lack of contemplation over the matter by Frankie and Mike. Not that we necessarily see a tremendous amount of it on the screen, but we get enough of it to see that they’re aware of the pros and cons of the situation and – like any parents placed in a similar situation – want to do what’s best for their child but aren’t entirely surely what that might be. Brick’s in favor of it mostly because he’s bored, and that’s fair enough when you take his intellect into consideration, but what about the social aspects of taking a kid at this level of emotional and physical development and jumping him ahead a year?

In the end, Frankie’s attempt to put her faith in her youngest son turns into a case of giving the boy enough rope to hang himself with, and while six seasons of Brick plotlines make it impossible to see her decision to trust him to buy Sue’s party supplies as anything other than ludicrous, damned if it wasn’t worth it for the one-two punch of “Batman” strolling out of the party store and responding to Frankie’s question about the supplies for the party by asking, “What party?” So, yeah, long story short, Brick’s not skipping a grade, and that’s almost certainly for the best.

And in the midst of Frankie and Mike fretting over Brick and Sue freaking out about her legacy, Axl’s dealing with his own trauma, second-guessing his decision to have absolutely no discussion whatsoever with Devin about the status of their relationship over the summer. It seems like a reasonable enough plotline on the surface – this is Axl, after all – but for anyone who remembers his relationship with Cassidy and how it ended before they both departed for college, it’s a little difficult to buy into the idea that even Axl is lunk-headed enough to not consider the possible ramifications of sending his hot college girlfriend off for three months without so much as an offhanded discussion about where things stand between them. It also seems a little unlikely that the incident with Sue visiting him at college wouldn’t have resulted in him having some idea of what her brothers look like, but that would’ve denied us both Sue and Brick’s reactions to their photo, not to mention the mystery pic that’s apparently incredibly disgusting but inspires a reaction that’s “never not funny.”

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But plot credibility aside, to give credit where credit is due, Axl’s feelings for Devin are strong enough that he’s willing to drive all the way to Idaho to confirm where they stand, which are the actions of someone who ‘s on the verge of having something resembling a mature relationship. Yes, he ends up turning around when he realizes that he’s seriously misgauged the distance involved, but that action is also a sign of maturity, because he knows that Sue would never forgive him if he wasn’t there for her graduation…and that matters to him.

And with that, we bring things back to the graduation ceremony, where a barely-able-to-function Sue has her mind blown: not only is her MIA yearbook passed down and across the rows of classmates and returned to her, but when she opens it, she finds that it’s been filled from top to bottom with signatures of…well, everybody, really. And they all have something positive and upbeat to say about the effect Sue Heck had on them, whether she realized it or not.

Hang on, what? With all the storylines we’ve seen where Sue often isn’t even recognized by her classmates, we’re supposed to accept that, in reality, they actually did notice her, did appreciate her, and now will never forget her?

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It may seem like an example of season finale wish-fulfillment, and to some extent it probably is, but at the same time, there’s a certain amount of plausibility to it. After all, have you ever stopped to consider if there’s a disconnect between how many people you knew at your high school and how many people at your high school knew you?

If you haven’t thought about it before, then do it now. And when you’re done, go back and watch that montage again – you know, the one showing Sue’s greatest hits that made you start bawling as soon as you saw Sue’s mouth start to twitch – and think about how many people were witness to her various antics and achievements, the shy kids who stood in the shadows and gaped in wonder at the girl who wasn’t afraid to try, fail, and try again, over and over and over. The Middle may be just a TV show, but there are a whole lot of very real girls – and boys, too, for that matter – who watch every week and wish they could be as brave, bold and unflaggingly upbeat as Sue Heck. Once you’ve considered that, it’s suddenly a lot easier to accept…though, of course, if you didn’t accept it by the time Mama Cass was belting out the titular line of “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” you might be dead inside, anyway.

And so Sue graduates. And Axl is surprised by the arrival of Devin, who’s driven 28 hours to spend the weekend with him. And Brick…well, you know, he’s Brick. Mike gets the opportunity to show his sentimental side by giving Sue a stack of calendars and telling her that he thinks maybe every year could be “The Year of Sue,” which is just about the sweetest thing ever, but as she’s giving him a hug, Neil Flynn delivers the most heartbreaking look, one that says, “I think I may have just said goodbye to my little girl.” Oof. But it’s okay: as the credits begin to roll, Frankie gets her moment of zen, with the whole Heck family just sitting together on the back steps, enjoying each other’s company…and as pleased as I am that the series is coming back for a seventh season, if The Middle had ended its run right then and there, I believe I would’ve been just fine with it.

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Stray observations:

  • Well, of course Mike has a bond with the school’s janitor…
  • “I’m so glad we had a girl.” / “Stupid boys.”
  • I know Brad’s presence was relatively necessary because of the yearbook storyline, and it’s like I’m ever going to complain about him making an appearance, but I really wish they hadn’t thrown in the line about how he was only in charge of pictures for wrestling and the guys’ swim team. That’s got to be right up there with the cheapest jokes they’ve ever had him make.
  • Nice to see French Stewart pop up again – as the husband of a public school employee, I particularly enjoyed the jokes about him putting in résumés for summer employment – but it’s a bummer that Brian Doyle Murray was MIA, especially given Ehlert’s presence in the story.
  • Like the contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, I don’t need to know what Axl’s disgusting picture was, but I am intrigued about what Brick did that he’s not going to be doing anymore.
  • “I thought we landed on ‘Brick and Sue.’”
  • “So that’s how America works now? Apparently, anybody who donates money gets to exert influence? That is not the America I know!”
  • “WHAT IS WITH THIS FAMILY? WHY CAN’T WE GET ANYWHERE ON TIME?” Mike Heck speaks for every father in the history of families. And time.
  • I’ve said before that I was, in many ways, a real-life Brick growing up, but this week offered yet another similarity: I, too, provided with the opportunity to skip a grade…except that my parents took the school up on it. In my case, I started second grade, but when my family moved to a new house elsewhere in the city, I started my new school in third grade. I fully believe that it was the right decision at the time, but with that said, it got really, really shitty around the time my classmates were entering puberty and I wasn’t. Yeah, that sucked. Like, a lot. But on the flip side of that, I was also a real-life Sue, too, in that I ran for class office under the presumption that it would make me popular, not realizing that the people who won the elections were already popular to begin with…which is to say that I eventually won, but I still wasn’t popular. I was, however, known…and like Sue, I didn’t really realize how many people knew me and appreciated me until much later. Long story short, it’s really no wonder I enjoy this show so much: there’s a little bit of me in every freaking character!
  • And with that, we wrap another season of The Middle. As always, it’s been fun. Exhausting, to be sure, especially given how late I end up staying up to write these reviews, but still fun. I’m glad so many of you have continued to stick around.

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The Goldbergs: “Goldbergs Feel Hard”

Watching this week’s episode, it was hard not to have the beginning of “All You Need is Love” echoing in my brain, because it was indeed about love, love, love. We had the love between a father and his daughter, the love between a young boy and his first girlfriend, and the love between a big doofus and the gorgeous cheerleader who fell for him despite her instincts – not to mention her best friend – screaming, “Run! For God’s sake, run!” Why, I think I feel a Sam and Dave song coming on…

For anyone who cringes when Bev’s getting overly affectionate, the opening moments of the episode must’ve made them feel like Indiana Jones after falling into the reptile car, but in addition to providing the de rigueur shot of a mother running after the bus wearing a bathrobe and curlers, it also served a legitimate purpose: providing a counterpoint to Murray’s inability to tell his children that he loves them. It’s not like this is new information – hell, it’s officially a running joke at this point – but with Erica about to leave home for the summer, Bev’s putting the screws to Mur to just tell his daughter that he loves her. Although he argues that he doesn’t have to tell bacon that he loves it, it just knows (which proves to be a poor argument, since he does, in fact, tell bacon he loves it all the time), a love-filled conversation with Pops turns him around enough that, after several false starts and a lot of stammering, he finally tells her he loves her. In return, she first worries that he’s sick, then grows concerned that he’s gambled away her college fund, and then finally manages to simply say, “Thanks.”

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It’s such a painful reaction to his gesture that Murray retreats downstairs, informs Bev and Pops that it went so poorly that she couldn’t even be bothered to say “I love you” back, and having discovered that he’s “not my daughter’s cup of tea,” he places all the blame for his emotional trauma on Bev for having instigated the conversation in the first place. In turn, Bev refuses to take responsibility for the further decline of the father/daughter relationship and instead simply bribes Erica to tell her father what he wants to hear: that she loves him. Better yet, it only costs Bev $57 plus tax to get Erica to say those words! Well, at first, anyway. When she needs a new pair of boots, the price goes up.

Eventually, Murray realizes the score, which leads to a great deal of yelling back and forth between him and his daughter, and by the end of the episode, they’ve opted to go back to the way things were before Bev butted in, with the love between them returning to its unspoken state. By then, though, things have already been said that won’t soon be forgotten…and trust me, I mean that in a very, very good way.

Meanwhile, both Adam and Barry are battling with relationship woes. At first, Adam’s the only one with problems, trying to let Dana know that he loves her by sending her the message via baked goods, but Barry soon ends up in the same boat, accidentally saying those three little words to Lainey. Unlike Adam, it’s clear that Barry’s remark wasn’t something he’d planned to say, and he’s quick to try and deny it, but once it’s out in the open, he’s quick to embrace it…unlike Lainey, who instantly freaks out and starts going out of her way to avoid seeing Barry or even talking to him.

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In a desperate effort to work his way back into her general surroundings, Barry decides to take on the task of playing the school mascot, thereby getting the chance to spend time with her while she’s cheerleading, but what he doesn’t realize at first is that he’s also putting himself in the crosshairs of anyone who might want to vicariously break the spirits of the school’s team by kicking its mascot’s ass. Blame it on the nobility of the gesture or the quirks of Barry Goldberg’s personality that Lainey finds so amusing despite herself, but she ultimately admits that she loves him right back…and to the strains of Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark’s “If You Leave,” no less. (Awwwwwww…)

And, hey, it turns out that Dana loves Adam, too, so let’s just focus on that and forget about anything else that may have happened in that storyline, so we can enjoy our summer. Good night, everybody!

Damn. Guess we can’t do that, can we?

Man, that sucked: we spent the entire episode watching Adam deciding that he wanted to tell Dana how he felt, putting his feelings into a letter, slipping it into her locker, worrying that he shouldn’t have told her how he felt and needing Coach Mellor’s help to retrieve it, and then finally finding it in his heart to tell her after all, getting the reciprocation that he so desperately wanted, and then getting a swift kick to the balls. Emotionally speaking, of course, but even so, to go out on a limb and tell your girlfriend that you love her, find out that she loves you back, and then learn that she’s moving to Seattle? Again I say: that sucked. But, hey, that’s life, right? And nobody – not in the ‘80s, not now – has ever said that life was fair.

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Well, we may not know what the next season of The Goldbergs will hold for Adam, (although it’s fair to say that both a voice change and a whole lot of sobbing are probably in the cards), but I can’t wait to find out. This show was finding its feet by the second half of its first season, and it’s spent virtually its entire second season soaring, so I’m ready for however many more half-hour explorations of 1980-something ABC wants to deliver.

Stray observations:

  • “Could’ve been worse.” Yeah, way to praise your daughter there, Mur.
  • Adam is surprised when Barry eats one of the cupcakes he’s made for Dana. Barry’s response: “Don’t leave a basketball in front of Michael Jordan and not expect him to dunk it!”
  • “You weren’t even in the room! How do you know what I said?” “Well, you basically yell everything.”
  • So my big take-away from this episode is that every socially maladjusted kid with glasses slipped an ill-conceived love declaration into a girl’s locker at some point. I’m just trying to remember which of my many ill-conceived love declarations involved that particular delivery method. I want to say it might’ve been a girl named Denise – which feels like a pretty safe bet, statistically speaking, since it seems like every other girl in the ‘80s actually was named Denise – and that the love was not reciprocated, ostensibly because she was dating some guy who had already graduated. Or maybe I’m thinking of a different Denise. It’s all kind of a blur at this point, which is probably for the best.
  • Like Steven Tobolowsky, Bryan Callen has been increasingly well-utilized on The Goldbergs this season, but I think this might’ve been my favorite of his appearances, if only for his list of possible reasons why Adam might’ve wanted to pull the fire alarm: “Pop quiz? Arousing daydream? Fart that fooled ya?” Well, that and the line, “Just because I wear the same tiny shorts every day doesn’t mean I don’t wear many hats.”
  • “What’s a ‘lude?” “Don’t play coy with me.”
  • Say, you know, the dead-eyed Quaker head does look a little bit like Donald Sutherland, come to think of it…
  • “My heartbone’s already been broken.”
  • “I love you. Boom! In your face!”
  • Oh, that reminds me: like Adam, I also once decided to make a grand gesture to a girl I loved by showing up at her front door. You can read about it here. Funnily enough, she also ended up moving…to Pennsylvania. (I guess nature really does abhor a vaccum.)

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And on that note…