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The Middle: “The Loneliest Locker” / The Goldbergs: “Mama Drama”

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The Middle: “The Loneliest Locker”

There’s no question that, of the old-timers amongst ABC’s Wednesday night comedy lineup, The Middle has always been the series most likely to delve into both family matters and financial matters, regularly dealing with the problem once described by Billy Hill as “too much month at the end of the money,” but it’s always been handled in a funny way, if only because the “you have to laugh to keep from crying mindset” has always been popular amongst the lower middle class set. This week’s episode, though, took a step closer to the abyss, with Frankie and Mike finding themselves forced to accept that their longstanding lack of funds has reached the point where they may not have the money they need to send Sue to college.

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Or, to put it more bluntly, they’re screwed.

In the current economic climate, it’s rough enough to make ends meet on a month-by-month basis, which is where the Hecks’ focus has been, so it’s understandably jarring for them to suddenly realize that they still haven’t managed to put enough aside to provide a decent academic future for their daughter. Barring the possibility of a billionaire suddenly showing up at the high school, things aren’t looking great for Sue’s chances of getting a college education, and her parents are obviously the ones at fault, having foolishly encouraged her and told her that she can do anything. Rather than cut to the chase and dash her dreams, however, Frankie and Mike mutually agree to keep quiet for the time being and vow to pick up extra work in order to make extra funds. In turn, Mike goes back to doing a bit of driving on the side – say, do we know if Bob’s still working there on the side, too? – and Frankie picks up a side gig herself, booking reservations for EconoBlue Airlines from home. It seems like a great gig until, as she notes in her voiceover, “The problem with working at home is that I’m working at my home,” a place where concentration is at a minimum at all times.

Still, it’s a bit of extra money when extra money is needed…and, boy, is it needed! In addition to her excitement about doing extraordinarily well on her ACT scores, Sue is also giddy about teaming with Brad for a senior production that’s destined to blow the school’s socks off, seeing it as an opportunity to increase her college options even more substantially. Between their practice run in front of Mike and the final production, it’s clear that Sue’s future does not necessarily lie in the realm of theater, but she’s unflaggingly ecstatic about her performance, so much so that the only time she gets angry during the course of the episode is when Frankie promises to be at the theater before the curtain rises, only to fail to get there at all due to her new job. And when Sue calls her on her absence, Frankie can’t take it anymore and reveals that she and Mike have taken on these additional jobs in order to at least try and pay for her college education. (Mike, meanwhile, can only shrug at Frankie’s outburst and say, “I wanted to tell you at Chili’s.)

And how did Sue respond? Well, let’s just say that if Eden Sher’s team is looking for the best possible clip to send to the Emmys, they can use Sue’s speech to her parents about the way things stand: “Look, I know we can’t afford any of those schools. I was just talking. I would never want to do anything to make you guys work harder. You work so hard already! Whatever happens, I’m gonna be fine.”

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You know what? I believe her.

Elsewhere in the episode, things aren’t nearly as dramatic, for better or worse. Axl’s big storyline involves his attempts to furnish the new place he’s got with his roommate, Hutch, by unabashedly thieving things from his parents’ house, claiming 30% ownership of everything therein. It’s relatively lightweight, but it makes for some fun visual gags (Frankie using a backscratcher to spread peanut butter) and ends up coming to a pretty funny cushion-related conclusion when Mike can’t stand the situation anymore. As for Brick’s lost-toys-found storyline, it’s more throwaway than not, but aside from the fact that I can’t imagine any parent who doesn’t relate to the desire to make noisy toys “disappear,” I liked the unexpected revelation that their removal was directly responsible for the development of Brick’s obsession with reading.

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All told, though, Sue’s the star of this week’s show, but her reaction to her parents’ concerns about paying for her college was icing on the cake. If you’re looking for my favorite part, I can sum it up in four words: the play’s the thing.

Stray observations:

  • When Sue says, “Guess what?” Mike says what every dad’s thinking: “Sue, we do a lot of guessing in this house. Why don’t you just tell us?”
  • It seems only appropriate that I should type up my favorite Mike line of the night, “We’ve finally achieved our dream of working around the clock,” at 1:33 AM EST. I don’t just love this show, I live this show.
  • “Energy, energy, energy, FOCUS!”
  • “Maybe your mom shouldn’t have died on a Thursday.” A beat. “Yes, I’ll be happy to connect you to my supervisor.” I really thought Frankie was destined to lose her job at that point, but I guess that just goes to show you how desperate EconoBlue Airlines is.
  • “We got premium cable channels free for a month. We’ve had our miracle.”
  • I can’t even begin to narrow down my favorite moments from the play - it’s just so brilliantly awful throughout - but I can tell you my favorite Brad line: “My body’s tingling! We just moved people with art!”
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The Goldbergs, “Mama Drama”

It’s an odd coincidence that The Goldbergs also featured a school theater production in one of its predominant storylines this evening, but unlike in The Middle, which featured Sue and Brad’s dramatic endeavor as somewhat of a sidebar, Adam’s desire to sing his heart out in the school’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar is front and center.

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After spending the past few productions stuck in the chorus, Adam’s convinced that there’s no better time for him to take the jump to the next level as an actor than by trying out for the role of Jesus Christ himself. It’s a bold decision, but of course Bev’s behind him 100 percent, and he’s confident that he’s got as much of a shot as anyone, if not moreso because of the fact that he knows Jesus Christ Superstar backwards and forwards. That’s why it’s such a profound blow when Miss Cinoman – played by guest star Ana Gasteyer – posts the cast list and he discovers that, rather than the lead, he’s been given the newly-created, very minor role of Todd the Apostle. (Even worse, Dave Kim gets the role of Jesus, and it immediately goes to his head.)

While it’s hardly surprising that Bev’s immediate reaction to the news is to ask, “Who hurt you? Tell me, and I will hurt them tenfold,” it’s somewhat impressive to see what lengths she’ll go to in order to make sure her son gets what she thinks he deserves, including the threatening of a school official - played by the episode’s other immediately-recognizable guest star, Stephen Tobolowsky – to get a second school musical authorized: Starlight Express. What’s a little different about this episode, though, is that for once Bev actually realizes that her attempts to support her son have resulted in making things worse, turning him from a kid who enjoys acting into an egomaniacal actor/director with a penchant for insulting anyone he deems to be less talented than he is, which turns out to be basically everyone.

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Good thing, then, that Starlight Express proves almost impossible to adapt to a cast filled with junior high school thespians, thanks to a general inability by most anyone to strap on a pair of roller skates and hustle around, pretending to be a train. (Bev sums up the choreography bluntly but not inaccurately when she observes, “I like how some of you are going forwards and some are going backwards.”) It isn’t long before Adam is insulting virtually all of his co-stars, inspiring Erica to quit and causing Bev to realize that her son’s become a monster, answering Erica’s accusations that she “shifted the world so it entirely revolves around him” by admitting, “It’s what I do…but usually someone steps in and stops me!”

It’s nice to see Bev actually admit that her instincts weren’t entirely spot on, and in the end, Adam gets shoved back into the chorus where he belongs, so it’s not a full-on happy ending, but it shows some growth in the Bev / Adam relationship, and that can only be a good thing.

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There’s also growth in the relationship between Murray and Barry this week. In the episode’s only other real storyline, we discover that, despite his ongoing desire to call his son a moron, Murray actually likes going to hockey games with his son. What Barry doesn’t like, however, is his father’s never-ending desire to avoid traffic, resulting in a lifetime of leaving events 10 minutes before they’re actually over. When Murray ends up making an early departure and missing one of the greatest NHL goals of all time, however, Barry decides to try and get revenge on his father…and when that fails to work out as he’d planned, he just tells him that he’s not going to go to any more hockey games with him. Murray tries to shrug it all off, taking Pops with him first, then Vic instead, but he soon realizes that they’re no substitute for Barry, and – God help him – he misses the moron. As a result, Murray goes so far as to invite Barry to another game and agrees to wait until the final buzzer of the next hockey game to leave the area, traffic be damned, a vow which he makes good on. (Barry still can’t get him to say, “I love you more than traffic,” though.)

Stray observations:

  • Here’s hoping we see Ana Gasteyer on the show again soon. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen her outside of her Sheila Shay attire, but she looked fantastic, and although she didn’t have a lot to do, she imbued Miss Cinoman with a quiet sweetness, most noticeably in the way she reacted apologetically to Adam’s anger about not being picked to play Jesus.
  • As revealed in a TV Guide article earlier this week, Ana Gasteyer‘s character is based on the real Adam Goldberg’s real drama teacher, Susan Cinoman. You can read more about her contributions to the episode here.
  • I loved the back story Bev rolled out about how she introduced Tobolowsky to his wife and is therefore in debt to him. But not as much as I loved Bev busting Erica on her fake ID, forged notes, and so forth. Erica’s response was also classic, asking for “30 minutes to collect my thoughts” before responding to the bust.
  • Bev dropping an F-bomb is always hilarious, but it was even better to have it following by a flustered Tobolowsky howl, “This is a school! You can’t talk like that here!”
  • George Segal is awesome, but you wouldn’t catch me going to a hockey game with Pops. A whitefish sandwich and Borsch? What the hell, man?
  • I have to wonder how much more footage exists of Jeff Garlin screaming in traffic. I’m betting he could do that for hours on end and still not run out of things to say.
  • Given how precise The Goldbergs tends to be with its pop culture references (even if they’re decidedly less so when it comes to their ‘80s chronology), you probably won’t be surprised to learn that, yes, there really was a crossover between Fantasy Island and The Love Boat…sort of. It’s just a shame we didn’t get to see Pops’s crushing disappointment when he found out that you never actually got to see the Pacific Princess docked at the island: the only person who crossed over between the two series was a passenger played by Loni Anderson. In fact, the closest the regular characters of the series got to interacting with each other was via moments like the moment you see in the below clip, which - as crossovers go - ain’t exactly on the level of “The Simpsons Guy.”
  • To close with a throwback to last week’s episode, series creator Adam F. Goldberg followed in the footsteps of the lad who more or less plays him on the show - Sean Giambrone - and put together a Celebrity Playlist for Rhino yesterday which may be of interest to you: he offered up the original track listing for the mixtape he made for the real Dana. You can check it out here.
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