There's a pleasant amount of insanity The Middle, especially given how generic it looks at first glance. It's self-aware, but not in the usual fourth-wall-breaking fashion; it doesn't wink at the camera like it could. No, its characters aren't aware that they're in a sitcom, but the show's world is well-aware that the characters are sitcom characters, and, really, they're insane. Especially Frankie, which is particularly interesting because, in the vast majority of sitcoms, the mom is the sanest character.
Not this time, though. Brick's having trouble with math at school, and Frankie and Mike try to help him… until they realize that they can't do the math either. So they try to learn, which involves dealing with Brick's teacher Miss Rinsky (played by Doris Roberts), who's banned them from the school. She tries to be helpful, holding a math class for parents. Mike gets it. Frankie doesn't. But she tries. Vocally.
Here's where the sitcom-ness kicks in. Theoretically, the class is for all the parents. There are about a dozen in the room, and obviously, only two are the Hecks. Yet they're the only ones who have any kind of conversation or dialogue. The others are merely there for background color. The show is about the Hecks, all we care about are the Hecks, and the Hecks dominate the discussion. This is our expectation for a sitcom.
However, The Middle subverts that expectation by having everyone else realize that, well, Frankie is kind of insane. She feels embarrassed by Miss Rinsky, so she starts ranting to Mike about how she's too old and jaded and shouldn't be teaching kids such important stuff. Indeed, she has a few beers and fires off an angry e-mail to the principal, thinking she's making a sane and reasoned argument about how Rinsky is failing her kid. It's not sane, as she figures out the next morning when she reads it to Mike and notices that it includes the line “She would have made a fine… Nazi….” So the Hecks go in to meet with the principal, who pulls out a file on Frankie. Yes, Frankie has a file, and it includes accurate descriptions of how over-the-top she is. It's pretty normal behavior for a sitcom character, who has to have 20-odd wacky adventures per year. But it's not normal behavior for a sane person, and everyone in the room, including her husband, is quite aware of this.
Overall, this was the strongest episode of The Middle I've seen. It maintained a great level of humor throughout, especially with Mike and Frankie's bickering, and it was interesting on a character level as well. There are several other nice touches in the episode. I like how Brick is a language nerd and not a math nerd. Pop culture almost always defaults nerdy children into being great at math, instead of preferring books. Also, Frankie's rant about this teacher being exactly what's wrong with the system sounded oddly familiar, thanks to the recent hubbub in Wisconsin, but despite the often conservative underpinnings of the show, it wasn't ready to throw in with the National Review and instead demonstrated that she was wrong and even kind of the villain of the episode for it.
Sue and Axl have a much less interesting side plot as they try to help their aunt find a time capsule. It falls too easily in the cliché “kids learn that old people aren't just boring” storyline. However, there's some fun to be had with the bickering of the two kids. There's also an amazing sight gag with Axl practicing his nunchucks in his boxers in front of the mirror. It may be weaker than the A-plot, but it's still good for maintaining the comedy of a very good episode.
I Told You What Was Funny:
- Frankie tries to convince Brick that math is important. “Oh, even I can't say it like I believe it.”
- “You should show her a picture of me!” Mike explains how to show your work.
- “Am I going to have to separate you two?” “Please!”
- “Look at Beyoncé.” Sue thinks Beyoncé is the epitome of selflessness. It's kind of awesome.
- “You're alive!” “I am?”
- When Sue, Axl, and Aunt Edie are driving around, the camera shows them suddenly drinking from fast-food cups. Seemed like a direct reference to The Big Lebowski, but even if not, it's still a good visual gag.
- “I just love my family. I think it's really an overused word.” The principal's assistant tells Frankie she “loves” Miss Rinsky.”
- “I have a file?”
- “And please, get help with your drinking. Brick needs a mother.”