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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Middle: “The Optimist”

Illustration for article titled The Middle: “The Optimist”
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It’s not exactly a new phenomenon for the transition from high school to college to inspire stress in both teenagers and their parents, but the amount of stress it inspires has done nothing but rise over the years, having now reached a point where consideration of how to pay for a child’s future education has become a talking point with couples before their child has even been conceived.

It has long been established that the Hecks are not one of those couples. If they were, then The Middle wouldn’t have had such a prominent, long-running plot thread about how desperately Axl needed to get that football scholarship. Now that the time has come to deal with Sue’s impending jump from high school to college, however, neither Frankie nor Mike seem nearly as stressed about her situation as they were with nailing down their eldest son’s path to higher education. Fortunately, Sue has no problem making up for their lack of anxiety about the matter, handily supplanting it with her own.

It’s mildly disconcerting to see the Princess of the Perpetual Silver Lining suddenly losing her mind and freaking out over how uncertain her future is, applying for any and every scholarship that’s out there, no matter how small it may be or what she’s required to study to earn it. (“For $50, I will study anything they want me to!”) On top of that, she’s doubling up on her studies, working extra shifts at Spudsy’s, and volunteering at an old folks’ home in order to bulk up her extracurricular accomplishments. There have been plenty of times when Sue’s reactions to events have been improbable, to say the least, but this week finds her general mindset hewing pretty close to that of more or less every teenager with an interest in getting a college education.

Worried about her daughter’s stress levels, no doubt because she knows how honestly she comes by that trait (and, yes, also because she knows their insurance doesn’t cover stress-related issues), Frankie decides to treat Sue to a spa day. Granted, it’s a spa day within their budget, which means that she’s purchased it through Groupon and it’s still only the $15.99 package, but even so, it’s a sweet gesture that leads to some truly lovely mother-daughter moments, something this season has been sorely lacking.

We’ve heard Brick complain about being the afterthought of the Heck siblings, the one who regularly gets the shaft simply by virtue of being the last in line, but this week Sue gets an opportunity to sound off about the things that suck about being stuck in the middle position, a situation which she’s convinced extends into all other aspects of her life as well. Frankie, however, counters by saying that Sue is the only one of her three kids that she doesn’t worry about, because she knows that her nature is such that she can bounce back from any situation, no matter how bad it might be.

Sue’s storyline is certainly the one that’s central to this week’s episode, but the others have their merits, albeit to varying degrees. Certainly, the most easily-dispensable of the bunch belongs to Frankie, whose failure to mail out the reminder postcards for Dr. Goodwin feels completely superfluous when compared to anything going on in her kids’ lives. (Actually, what it feels like is that the show needed to fit one more Jack McBrayer appearance into the season, and this was the only episode it could shoehorn into. But, boy, does it feel shoehorned.)


It’s a nice, decidedly lighter parallel to Sue’s story to focus on Axl and Hutch’s sudden realization that they need to bulk up quickly in order to be certain that they’ll be in prime position to play next year. Not terribly substantive, mind you, but a pleasant aside, particularly in the initial bit when they’re reflecting on how they could possibly have so little left in their meal account.

The big surprise of the episode, however, is the saga of Mike’s failed but well-intentioned attempt to defend Brick from a girl who seemed to be bullying him. Not that the disparity between Brick and Mike isn’t always a set-up for an entertaining time, but this storyline is a bit unique, spotlighting not only their differences but also the problems that erupt from simple misunderstandings as well as from having your parental sensibilities fail to mesh with the parents of one of your kid’s classmates. Oh, and it also touches on that most awful of issues: when your kids throw some lesson you’ve taught them back in your face. Man, that sucks…


Stray observations:

  • “Would you guys describe yourselves as more escapist drinks or panic drinkers?” “Escapist drinkers. Definitely.”
  • Henceforth, I’m probably going to refer to Jack McBrayer’s character as Dr. Shinytooth. It’s just too perfect.
  • Sometimes, a line reading is so perfect that it merits specific mention, and I’m not sure if it’s because it was so close to my own child’s tone or because Atticus Shaffer delivered it in a completely different tone from the lines around it, but… after Brick complained to Mike that middle school was hard, was about to jump out of the car, the way he said “never mind, I’ll be fine” really stood out to me. Clearly, the subtext was, “You can never understand my pain, old man, and I’m wasting my breath trying to explain it.”
  • “It’s easy to get into college: all you have to be is super-awesome. Oh, wait…”
  • I never do this—I leave it to you guys—but given the sign in the spa, I can’t resist: “The AV Club: If you are incontinent, please refrain from using tub.