The Middle: “The Rush”

Welcome to 2016, otherwise known as “The Year of Sue: No, Seriously, For Real This Time.”

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To ring in the new year, The Middle opted to deliver an episode filled top to bottom with changes: Sue’s headed into the sorority rush, Axl’s prepping to interview for internships, Mike’s attending his first baby product convention for their Li’l Rivals diapers, Brick is buying his own pants for the first time, and Frankie is devastated.

Let’s tackle this Brick and Frankie situation first, shall we? We spent the first six seasons of the show watching Frankie sometimes forget that Brick even existed, and even as recently as earlier this season we’ve seen her shrug off her youngest child. Surely no one is surprised that Brick has finally woken up to the situation and decided to man up, as it were, and move toward maturity by deciding to buy his own pants.

Well, no one but Frankie, apparently, who has an abrupt and horrifying epiphany when Brick tells her that he’s been pants shopping with Troy. To him, it’s a step forward, and one that he reasonably presumes won’t be a big deal, given his mother’s past reticence to take him pants shopping. (This proves to be a great running gag.) To Frankie, however, it’s a sign that her youngest child is growing up and doesn’t always need her, and it sets into motion a sudden awareness on her part that she’s missed a multitude of “lasts” in his life and doesn’t want to miss out on any more of them. Why after all these years would something as seemingly benign as shopping for pants suddenly cause her internal alarm bells to start ringing? Who can say? You never know when you’re going to have your “Cat’s in the Cradle” moment, but it certainly seems as though Frankie’s had hers with Brick.

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Then again, maybe she hasn’t. We’re talking about Frankie here, after all, and since Brick makes it pretty clear during her heavy-handed attempts at forging their mother-son bond anew that he can only just barely be bothered to participate (giving us a glimpse of Mike’s DNA in the lad), it certainly seems like he’s giving her the perfect opportunity to just say, “Screw it.” Surprisingly, though, Frankie seems to have found some semblance of peace with her relationship with Brick, conceding to his request to have Troy accompany them on their special mother-son outing, and even though she admits that he doesn’t say a word to her the entire time they’re out and about, she seems sufficiently happy just to be with him. (Frankly, when you’re dealing with a burgeoning teenager, that’s really about the best you can hope for, anyway.)

On to the Axl and Mike situation, in which Mike decides to do something about Axl’s seeming inability to latch onto anything in the world of business, from tying his own necktie on down, only to discover that he himself is, to borrow a phrase from Ian Anderson, living in the past. I suppose the fact that I just made a Jethro Tull reference more or less indicates which demographic I was rooting for in this particular storyline, but I backed the wrong horse. Despite Axl initially showing ignorance on a level that’s pretty bad even by his standards – folding table, ahoy! – and displaying his usual smarminess by opting out of wearing pants during his internship interview because they can only see him from the waist up on Skype anyway, not only does he receive no comeuppance for his actions, he actually ends up getting the internship…and it’s for Little Betty, no less! If things had played out another way, we might’ve heard a decidedly prickly response to Axl’s mention of how he’s skipping over the grunt work that Mike’s been doing for Little Betty and going straight into the business office, but by that point in the episode, Mike’s had his worldview changed a bit as a result of creating a social media presence for Li’l Rivals.

I’m 100% behind anyone who feels like they need to take a stand and just, y’know, stop learning new stuff, which is effectively where Mike has been since The Middle first began, but all it takes is a single encounter with a customer at the baby product convention to realize that Li’l Rivals can’t possibly compete in the world of business without also existing within the world of social media. (With that said, the idea that the phrase “self-addressed stamped envelope” has become a punchline made me feel very sad and very, very old.) With little clue what he’s in for, Mike decides to take the plunge into the Twitter-verse, only to almost immediately enter into a Twitter war and learn the hard way that A) a well-placed retweet can be devastating, and B) yes, people hide behind the virtual world of the internet, but that doesn’t meant that they can’t still ruin your real life. As a parent, I’m not sure I love that Axl’s shitty behavior is paying off for him, but I applaud Mike’s realization that there’s a world of difference between a father’s generation and his son’s, and even though Mike might be struggling, Axl seems poised to thrive, which exactly what you want your kid to do.

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Speaking of thriving, that’s something that Sue hasn’t entirely been doing at college up ‘til now, and the thought of her rushing a sorority seemed on the surface to be destined to keep her in a rut, but little did we know how much of a positive effect her “rush buddy” Lexie – Daniela Bobadilla, late of FX’s Anger Management – would have on the situation. As anticipated, Sue fails to impress many of the sororities, only ending up in contention for two houses (which, given Sue’s past track record, is admittedly two more than they could’ve gone with), but her decision to make a point of being happy is noticed by Lexie, who makes a point of sitting next to her as they’re rushing. This discovery briefly throws Sue, who’d already convinced herself that Lexie was little more than just the girl who was killing her chances at making it into a sorority, but the two quickly bond and become fast friends. This proves to be a particularly good thing for Lexie, who is devastated when she discovers that she didn’t get into any of the sororities but quickly finds that she still has Sue’s shoulder to cry on.

Time will tell if this is really “the Year of Sue,” but if she’s truly found her first real college friend, then it’s already going to be a year that she’ll look back on fondly for the rest of her life. To my way of thinking, she’s won 2016 already.

Stray observations:

  • I wasn’t kidding when I made that comment about college friends. I’ve still got old friends from high school and before, and I certainly didn’t stop making new friends after I got my Bachelor of Arts, but in my experience, there’s something about your college friends that causes them to stand apart from the pack, and it doesn’t get any more special than that first college friend. In that spirit, here’s my first college friend, Corine Long Barber, first in a selfie from the very early ‘90s (I’m going to guess 1991) and then in one from 2014. And, yes, the first picture is terrible, but it’s cool: friendship is nothing without knowing that you can get away with posting awful photos of each other.

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  • You can’t go wrong with an episode that kicks off with a Kickin’ It Teen College Style reference.
  • Eden Sher looked super cute in her flowered dress, but Sue’s attempt at making idle chit-chat made me cringe. I’ll allow it, though, because I laughed way too hard at her hotel story. (“It was a real whodunit! Like a murder mystery, but with poop!”)
  • Saddest Sue line ever? I think this is viable a contender: “Everyone’s all tall, blonde, and perfect! Oh, wait, she’s just so-so! Oh, never mind: that was just my reflection in the window.”
  • “Is this going to be a whole thing? Because I just came in to use the bathroom.” Seriously, Mike Heck is my spirit animal.
  • Brick’s reaction to Frankie’s bonding overture: “I dunno. I’m older now, I have a friend… You might’ve missed your window!”
  • “You just got Miked!”
  • “Also, repeal Obamacare.”
  • Never forget: we’re the rabbit. The rabbit is us.

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The Goldbergs: “The Tasty Boys”

It’s been threatened for months and months, but finally Adam F. Goldberg was able to make good on his longstanding desire to deliver an episode featuring a storyline derived from the shared love that he and his brother had for the Beastie Boys. It was worth the wait.

After laying the groundwork over the course of the previous seasons to define Barry as a wannabe rapper with reportedly mad skillz, yo, without ever really seeing evidence that he could hold his own beyond his bedroom or the basement, this was the big chance to let Big Tasty prove himself in front of a live audience. Did it seem likely that he and his crew were going to be Jenkintown’s answer to Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D? No. No, it did not. But that didn’t stop it from being a hysterical display of hype at its finest, albeit one that absolutely infuriated Erica, who rightfully proclaimed her superior musical abilities. In turn, Barry scoffed at her claims of superiority and reminded her that her musical abilities don’t matter much if she’s so paralyzed by fears of what people will think of her “lame chick songs” that she’s scared to actually play them for anyone. (It’s a fair cop.)

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We’ve known for some time that Barry is a master hype man, but it was on full display this week as his boundless ego found him so convinced of his impending success that he was more concerned with putting together the perfect photo for the album cover than, say, actually writing songs. Not that he’s bothered by that, mind you. After all, everyone knows of his gift for freestyling, right? In fact, that’s when it becomes evident just how great a hype man Barry truly is: he’s even managed to convince himself that he’s got that gift. Thing is, though, he actually doesn’t have that gift, and when he has his come-to-Jehovah moment just as he’s about to walk onstage, panic ensues. No, seriously, Geoff runs off like a madman (as is only appropriate), but his absence serves to set up a moment I think we probably knew was going to happen: Erica steps up, concedes Barry’s point from earlier in the episode, and comes up with a way to salvage the situation.

Before we get to that salvage effort, though, let’s talk about Bev and Murray’s kitchen shenanigans, which involve Bev visiting Virginia Kremp and experiencing so much kitchen envy that she runs home and demands that Murray upgrade their kitchen as well. A battle of wills ensues, with Murray steadfastly preferring the comfortable rut that is his life and using the excuse that the cost would be out of their price range. That’s when good ol’ Bill Lewis steps in to offer whatever help he can provide to make this kitchen thing happen, but Murray smacks down that plan, too, causing Bev to sneer at her husband’s fear of change. Murray denies this claim, only to promptly prove it repeatedly the next time he walks into the house, resulting in a back-and-forth between Jeff Garlin and Wendi McLendon-Covey that’s particularly great, and he tries to prove his flexibility. He fails, yet he still refuses to give in to Bev’s demands, inspiring her to deliver a vow that she’ll channel her inner Bob Vila and upgrade the kitchen by her own damned self.

That does not happen. In fact, the opposite happens: she manages to ruin the still-perfectly-respectable kitchen that they already had, leaving little more than rubble in her wake. After a plea to Murray, he agrees to initiate renovations, after which Bev concedes to Pops that the whole thing was a ruse designed to get Murray to give her what she wanted all along. What she doesn’t realize, however, is that Murray is onto her ruse and has gotten Bill Lewis to renovate the kitchen right back to the way it was. Suddenly, the battle of wills is on again, and this time the casualties of war are cans from Murray’s stash of original Coke. I’m curious to know if this is one of the many moments that’s derived from actual Goldberg family events, as my initial instinct was that Adam F. Goldberg stormed into the writers room and said, “Okay, season three ultimatum: we need to get ‘New Coke’ off the possible-storylines corkboard by the end of season three, because I’m so tired of looking at that fucking index card, I can’t even tell you…” However much reality is involved in this portion of the saga doesn’t really matter, though: in the end, Bill may be emotionally traumatized, but Murray realizes the error of his ways, tries to show Bev his willingness to change once more (this time with feeling), and eventually joins forces with her to help give her the kitchen upgrade she wants.

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And that brings us to the “Shake Your Rump” sequence, which is easily among the greatest few minutes we’ve ever been given by The Goldbergs. Like, ever. It’s choreographed brilliantly, with the lip-synching and the inspired use of the juice box, and it’s just icing on the cake to jump over to Bev and Murray and use the Beasties as the soundtrack to their kitchen repairs as well.

I said it at the beginning of the review, and I’ll say it again here at the close: this episode was worth the wait.

Stray observations:

  • The “ill” exchange with Bev was the perfect way to kick off the proceedings.
  • It’s become a given that McLendon-Covey will deliver memorable moments in every episode, but her reactions to Virginia’s kitchen and her attempts to sell Murray on the idea of doing a similar renovation to their kitchen were comedy gold.
  • “READ THE ROOM, BILL.”
  • “You’re not three awesome musicians, you’re two clueless idiots.” “You’re right! We need a third!”
  • “Before you say ‘yes,’ I have a list of 200 demands.”
  • “‘Boxer shorts.’ How dare you.”
  • “Gorgs! Doozers!”
  • George Segal deserves all of the awards for his delivery of the line, “I heard they’re teaming up with Eric B. and Rakim!”
  • “That’s it! I’m a floor person now!”
  • I’ll just kind of throw all of the Beasties badassery into a single segment here, but using Erica’s old glasses to achieve the fisheye lens effect was great (even if I’m not sure that it would actually work that way), as was the visual gag of seeing the guys in their obviously-very-different-from-the-Beasties outfits, but the lip-synching was the best. I’ll never hear “Shake Your Rump” again without imagine Hayley Orrantia mouthing the title…and I’m okay with that.

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