The Middle: “The Shirt”

When a family-centric sitcom like The Middle suddenly finds itself with not one but two of its big five characters out of the house and away at college, it’s to be expected that there’ll be a certain period of transition where the writers have to figure out how to best utilize the new dynamic, preferably without stumbling too much in the process. This week’s episode doesn’t dip in quality to the point where it can truly be called a stumble – none of the storylines are actually bad, and that’s certainly a good thing – but in terms of the consistency of the episode as a whole, there’s definitely tenuous traction afoot.

Advertisement

While it’s certainly fun to watch Sue revel in the realization that she can join as many clubs and organizations at college without having to worry about being cut, it doesn’t take long to realize that this one gag is really just gravy on top of the real reason she’s in the episode: to set into motion the series of events that leads to Axl and Devin breaking up…except that by time the closing credits roll, they’re not broken up anymore.

They are, however, in agreement that since they’re in college, they should both be able to enjoy the campus’s formidable supply of hot single people to the best of their ability, just as long as they continue to see each other, too, and still watch football together every Sunday. Everything happens so fast that there’s barely time to feel bad for Axl or to be grouchy with him for how he treated Sue before Devin has explained her new position on their relationship and Axl has signed on.

Meanwhile, back at the homestead, Brick has grown understandably annoyed with the realization that the longstanding chore wheel at the house is no longer viable: when he spins to see whose turn it is to do a particular chore, no matter whose name it lands on, he gets stuck with the chore. As such, he creates a new chart which offers both of his parents the opportunity to pick up the slack. It’s an offer that Mike cheerily refuses to have anything to do with (“Put me down for no days and no days”), and Frankie’s not much better, steering Brick to the laundry room so that he can stop talking and start cleaning the bathroom.

Advertisement

Once Brick embarks on his assignment, though, he gets more and more caught up in the process, focusing on smaller and smaller aspects of cleaning until he starts scrubbing out the grout and eventually causes the wall tiles to completely fall off the wall. As Frankie reminds him later, though, there’s every reason to believe that – not unlike the filth and grime that’s holding the family together – if you mess with things around the house too much, everything could completely collapse, so better to just do what’s asked of you, no more and no less. Okay, that’s not a precise quote, but you have to admit, you couldn’t pick a better Heck family motto.

And then we come to Frankie and Mike, whose battle of the week - as the episode’s title implies - is about is about the latter’s shirt. More specifically, it’s about how everyone is so utterly disconcerted to see Mike wearing a Hawaiian shirt for a change that they can’t resist the opportunity to tease him mercilessly about it. This sits poorly with him, as you might expect, and it certainly doesn’t help when Frankie assured him that he can consider the matter dropped, only for her to continue railing on about it. Thankfully, it isn’t long before it looks as though everyone’s kissed and made up, all is forgiven, and everything is right with the world once more…until Mike spontaneously decides to buy a motorcycle that one of his co-workers had been selling. As you probably already guessed long before watching the film, Mike’s in the middle of a midlife crisis, one no doubt brought on by thoughts of how two of his kids are in college and he’s not getting any younger. But, hey, I’ll bet that cycle solves all his problems. (Sure. Because it’s always that simple.)

In the end, we get a round-robin conversation with Brick, Sue, and Axl all talking and having a good laugh with each other about Mike’s emotional state as the closing credits roll, much as we did earlier in the episode, when the kids were sharing their mutual opinions about what Mike’s shirt meant. Good times.

Advertisement

As noted, “The Shirt” is not a bad episode. It’s just all over the place. As the season progresses and all of the new dynamics are discussed further, then hopefully the stories will start to gel together a bit better and everything will be back on track before you know it. (Fingers crossed.)

Stray observations:

  • Best visual gag: seeing Sue running around frantically while Axl and Devin are strolling through the common area. (As Axl says, “Let her wear herself out. She’ll sleep better.”)
  • Best club: Muggle Quidditch.
  • It’s clear that the ant storyline has not yet reached its conclusion. I fear that it will not end well for anyone.
  • “Well, hey there, Hawkeye. Where’s Trapper John?” I laughed both times.
  • It was nice to actually see the Hecks doing a double-date of sorts with the Norwoods, giving us the chance to experience the two couples together. We don’t get to see that very often. Special kudos for the bit about the failed attempt to cheat with the coupon, which struck me as very familiar indeed.
  • Similarly, it’s always nice to see Nancy Donahue stop by, but it was especially funny that her only possible explanation for Mike being in a Hawaiian shirt was that Frankie had thrown a luau and opted not to invite the Donahues as some sort of payback. As if Frankie would throw a party without inviting the people who always bring the best food.
  • Having kind of dismissed Sue’s stuff pretty quickly, let me just jump back and say that I was entertained by the a cappella performance by one of her many new clubs - it was a very sweet gesture - and
  • I don’t know that I love the new relationship status between Axl and Devin, but if nothing else, I guess that makes it easier to explain her absence when they can’t bring her back for a particular episode.
  • Lastly, even though it was a small thing, I got a big laugh out of Frankie picking the towel off the bathroom floor, giving the sniff test, and then deciding that it was sufficiently stink-free to warrant being hung back on the rack.

Advertisement

The Goldbergs: “Jimmy 5 Is Alive”

Back in the ‘80s – and I think this is the first time I’ve ever actually used those four words to open one of my Goldbergs reviews, so I hope you heard them in Patton Oswald’s voice – one of the most stomach-churning things imaginable was to suddenly realize that you’d accidentally taped over something that you’d intended to keep forever.

Advertisement

Thankfully, my mother never had any of my childhood experiences on home video, so I couldn’t possibly do the sort of damage Barry did to Beverly when he taped his…Jampilation, was it? Sorry, I was too busy scribbling down the phrases “Slam, Jam, Thank You, Ma’am,” “Honey, I Dunked the Kid,” and “Good Morning, Vietslam” to be sure I’d gotten the initial name right, but you know what I’m talking about.

Once Barry realizes the damage he’s done to his mother’s video tape, he immediately seeks help from Coach Mellor, who apparently picks up 60 extra bucks a week to serve as advisor to the AV Club even though he clearly doesn’t know anything at all about technology and isn’t afraid to admit it. (Shockingly, his assurance that pressing “record” and “rewind” at the same time will erase the last item recorded on the tape turns out to be completely inaccurate.)

Taking matters into his own hands, Barry uses a fake label to trick Beverly into believing that she’s accidentally taped over it herself. Unfortunately, what Barry intended as a way to just get his mom to move on with her life without the home-video memories quickly sends her into an emotional spiral which neither Barry nor Erica can stand to see. (I mean, when you can’t even find the will to jazzercise, you’re pretty damned bad off.) As such, Barry creates a Momtage, hoping that the supercut of her being awesome over the years would cheer her up, but despite the use of “Never Surrender” as the soundtrack, it becomes clear that Barry’s plan is doomed when, at the very end, he realizes that he’s actually taped over another home video in the process.

Advertisement

Seeing no other viable options, Barry decides to come clean and tell Beverly the truth, hoping that offering this information in the midst of a Jamfest might keep her spirits up. In fact, it only serves to get her even more riled up – probably because of the despicable way he turned her against Phil Donahue – and when she opens her mouth, she proceeds to effectively destroy every illusion that Barry had ever had about his NBA career by telling him that the net he’s been using all this time is not, in fact, regulation.

Not entirely surprisingly, the end result is that she breaks his heart, leading her to try and salvage the situation by making her own compilation video for him which spotlights all of his awesomeness, at which point it’s time to cue up the heartfelt speech where she admits she forgives him and explains why she got upset, and he assures her that he’s always going to need her. Okay, so maybe it’s a little schmaltzy, but at the end of the episode, when Barry asks her if she wants to come watch him do some jamming and she says in a tear-tinged voice, “I’d love to, baby,” her delivery got me momentarily choked up. Behold the skill of Wendi McLendon-Covey: she can do drama just as well as comedy if you give her half a chance.

Meanwhile, as all of this is going on between Barry and Bev, Adam and Murray are busy bonding over robots…except not really. Y’see, with the advent of cable, Murray has become addicted to the Weather Channel, and anytime he’s sitting in front of the TV and not learning something new about the weather is a disappointment, as far as he’s concerned. Adam, meanwhile, is riding on a Short Circuit high – if maybe not so much Short Circuit 2 – and has decided to come to his father with a pitch for a “learning-based project” that requires a donation of approximately $100 to make a robot. Murray isn’t interested, but Adam’s got a hail-Mary pass in his back pocket by complaining about the situation to Bev, who quickly changes Murray’s tune and assures him that he most certainly will be building a robot with Adam.

Advertisement

The process of brainstorming about the robot – with Pops serving as secretary – turns out to be a hilarious exercise in Adam wanting some seriously sci-fi additions, from time travel on down, while Murray wants more practical additions, many of them decidedly weather-related. Needless to say, the two butt heads – as Adam says, “Unless the robot can give a fog report, my dad ain’t onboard” –and it finally reaches a point where, not unlike the Barry / Bev situation, Murray finally just blows up and tells Adam to stop playing with toys.

This really hits Adam where it hurts, and it doesn’t help the situation any when Erica tells him that Murray wasn’t entirely wrong, revealing her own sordid Strawberry Shortcake past and how she’d never be the person she is today if she hadn’t put away her childish things. In turn, a dejected Adam starts moving in that direction, woefully telling his R2D2 and C3P0 figures that they weren’t the droids he was looking for, but when Pops spots what’s going out and scolds Murray, Murray tries to fix things between him and Adam by breaking down and spending the money on a not-quite-life-size Johnny 5 and rolls it into the living room. Adam’s still too pissed to react as Murray had hoped he would, so – in a slightly exasperated voice – Murray feels obliged to admit that these things that are what makes him who he is, and he wouldn’t want to change that. “Well, maybe a little,” he corrects, admitting with a shrug. “You’re a weird kid.”

Yes, but aren’t we all weird kids, really?

Stray observations:

  • So Adam is “the weird kid with the Muppet voice” to the coach? Somehow that seems right.
  • I have to be honest: I’m pretty sure I haven’t thought about Short Circuit 2 since I did my Random Roles with Michael McKean back in 2013, and that has not proven to be a problem for me. I did, however, love the original Short Circuit, and I don’t mind admitting that I still love this song, too:

  • Say, how is Johnny 5 floating on that raft in the Short Circut 2 poster, anyway?
  • “Mama, why won’t he let me learn stuff?”
  • I have known people who have gotten at least as upset about losing at Trivial Pursuit as Barry does in the video Bev makes for him. It’s not pretty.
  • It’s a tiny thing, but I noticed and enjoyed the inconsistent construction of Bev’s video, where sometimes the title cards come before what’s happening on the screen and sometimes they come after it.
  • A David Hasselhoff action figure in the Strawberry Shortcake universe? I’d offer derisive laughter, but I couldn’t begin to tell you how many different action-figure crossovers I had with my toys. Of course, I don’t think any of my crossovers involved kissing…

Advertisement