The Middle: “The Show Must Go On”

As someone who hasn’t hesitated to acknowledge my increasing annoyance with The Middle’s tendency to play the “we forgot about Brick” card, you can probably imagine the annoyed murmuring that emerged when it looked as though we were going to be closing out the show’s seventh season by going down that very road. As it happens, though, they did so in a manner which found Frankie finally finding a legitimate burst of guilt for the way she’s been treating Brick for lo these many years.

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Not that there’s any reason to believe that it’ll be anything other than an isolated incident, of course, but it’s just nice to see it happen at all.

Given the way this season has been progressing, it seemed more likely than not that the predominant storyline was destined to involve Sue’s impending departure for Dollywood, dealing perhaps with Axl’s increasing willingness to acknowledge his fondness for his sister and the realization that he might actually miss her when she’s gone. In the end, Axl ended up being handed a storyline which felt like a bit of a throwaway, focusing as it did on his new summer gig as a counselor at the Orson Heights Country Club. Yes, there was a certain degree of amusement to be derived from the realization that he was dealing with a kid whose obnoxiousness mirrored his own methods of getting under people’s skin, but there wasn’t a great deal of time spent on the lad for there to be much emotional heft when Axl turned the kid around and got him to join the team. That said, the way Axl handled the situation provided proof that the sweeter side of him that we’ve seen around Sue lately isn’t just limited to his family members.

In regards to Sue’s aforementioned Dollywood departure, she’s been excited as all get-out about her summer gig and getting to spend time with her best buddy, Brad, but given Mike’s admitted lack of enthusiasm about her leaving town for the summer and her aforementioned bond with her brother growing stronger, it would not have surprised me if she’d suddenly gotten cold feet at the last second. But she didn’t. She did, however, have a brief crisis of conscience in regards to whether or not she was willing to stay for Brick’s graduation at the possible expense of her Dollywood gig, but even that ultimately came to naught, with Brad helping execute an excuse to allow her to be late arriving at the park. In the end, though, she did indeed leave for the summer as she’d been determined to do all along, and while we didn’t see how things went when the whole family dropped her off, we did get to see that she totally crushed if, even if her Southern accent does tend to shift into British sometimes.

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Now let’s get back to talking about this whole Brick and Frankie storyline, which finds Brick really laying it on thick about how he’s excited to finally get his moment in the sun and explain that, in lieu of being valedictorian, he’s going to be singing during graduation. Frankie, meanwhile, is scrambling like nobody’s business to try and make up for the fact that she did indeed completely forget about Brick’s graduation, which is likely why she’s so emotional so quickly when she learns that Brick and several other students have been dropped as singers from the graduation ceremony, causing an abrupt halt to the “hero’s journey” he’d believed himself to finally be on. Before she can head down to the school to give them a piece of her mind, Mike intervenes and offers to go instead. It was a nice idea, but of course he fails to live up to Frankie’s expectations, and spectacularly so: not only does he fail to get Brick back in the ceremony, but his meeting with the principal results in everyone being removed from performing.

This, in turn, upsets Nancy Donahue, which leads to Ron going to the school and getting the original nine performers added back to the ceremony…and that’s when Frankie bursts into the school herself and launches into a tirade of Bev Goldberg proportions against Brick’s principal (played by Wayne Wilderson) which inevitably results in her getting her way. And this, of course, is when Brick says that he’s over the idea of singing in front of his class, a belief which causes Frankie to tell Mike via text, “I’m going to kill him.” Thankfully, death proves not to be imminent: after a bit more wrangling behind the scenes, Brick ends up being allowed to do a duet with his classmate Troy accompanying him on guitar. While it’s thoroughly unsurprising that Frankie should abruptly realize just before Brick’s performance that she has no clue if he can sing or not, Brick and Troy manage to surprise just about everyone – and that includes yours truly – by launching into a harmony-laden comer of The Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year” while is remarkably moving.

Frankie Heck will never be Mom of the Year – she’s far too prone to getting focused on her problems over other people’s issues for that to ever happen – but this week she proved that she’s still capable of stepping up and fighting back against whoever or whatever might be trying to keep her youngest son down. And Sue proved that she could leave her comfort zone to try something new that will benefit her in the long run. And Axl proved that he could be a positive influence to younger kids, even if he almost certainly warped their little minds at least a bit.

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As for the decision to reveal up front what the characters have to look forward to over the summer, hey, why not? But at least we ended up with a little bit of a cliffhanger, which adds a nice bit of excitement to the proceedings. Who is the love of Axl’s life? I reckon we’ll find out in the fall. For now, though, we’ve gotten a fun family-filled finale that wraps up with everyone in the car, chatting away. Granted, I generally prefer my episodes of The Middle to begin with talking rather than having them fade out to chatter, but when it comes down to it, I’m just glad that everyone’s happy.

Stray observations:

  • The fact that Sue didn’t get up in arms about abruptly losing her departure celebration in favor of trying to pacify Brick indicates to me that she’s resigned to her fate and ready to just go and be done with it.
  • Brad got the date of Sue’s Dollywood arrival wrong, but he had a very good explanation: he looked at the wrong Lady Gaga calendar, which he hasn’t been able to throw away because “nobody puts Gaga in a wastebasket!”
  • I loved the recurring gag of everyone attempting to reminisce using sentimental clips from past episodes, only for them to be interrupted abruptly and forced to stop.
  • Nice work from Wayne Wilderson as Brick’s principal, particularly the weariness he expressed by the time she threw herself in front of his car t keep him from leaving. (“I’ll provide the match!”)
  • Well, of course the boat Axl’s working on with the kids at the country club is called the S.S. Fart Barge.
  • Oh, the new blue bag? Frankie forgot that one, too.

The Goldbergs: “Have A Summer”

Given how exhausted both students and teachers tend to be as the school year wraps up, the last few days of class before summer vacation are often among the best days you get all year. What’s that? You say you actually took final exams when you were in school? Well, look, I don’t know what kind of fancy-pants learning institution you went to, Poindexter, but wherever it was, you clearly should’ve transferred out of there and gone to William Penn Academy instead, where words like “exam” and “test” are never uttered within the context of the school year’s end. Instead, they’re watching Bloodsport in gym class (and while they’re outside sitting in the grass, no less) and rationalizing the screening of Cannonball Run 2 in Calculus because there’s a number in its title.

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Clearly, these final days of school aren’t about education. Heck, they’re not even about watching wildly inappropriately movies. They’re about fear…or to put it more specifically, they’re about Freshman Fear Week.

Ah, the good old days: when the tradition of psychologically and physically torturing underclassmen was so commonplace that it was actually school-sanctioned. It’s ironic that this particular storyline should end up being featured in an episode which also features a reference to Duckie from Pretty in Pink, given that I immediately thought of my most recent AV Club interview with Jon Cryer, where we talked about his favorite teen-centric films and he made this remark in regards to Carrie:

“It’s a very interesting change in terms of how my son is going through his high school years and how I went through them. Now those social things, the hazing and the bullying and all that stuff, when I was a kid, those things were just an accepted part of the subculture, but now schools are making a real conscious effort to de-normalize that stuff. So it’s weird! I feel like these kids are going to high school on Mars, you know? Because things are so different from my experience. You sort of go, “Well, maybe it toughened me up.” And maybe it did… or maybe it was just horrible!”

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Probably it was a little bit of both, which seems to be the case with Adam. There’s no question that it’s horrible – if it wasn’t, then he and his friends wouldn’t be having instant anxiety attacks at the mere thought of Freshman Fear Week – but at the same time, it’s the inherent terror of the situation that leads him to perform a move that both saves him from humiliation and makes him into one of the coolest kids in school. Sure, it’s at the expense of his brother’s credibility, but you take the good, you take the bad…

Before Adam spontaneously flips Barry, however, his initial instinct – to run home and tell Mama – sets another of the episode’s storylines into motion. When he tells Bev all the bad things Barry’s going to do to him in celebration of Freshman Fear Week, Barry quickly counters with arguably the most brilliantly devious maneuver we’ve ever seen him perform: he forces her to look at her former baby boy and truly see the “pubescent monster” that he’s become, and to paraphrase a famous bit of Futurama narration, now that she’s seen it, she can’t un-see it. Having an instant anxiety attack of her own, Bev immediately seeks solace by sitting on the floor of a dark closet, inhaling the scent of Adam’s old baby blanket like she’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Pops is concerned, as well he might be, but Murray writes off his wife’s actions as her “just having some Bev time” until he’s begrudgingly prodded in the direction of performing an intervention, convincing her that it’s time to put away the blanket. Unfortunately, Erica ends up being the one to put it away, doing so in a slightly more long-term manner than had been intended, which brings to the third storyline of the proceedings.

Yes, kids, you know it’s a special episode when The Goldbergs delivers an A-story, a B-story, and a C-story.

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Actually, it’s really more of a B1 storyline and a B2 storyline, since Erica’s story is so inextricably linked to Bev’s, but…well, let’s stop splitting hairs and just talk about the time capsule. Allie Grant returns Evelyn Silver, and she’s in charge of the capsule, which is a responsibility that she takes very seriously, even if not everyone else does. (Witness the number of Rubik’s Cubes submitted for inclusion.) Erica, at least, tries to do it by the book, bringing one of her prized – or at least formerly prized – New Kids on the Block collectible plates and wrapping it in a blanket to avoid breakage, whereas Geoff Schwartz decides to be absurdly romantic by slipping a cassette tape into the capsule which features him declaring his love to Erica and singing Asia’s “Heat of the Moment.” These are decisions which will comes back to haunt both Geoff and Erica, but while he and the rest of the JTP are hanging around the capsule, there’s an obvious spark between him and Evelyn.

Okay, so maybe the feelings are only one-sided at first. Certainly there’s something appropriate about the mention of putting a Hall & Oates poster in the capture: Evelyn is a man-eater, and it’s obvious that she has plans to eat Geoff up.

Erica, meanwhile, is oblivious to just about anything Geoff-related, having dismissively written “have a summer” in his yearbook, but it turns out that she’s also been oblivious to the blanket she’s used to wrap her plate: it was Adam’s baby blanket, and despite the fact that it apparently smells like chicken pox and night sweat, when Bev finds out it’s been buried, she won’t rest until it’s been dug back up and returned to her possession. It doesn’t take long for Erica to find herself wrangling into helping with the reacquisition efforts, however, and when Geoff ends up accidentally being privy to Erica and Bev’s plans, he realizes that he needs to get involved as well, lest she find out about the tape. In the end, everything goes to hell in a handbasket: Geoff accidentally hits a water pipe, causing $600 in damage, the blanket is soaked through and is completely devoid of Adam’s scent (man, that really felt creepy to type), and everything in the time capsule is ruined except for the tape, which Erica dismisses, along with any suggestion that she might possibly have feelings for Geoff. Except she does, of course, which is why the episode ends just as we’d known it would: with Geoff and Evelyn having becoming a couple at apparently the precise moment that Erica had her epiphany.

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Sorry, kid, but that’s your lot in life when you’re part of a “will they or won’t they?” sitcom romance.

To jump back to Adam and Barry, it’s actually a pretty unexpected and wonderful moment when Adam flips Barry. Certainly, it’s unexpected for Barry, given his WTF response when it goes down, but it’s decidedly less wonderful for him than it is for Adam, which becomes obvious when Barry comes to school the next day to find himself being mocked, ridiculed, and ostracized by everyone from the JTP on down. I mean, you know things are bad when the JTP don’t even feel comfortable replying to Barry’s “J!T!P!” with a “J!T!P!” of their own, but when even Lainey seems on the fence about being by his side in his time of need, that’s just downright tragic.

At first, Adam is unabashedly unapologetic about his actions, but he begins to question his adamant stance when Barry suggests that he was only going to torture Adam as a sign of respect…or something like that, anyway. It’s Pops who really brings it home for him, though, reminding him that the older brother / younger brother dynamic is basically what makes Barry the person that he is, and if he doesn’t get that back, it could prove devastating. Adam tries to just talk it out, explaining the (fake) scientific phenomenon that enabled him to execute the flip, and his completely unconvincing explanation absolutely convinces Barry that it was a fluke. To help Barry get his social standing back, however, Adam goes a step further and helps his big brother execute a prank of the highest order, turning the sprinklers on during graduation practice, thereby showering not only the rising freshmen but also the principal. Everyone walks away a winner.

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Well, ‘til next season anyway. Wait ‘til they find out that Bev’s going back to school to get her teaching certificate. They’ll be thrilled.

Stray observations:

  • “You’re not athletic enough to get athlete’s foot!”
  • I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there’s nothing wrong with being a Duckie.
  • I loved the “shush” vs. “shower sound” argument between Adam and Barry.
  • “She’s got the forearms of a tennis pro!”
  • Coach calling Barry “Goldberg” and Adam “Goldfarb” back to back was awesome.
  • “Some people are upset about their pet project.” Stephen Tobolowsky always nails his lines, but that one was particularly great.
  • Watching Gummi Bears while eating Gummi Bears? The mind boggles.
  • “…and no doing the worm, Dave Kim. I am onto you.” “This is America, man!”
  • “No! This is my graduation turtleneck!”
  • Lastly, I would just like to say that I love Asia, I have always loved Asia, and I always will love Asia. Like, to the point where my giddiness was off the charts when the original lineup of the band got back together in 2008 and released a new album. It’s like the never left, baby!

Well, that’s it for another season of The Middle and The Goldbergs, but before I go, I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the news that fans of both The Middle and The Goldbergs have probably already heard by now: when the two series return in the fall, The Middle will be moving to Tuesdays at 8 pm and The Goldbergs will be moving forward to the 8 pm Wednesday slot.

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You can view this as a vote of confidence from ABC that The Middle is strong enough to help the network kick off their newly-minted Tuesday night comedy block, or you can view it as a vote of confidence in The Goldbergs that it’s strong enough to serve in The Middle’s stead on Wednesday nights. If you’re me, though, you view it as an opportunity to actually go to bed before the wee hours of Thursday morning because there won’t be two reviews to write in a single night.

As to whether or not the AV Club will let me continue to do the reviews of both shows when the fall rolls around, well, that’s actually a decision that’s made somewhere above my pay grade, but I’ll say this much: if they do let me keep doing them, I expect there’ll be far fewer typos and duplicated words and/or whole paragraphs. I’ll also add that it sure seems like we’ve had more comments on the reviews this season, which makes me wonder if we could indeed find ourselves with enough reader interaction to make them worthwhile as independent reviews.

For now, though, I’ll just say thank you to everyone who’s been reading these late-night / early-morning missives about my two favorite family sitcoms, and I hope you’ll keep reading next season, no matter what happens.

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