The Middle: “The Sink Hole”

You know you’re watching an instant fan-favorite episode of The Middle when you lose track of how many callbacks have been made to past moments in the series.

That opening line may make it sound like this week’s installment is one which might leave new viewers utterly baffled as to what they’re watching, and while that might not be entirely true, it’s certainly not the best starting point for someone who’s never seen the show before. Having said that, however, if you’ve been a dedicated viewer since day one, then there’s a strong chance you could walk away from the proceedings having deemed “The Sink Hole” your favorite episode of the season to date.

There are extended stretches where, were it not for the plotline revolving around Sue’s concerns that her lack of a gym credit might keep her from graduating high school in a timely fashion, you could just about fool someone into thinking that this had been left over from an earlier season (possibly even one when Axl was still in high school, given the way he inexplicably loiters around the house for the duration of the entire episode), but that only serves to increase the sensation that you’re watching a classic episode.

First, let’s talk about the sink, which gives up the ghost and collapses into the cabinet below, resulting in a scenario where Frankie ends up washing dishes using any other means available to her, ranging from hauling the hose in through the kitchen window to having everyone bring dirty plates, pots, and pans into the shower with them to give them a good rinsing. Is it absurd? Well, I might’ve said so if I didn’t currently have to use the sprayer on my kitchen sink because our faucet is broken, but even at that, there’s been at least one occasion where problems with our drain resulted in the washing of a pot in our bathtub, so, yeah, I’m going to have to say that it’s not as absurd as you’d think, and it’s definitely not as absurd as I personally wish it was.

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Then there’s Brick, who breaks Mike’s lawnmower, seeks guidance from Axl on how to salvage the situation, but soon finds himself in over his head when he realizes that he can’t execute Axl’s idea for how to save the day without his own lack of concentration befouling his efforts. Also, Brick’s just not as devious or as despicable as his older brother, although he does successfully manage to swipe Mike’s wallet in a scene which really gives Atticus Shaffer a chance to show just how great he is at acting with his eyes. The Axl / Brick pairing is one that invariably pays off with big laughs, and this is no exception, particularly when Axl is bemoaning how he’s wasted a perfectly good plan on his brother when he could’ve given it to some inner city kid that would’ve used it to find a better life for himself.

As for Sue’s story, the writers of The Middle are probably all pretty well burned out on athletic-related “Sue Heck wins” plots at this point, which may be why this feels like a way to kind of give viewers one last hurrah. The guest appearance by Phyllis Smith, late of The Office, as a nervous and uncertain counselor sets up the idea that Sue needs one more phys ed credit to graduate – the nerve of those people to suggest that the Wrestlerettes aren’t legit! – and, as a result, Sue finds herself in a position where her future depends on being able to master tinikling, of all things. In the end, she succeeds, only to discover that it’s straight on to gymnastics. The last shot of the episode, with Sue struggling but still smiling, seems like a way of saying, “No, it’s not over, but she’s going to keep plugging away,” which is why my suspicion is that this is the last we’ll hear about the missing P.E. credit ‘til graduation, when we’ll find out that she successfully managed to make it up.

But while all of these individual storylines are fine and well, it’s the found-wallet scene that turns this episode from “pretty great” to “damned near fantastic.” This isn’t necessarily a huge surprise, since we’ve seen repeatedly that when the whole family gets the opportunity to play together, you’re guaranteed to see some good stuff, but the dismantling of Mike’s wallet by Frankie and the kids was where the magic happened. They could’ve just stuck with the easy jokes of Mike still carrying around a Blockbuster card, but they upped the ante with the idea that he’s had the wallet so long that he still carries a photo of his high school girlfriend, and then they delivered a few in-jokes for the fans, like the Reservoir Dogs ticket stub and that the fact that he’s got a picture of Limestone, the dead quarry cat, but not one of Sue. The big reveal, though, was the return of the death napkin, leading to a wonderful semi-reprise of the car scene from “The Map,” except this time without the pathos of Aunt Ginny’s funeral to bring us down. In addition, there’s also a subtle recurring fart gag that involves only the cocking of heads and wrinkling of noses and yet still earns a laugh every time.

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No, “The Sink Hole” isn’t a gateway drug into The Middle, but if you go in knowing the show, you’ll find that it delivers a major high.

Stray observations:

  • I’m sure I missed or I’m forgetting a few references to past incidents, but of the moments I didn’t already mention, my favorites were Axl’s suggestion that Brick blame his lawnmower fuck-up on the Glossners and Mike’s quick list of things Frankie has lost, including the cutaway to the present whereabouts of the blue bag.
  • Brick leaving a bookmark stuck in the lawnmower is, as Axl suggests, “like the Penguin leaving his umbrella.”
  • The look on Atticus Shaffer’s face when he sticks Mike’s wallet between two pieces of bread and attempts to skulk away was brilliant.
  • I don’t have the exact quote, but I laughed when Mike asked Sue to let him know if she was going to college or not so he’d know whether to use copper or duct tape on the kitchen pipes.
  • Once we saw two of the other three Wrestlerettes join Sue in phys ed, surely I’m not the only one who wondered where Weird Ashley was.
  • The idea of a communal cereal bowl is ridiculous, of course, but it was worth it for Brick’s annoyance that Axl was “going to get all the luck” from having skimmed the marshmallow “charms” off the top.
  • Best exchange of the night? Sue screaming, “Stop being good at everything!” and Axl not even breaking his stride as he replies, “Tell the sun to stop shining!”
  • The Death Napkin originated at Chi-Chi’s, disappointing Brick, who’d expected it to have come “from somewhere with a little more gravitas.”
  • You know, if you’d asked me beforehand, I probably would’ve said “too soon” to a Casey Kasem joke…and I would’ve been wrong, partially because it’s really a joke about his family, but mostly because that’s clearly going to be a family-drama point of reference for pop culture aficionados for years to come.

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The Goldbergs: “Big Baby Ball”

Like so many other family sitcoms, The Goldbergs is at its best when the characters find themselves in a situation and react in such a way that you find yourself saying, “Oh, my God, that is so me!” Sometimes, though, things get ramped up to a point where, although you’re still having a laugh, the goings-on get a little too exaggerated for you to connect with them quite as successfully.

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That’s sort of what happens with the saga of Coach Meller, which starts out with Adam as the leading character in an all-too-familiar tale: the young man who’s got a lot of heart but not much in the way of athletic ability and, as a result, ends up in rough shape by the end of each phys ed class. But, look, that’s just the way it is with Dodgeball, and Adam knows it. Unfortunately, the ever- protective Bev won’t stand for it, and she promptly storms down to the school to give Coach Meller a piece of her mind. He’s not going down without a fight, however, so he responds by dumping Dodgeball in favor of a new sport called Big Baby Ball, which is basically an excuse for everyone else in the class to knock the living shit out of Adam. (“Good luck, and cover your nards!”) This in turn spurs Bev to step up her attack, and the next thing you know, Meller has been fired.

This, unfortunately, is when things start heading a little too far over the top. It’s not that Bryan Callen doesn’t nail the part, masterfully playing a guy who’s only got one mindset and therefore does his best to make it work for every situation he finds himself in. It’s that what started out as a storyline about Adam ends up leaving him behind in favor of focusing on Meller, and then it takes Meller out of the territory in which he was most funny and goes for fish-out-of-water laughs. There are still some laughs, yes, particularly in the scenes whether Meller goes for broke on the sales floor of Murray’s furniture store, but the relatability is gone. And that’s too bad, because there’s still plenty of comedy yet to be mined from the way Bev frightens the teachers and administrators of her kids’ schools.

Beyond that, the only other storyline of the episode revolves around the longstanding competition between Barry and Erica when they’re playing board games and how the tables are turned dramatically with the introduction of Trivial Pursuit. (Frankly, I could’ve watched another five minutes of that opening montage of old games, but maybe that’s just me.) That Barry is an idiot is well-established, so maybe his inability to even figure out who wrote The Diary of Anne Frank was overkill, but once he flipped out, figured out a game plan, and developed his often-inaccurate opening salvo, “Oh, hello! I did not see you sitting there!” things started to move along.

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There’s something about Barry that makes him loveable even when he’s being despicable or just plain dumb, however, so his attempts at cheating came across as funny rather than nasty, but there’s no doubt that the playing of Barry-nopoly made for some of the best moments of the episode, particularly when he’s flipping his cap back to arm-wrestle. Hopefully they won’t go to the Erika-makes-Barry-feel-bad-so-she-has-to-cheer-him-up well too often, but the ending worked this time, with the way she salvaged his ego by asking him questions from the junior edition. All told, though, the best game-related moment came at the very end, with Bev letting Barry beat her in Barry-nopoly. (“I’m so proud of you, the way you beat Mommy like that.”)

Stray observations:

  • I’m not going to lie to you: Trivial Pursuit is my jam, so much so that my wife demanded a wedding pact when we got married which states that, in an instance when we are invited to play any trivia-related game, I am to be on her team in perpetuity unless she absolves me of that responsibility.
  • I had almost forgotten Scooterball until tonight. And I had completely forgotten the time some kid ran over my hand with his scooter. Damn you, Goldbergs, for bringing that back to the surface!
  • I’m just putting it out there: I would have no complaints if Ana Gasteyer turned up on the show every other week…or even more often, for that matter. Same deal with Stephen Tobolowsky. But the way Gasteyer delivered the words “blonde monster” and “nothing” were genius.
  • “Why do you hate NASA?” “I don’t. They gave us Tang!”
  • The idea of Erica literally beating Barry at his own game was pretty funny, as was the whole Bev and Murray “on the same page” conversation.
  • I did like the joke about Meller not having a “3” when painting addresses on curbs, resulting in that beautifully executed callback later in the episode.
  • “He’s come for me! He’s seeking vengeance!”
  • What the hell are the other six pillars of fitness, anyway?

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