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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Middle: “The Smile”

Illustration for article titled The Middle: “The Smile”
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We’ve spent a lot of this season of The Middle worrying about Axl’s future, specifically whether or not he’s going to manage to A) get out of high school, since he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and B) pull a college scholarship, since his parents aren’t exactly rolling in dough. This week, we finally got our answer to at least one of those questions.

First, though, let’s talk about Brick and the iPad. Earlier today, you may have read Todd’s observation in What’s On Tonight? about how “if this were a lesser show, we’d fear this would just be an opportunity for product placement,” to which he added, “But even if it is opportunity for product placement, we’re sure the Hecks will bemoan just how expensive it is.” Kudos to Commander VanDerWerff, not only for the nice, subtle burn on Modern Family, but also for his prescience on how Frankie and Mike would react to Brick’s request for an iPad, the financial ridiculousness of which served to send both Frankie and Mike into near hysterics.

(By the way, that’s not to say there wasn’t still product placement in the episode, but it came courtesy of the family having dinner at Red Lobster, which seems like a perfectly reasonable mainstream restaurant for the Hecks to pick.)

Mind you, Brick’s iPad request might’ve had a better likelihood of succeeding if he hadn’t asked Frankie while she was pouring the family’s un-drunk milk back in the carton or posed the question to Mike while he was running the hairdryer in order to keep the microwave running to warm up his coffee. Frankly, if the episode hadn’t started out by telegraphing the ending and revealing that Brick would indeed eventually obtain the device, I would’ve presumed that Frankie’s hard-line stance on the matter was the way things were destined to pan out:  “The only way you’re getting an iPad is if you’re in Steve Jobs’ will!”

Instead, Frankie and Mike follow a path familiar to many parents, saying “no, no, no” until Brick got tired of asking, then, after finally getting a few quiet moments to really consider the question, deciding that maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if they said, “Yes.” Although Frankie basks in Brick’s giddy reaction to his “new” iPad and says, “This is better than good parenting,” I’d argue that she’s not giving herself or Mike enough credit. Refusing to be badgered into a decision by a pushy kid but ultimately being willing to acquiesce to his request because they realize that he’s made some valid arguments certainly seems like good parenting to me.

I wasn’t quite as enamored with Sue’s struggles with her science teacher, but they still had their merits, thanks in no small part to Roger Rees’ highly entertaining performance. Sue’s regularly painted as being cute, sweet, and easily amused, often to the point of ridiculousness, but Rees’s character provided us with a glimpse of just how much Sue needs to grow up and how hard that’s going to be for her. The ending of the episode, however, was just a little bit too saccharine for my tastes. We know that Sue’s got a gift for turning lemons into lemonade, and she clearly went out of her way to make her flimsy hypothesis (“Smiles are contagious!”) seem properly scientific, but given her teacher’s temperament and how far out of her league her efforts were when compared to her classmates, it seemed a bit too happy an ending.


But now we come to Axl’s storyline, which was, hands down, the best of the episode. Sure, I figured he’d get into East Indiana, because it would’ve just been too depressing if he hadn’t, but I was damned near certain that his senior prank was going to result in some sort of shenanigans that would put his scholarship in jeopardy once more. Instead, Charlie McDermott once again turned in a performance to cherish, as Axl, Sean, and Darrin started their evening with plans of tomfoolery, only to grow wistful with the realization that their glory days were about to come to an end. The total lack of music while the guys were having their discussion atop the water tower really gave the scene some serious emotional impact. (Emotion driven by the dialogue and performance in a scene rather than by the score…? Inconceivable!) The Axl-Sean-Darrin friendship is one that hasn’t been done to death, thankfully, but they’ve got an effective comedic dynamic between the three of them that, as it turns out, translates well to the dramatic, too. Who knew?

Stray observations:

  • Frankie’s attack on an employee of the US Postal Service was so over the top as to make me cringe, but it was just about worth it for her later line, “You don’t want to mess with me. Just ask our former mailman.”
  • Atticus Shaffer’s expression as he was dusting the table was hysterical, as was the cloud of dust that sprang forth from the table a few moments later.
  • Another chance for Brock Ciarlelli to shine as Brad: “I can’t tolerate needles or tickling!”
  • I’m not sure which is more disconcerting: Sue’s uber-intense smile or her wracking sobs.
  • I can’t really express how much I loved Axl’s reaction to getting the text/email that he’d gotten into East Indiana. “So long, suckers!”
  • “You wrap anything in bacon and we’ll eat it.” You and me both, Mike.
  • Brick’s colored-paper Power Point presentation was funny stuff, as was the way he played his parents off each other by going back and forth between them.
  • Darrin had lots of great moments tonight, including the loss of his shoe from the top of the water tower and his confusion over how many of Julie O’Connor’s boobs Axl had handled, but I think my favorite line delivery may have been the way he said, “Sorry, I just like guessing.”
  • “The last time you said, ‘Uh-oh,’ the paramedics had to cut my jeans off me!” Do we already know this story? If not, it clearly needs to be told.