The Middle: “The Table”

When it comes to economic hardships, there are couples who can’t handle the stress and self-destruct, and there are couples who have enough of a sense of humor that they’re able to laugh their way through life, even if it’s sometimes only to keep themselves from crying. After six seasons, it’s pretty clear that Frankie and Mike Heck are in the latter category: they might have occasional bursts of frustration about their lot in life, but they’re as resigned to their crappy financial fate as they are to being stuck with each other for the long haul, so they put the most positive spin on their situation that they possibly can and they just keep on keepin’ on.

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In the midst of an opening scene which initially seems to exist in order to confirm that, yes, Frankie and Mike are both still working their second jobs in order to belatedly come up with Sue’s college fund, we learn that it’s their anniversary while also learning something we already knew: they’re not exactly the most sentimental people in the world. Neither of them remember exactly which anniversary they’re celebrating – it’s definitely their twenty-somethingth, but that’s as close as we ever get to a definitive number – and they don’t really even have proper plans to commemorate the occasion, but, hey, they remembered, and that’s half the battle, right?

Well, actually, the real battle is that they’ve made it this far and still seem to have a great deal of affection for each other, which is doubtlessly why Sue finds herself drawn to asking Frankie for some assistance in answering the question, “What is love?” It’s something Sue thought she was on her way to understanding after spending so many wonderful hours with Darrin over the course of the past several weeks, but her anger over Darrin having given her the same gift he once gave his ex-girlfriend –not to mention his mother – leaves her confused about the intensity of her feelings toward him. Frankie comes up with a surprisingly effective comparison between a spouse and a favorite sweater, but in the end Sue finds it easier to relate to The Fault in Our Stars.

The way Sue finds out about Darrin’s gift is about as hackneyed as sitcom plots get – she swipes his phone in order to find the perfect picture to put on the photo blanket she wants to get for him, only to stumble upon the shot of his ex wearing the necklace – but there are a couple of very good reasons to offer leniency on this matter. The first is the simple fact that she finds the photo while she’s visiting Brad, thereby providing us with the opportunity to see him in his native habitat (which of course features a street sign emblazoned with the word “BRADWAY”), but the most substantial reason is because of the way things play out with Darrin, whose man-child tendencies result in Sue, of all people, seeming like the bad guy.

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Well, okay, not really. But when Sue finds herself so upset that she can’t even accept Darrin’s explanation of the innocence of the situation – he really wanted to impress Sue, but he’s terrible at buying gifts, so he just rationalized that if his mom and Angel liked the necklace, then Sue would, too – she has to step away and regroup. And when she returns with her attempt at a big romantic gesture (albeit one borrowed mostly from John Green, plus a little bit at the end from a Jane Seymour commercial), Darrin’s too drained from the whole experience to do anything but ask to step away from the situation himself. Granted, it’s a quick turnaround between needing a little time and having an epiphany, so quick that it really shouldn’t offer the amount of emotional heft that it does, but there’s just something about Sue and Darrin that makes you want them to end up together, so you can’t help but be happy when they do, balloons or no balloons.

Of the kids, Sue’s storyline is really the only one that can be called substantial, although Brick’s decision to start – and conclude – a font-themed podcast is definitely full of laughs, all the way through to the Jimmy Kimmel cameo over the closing credits. Okay, yes, Kimmel’s appearance feels tacked on, not to mention incredibly incongruous, but that’s still a pretty big “get” for the series. Let’s just not make a habit of having big-time guest stars appearing as themselves, okay? That’d really take me out of the “reality” of The Middle, and I like things fine just the way they are. As for Axl and Hutch and their efforts to find new roommates to help out with the bills, it has its amusing moments, most of which take place when the guys are discussing their finances or talking about the way they’ve tricked out the place (I was disgusted by the discussion of the pee-absorbing car mats around the toilet, but I still laughed), but a lot of it was just too ridiculous for my liking. Still, kudos for wrapping it up by bringing Kenny back into the picture.

To bring it back to Frankie and Mike to close, I have to admit that I never would’ve thought they could’ve gotten so much wonderful material out of Frankie accidentally buying a dollhouse-sized table rather than a proper dining room table. It’s a silly premise at its core, but it’s surrounded by some really nice scenes, including Mike convincing Frankie that it’s okay to splurge on the table, their surprisingly tender discussion when he finds out about her error, and the grand finale, where he sweeps off the tiny table and they actually start making out on the floor of the dining room. Even after twenty-something years, romance is still alive and well in the Heck house.

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Stray observations:

  • Axl and Hutch have some serious problems with paying for utilities: “They’re making money off God. That’s just wrong!”
  • They may never formally bring Brad out of the closet, but his question to Sue about whether she’d dressed as the opposite gender and gone out in public? So many possible future storylines…
  • Kimmel or no Kimmel, the running gag about Brick’s podcast only having one fan was still funny.
  • I always enjoy when Mike responds to Frankie’s presumptions that he remembers something by saying, “Sure, let’s say I do.”
  • I don’t have the exact quote handy, but my biggest laugh in the episode may have been when Mike rationalizes the purchase of the table by saying, “The next time we splurge on wood is gonna be our coffins, so why not?”
  • “I love photo blankets!” And why wouldn’t you, Darrin?
  • As little things go, I loved the combination of the sound of Frankie vacuuming up something she shouldn’t have, followed by her highly disconcerted expression.
  • Atticus Shaffer managed to get me momentarily choked up when Brick’s voice caught as he said, “That was a little harder than I thought it’d be.” A small but wonderful moment.
  • Similarly, while I think we can all agree at this point that Eden Sher rocks, this episode gave her a chance to test drive a slightly more mature Sue Heck, still very naïve but closer to womanhood than we’ve seen her. A lot of times we’ve seen the character backpedal after spotlights like this. I hope that doesn’t happen his time. If this truly is the Year of Sue, then she deserves to keep moving forward.

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The Goldbergs: “The Table”

In the classic “Mr. Plow” episode of The Simpsons, there’s a moment where Homer tries to be “fresh and original” by rapping his way through a commercial, only for Bart to beg him to stop and Lisa to demand that he promise to never do it again. I couldn’t help but think of their embarrassment as I watched Beverly Goldberg interact with her daughter this evening, because the sensations Bart and Lisa were experiencing in that instant would seem to be what Erica – not to mention Adam and Barry – are feeling at any given moment of any given day that they’re in public with their mother.

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It’s not that Beverly isn’t a wonderful mom. She just isn’t a cool mom. Even worse, she’s completely out of the pop culture loop, which is why when Beverly finds herself jealous of Erica hanging out with Jill Rubin’s mom, Louise (played by Gillian Vigman, late of Suburgatory), like she’s one of the girls, she fails miserably in her efforts to seem hip. Dressing like Madonna but listening and – even more horrifyingly – dancing to El Debarge? Geez, Bev, why not go the extra mile and crank up the Rockwell? And that’s on top of her attempts to talk the talk by complaining to Murray about Erica’s refusal to enjoy a little “cold chillin’” with her mom.

But it’s the complaining to Murray that helps secure a little one-on-one time between Bev and Erica, mostly because he’s not going to put up with a situation that leaves him having to listen to her forever bemoaning the disintegration of the mother-daughter relationship. As a result, they go out together for fondue, but when Erica tries to escape by using a really terrible excuse about getting extra credit for volunteering at a soup kitchen, Bev gets angry and bails out first.

We don’t get a lot of Jeff Garlin or George Segal in this episode, but they both get to make the most of their screen time; Murray has great moments with Bev and Erica, but Pops gets his time to shine when Bev visits him at his favorite watering hole, leading to father and daughter tossing back drinks and getting trashed together…or at least Bev’s trashed, anyway. (Pops is clearly a professional when it comes to holding his liquor.) As a result, Erica ends up having to nursemaid her mother through her drunkenness as well as her subsequent hangover, learning a valuable lesson in the process. Yeah, it’s a classic “walk a mile in my shoes and see how your feet feel” scenario, one that’s perhaps a little schmaltzy, but it’s worth it to see Wendi McLendon-Covey playing drunk.

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As for Adam and Barry, they’re teamed together in the storyline that provides us with the episode’s WarGames-themed title, with Adam using his knowledge of the Apple II Plus and his gift for bluffing to weasel his way into membership in the Jenkintown Posse. Initially, Barry and his crew can’t be bothered to see computers as anything but nerdy, but after a sold-out showing of Porky’s 2 leads the JTP to see WarGames instead, they suddenly had an epiphany: computers are awesome! Unfortunately, they aren’t nearly as awesome as Hollywood wanted you to believe at the time, which is why Adam’s efforts to hack into the school computer and change the JTP’s grades turn into a situation where he has to dazzle the guys with techno-babble and trick them into studying so that they’ll actually get a decent score on their exams.

I’ll say this for Adam and Barry’s shenanigans: they certainly aren’t predictable. The JTP’s sudden tendency toward the recitation of historical facts in the wake of Adam’s “hacking” proves to be a great running gag, much like the constant reminders about how comparatively limited computer technology was in the ‘80s, and the falcon…well, what can you say about the falcon? There’s the surprise that it’s a real bird rather than a mascot costume, and then there’s the additional comedy derived from Adam trying to hold onto the bird in the car and, later, Barry taking off the falcon’s mask and then being left standing there, arm outstretched, grinning like a complete moron.

All told, Adam and Barry’s story is definitely the VIP of the week, mostly because it’s so much more creative than the parent-child role reversal by Erica and Bev that we’ve seen done on so many other sitcoms. Still, the laughs are there and the performances are strong, so it plays well nonetheless.

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Stray observations:

  • There were other pictures that I could’ve selected as the header image, but none of them made me anywhere near as happy as that shot of George Segal.
  • Boy, that Louise sure knows how to rock a Cheap Trick shirt, doesn’t she?
  • Oregon Trail may be a bad-ass video game, but it’ll never top Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text adventure. Never, I say!
  • Bev just wants to hang out, read teen magazines, and gossip about boys. (“I’ll go first: I like Murray!”)
  • Watching the JTP outside the Wawa, it’s hard not to compare it to, say, Clerks or the guys in the parking lot in Say Anything, but you can’t complain when you know that’s exactly what teenage boys did in parking lots in the ‘80s.
  • I could watch that clip of George Segal saying “‘s’up, baby” a hundred times in a row and never not laugh.
  • Anybody who doesn’t love Stan Bush’s “Never Surrender” clearly does not appreciate Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Kickboxer on as deep a level as they should.
  • I’m sure all of Bev’s gifts to the family are already available for purchase on some website or other by now, but the best takeaway from that closing scene was Murray’s reaction to the idea of a tie that reminds him of his family while he’s at work: “I think you’re missing the point of work.”

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