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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Middle: “The Test”

Illustration for article titled The Middle: “The Test”
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I’d like to start this week’s discussion by offering an admission about last week’s episode: I probably judged it a bit more harshly than I should have. Mind you, I still don’t think it works as well as it should have. I know nobody wants to waste an opportunity to use Marsha Mason when she’s available for a guest spot, but I agree with TVbyChaney’s comment that the episode would have been far more effective if they’d kept the focus on Mike and the kids. But it was still pretty damned effective when it came to capturing the frustration of a parent and spouse who’s up to their ears in work at home and at the office, yet still can’t seem to catch a financial break, even as less deserving friends and acquaintances are living large. And, yes, if I were to go out on a limb, I would say that it’s possible I may have seen a bit too much of myself in it, thereby leaving me a bit oversensitive to the other problems I had with the episode.

Fortunately, not only was this week’s episode more about the kids and less about their parents’ financial woes, but it was more structurally sound, thereby resulting in a more enjoyable  viewing experience all around.

All three of the Hecklings—don’t panic; I may never use it again; I’m just throwing it against the wall to see if it sticks—had their own storyline this week, all of which seemed so unlikely to come to pass that no one can blame one T. VanDerWerff for asking, “So it’s a ‘none of this will ever happen’ episode, then?” I mean, really, when The Middle hands you a trifecta of concepts as inherently ridiculous as Axl needing to kick ass on the PSATs, Sue trying to make the cheerleading squad, and Brick learning to defend himself, anyone who knows the characters knows for damned sure that all of these plans will go horribly, horribly wrong… which is exactly what happened.

So why is everyone smiling by the end of the episode?

Let’s start with Axl, shall we? Of course he didn’t remember that the PSATs were coming up. He’s got bigger things on his mind: He’s on the football team, and they’re holding the PSATs on Homecoming weekend. Not that he probably would have cared even if he had remembered (“What about me makes you think I’d be on top of it?”), but Frankie proceeds to get so completely freaked out about the future ramifications of a poor score that she transfers her stress to her son. In the end, she has to talk him down and assure him that it’s only a practice test, that it doesn’t really matter. Kids, remember: One of the keys to being a good parent is knowing when to scare the hell out of your children and when to tell them that everything’s going to be just fine.

On the Sue front, we didn’t exactly need to see the other potential cheerleaders doing backflips and cartwheels to know that she didn’t stand a chance to make the squad, which is why it was so hilariously painful to watch her run frantically around the house to make absolutely, positively certain that all of the phone lines were open for the head cheerleaders to call and tell her that she’d made the cut. (That was a total too-cool clique move to say, “If you don’t get a call, you didn’t make the squad,” by the way. Why waste time letting you down easy when they don’t have to let you down at all, right?) Of course, when she got the call saying that she had made the squad, I’m sure everyone in America had the same “Okay, what’s the catch?” look on their face as Mike and Frankie…and rightfully so, as it turned out. I knew it was either a case of filling a quota or accidentally calling the wrong girl, and, of course, it was the latter, but, man, that was pretty awesome—and, at least for me, unexpected—when Sue basically made the cheerleaders her bitches, brokering a sweetheart of a deal where, in agreement for stepping down from a spot she never really earned in the first place, she gets to wear the uniform to school, be in the yearbook photo, and cheer in at least one game. You go, Sue. Easily my favorite moment of the night.

Lastly, there’s Brick, who had the least of the storylines but still managed to temporarily hoodwink Mike into thinking that he’d toughened his son up. I don’t really have much more to offer on this one—it wasn’t really that substantial—except to say that, although there wasn’t a whole lot to it, it was just about worth it for the shot of Brick’s feet sticking out of the trashcan alone.

In the end, everybody’s more or less happy, including Frankie and Mike, who are able to end the episode with what appears to be the heretofore-unconsidered realization that Axl might be able to coast into college on a football scholarship… which, oddly enough, was probably the moment this evening that felt the least real. I mean, I’ve got a 6-year-old, and I’m already praying for my daughter to pull a scholarship.

Stray observations:

  • A heartfelt plea to series creators Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline: Please give Julie “Trapped in the Body of a White Girl” Brown something more to do. It feels like such a waste to leave her stuck in her current status of being just another background mom. Maybe you could start to build more of a friendship between Frankie and Paula (Brown’s character). I mean, surely Frankie could use a BFF, right?
  • You would think by now that Sue's unflagging optimism would've flagged at least a little bit, but it still makes me laugh almost every time, and I laughed particularly hard at her conviction tonight that people would be judging her solely on what she brought to the cheerleading tryouts and in no way on everything she's done in her life up to that point.
  • The bit with Brick calling out Frankie for eating cake out of the garbage was clearly based on real-life events… but, uh, not from my life. Not as far as you know, anyway.
  • Tough call on which was the better sight gag: the shot of Brick’s feet sticking out of a schoolyard trashcan or Sue careening across the kitchen counter in an effort to grab the phone. If I can confirm that Eden Sher did her own careening (and it sure looks like it’s really her at that moment), then she wins, no contest, ‘cause I’m pretty sure Atticus Shaffer was not actually face down in that trashcan.
  • Axl designing a CD cover rather than studying for his PSATs suddenly brought back the horrible memory that I may possibly have designed a superhero at some point in the midst of my PSAT prep. And possibly his name was Water Wonder.. .and he could actually turn into water! Uh, possibly.
  • Nicest moment of the night: doing a callback to Axl's ridiculous dream about jamming out with a dragon with the mascot of the college that's scouting him. I think I actually went, "Awwwwwww…"