The Middle: “The Waiting Game”

The reason this week’s episode was entitled “The Waiting Game” was almost certainly because it focused heavily on Sue and her parents suffering through the agony of waiting on responses to her college applications. That said, I’d argue that it could also apply to a completely different storyline, as in, “Every episode of The Middle before this week was just part of the waiting game to get to the bit where Mike is singing, drumming, and playing air guitar to Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling.’”

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First, though, let’s talk about Sue’s situation. It truly does suck to have to sit around and wait to find out whether you’ve gotten into college or not, but in true Sue fashion, she does her best to try and keep a stiff upper lip throughout the process, diving headlong into a craft project making “Sue-venirs” for her classmates. It’s a sweet gesture, of course, and if you’re on Team Sue, then it’s hard not to agree with Brad – “My review is in, and they’re a smash!” – but it’s also easy to imagine Sue’s clueless classmates tossing the sachets into the garbage without a moment’s thought, which is kind of sad, so it’s probably best not to dwell on it, then, eh? As long as it’s keeping Sue occupied, that’s what counts.

The problem is that it’s getting harder and harder for Sue to not think about the responses that are looming, due to the fact that she’s gotten two back thus far and has yet to get a “yes,” and it’s not helping that both Carly and Brad already know what the future holds for them. Meanwhile, Frankie and Mike are trying their best to help Sue keep a stiff upper lip when they’re around her, but as soon as Frankie walks away, she’s a nervous wreck, as opposed to Mike, who’s acting suspiciously cool, calm, and collected about the whole thing. That, as we soon discover, is because he’s got his own way of de-stressing: driving around, singing and playing air drums and guitar to this song:

I don’t have adequate words to describe just how wonderful this scene was. As soon as it was over, I posted about it on social media, calling my reaction “possibly the biggest, longest laugh I have had at a scene in The Middle in six freaking seasons,” and I stand by that. To that, I received the response, “It’s as if the entire series was building to that moment,” and it’s true: it felt like a payoff of some sort. To what? I suppose to six years of hard work by Neil Flynn and the show’s writers to create a character who you absolutely couldn’t imagine doing something like that. Flynn was great as he was rocking out, even better were the expressions of the other four members of the Heck family as they witnessed their father acting in an absolutely inconceivable manner, but best of all was Mike’s realization that he’d been busted and his subsequent decision to abruptly speed off.

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There’s no way that Frankie, Axl, Sue, and Brick are going to let this moment pass without delivering as much teasing as possible, but Mike’s not having it. First he tries to ignore the topic of conversation all together, tries to tolerate it briefly, and then when he realizes that they’re not going to drop it, he gets so angry that he stabs a fork into the family’s new table – an inheritance of sorts from Aunt Edie – and storms off. Frankie lets him have some time to calm down before checking in on him in the garage, at which point he begrudgingly admits that what they witnessed was his way of blowing off steam and confirms that he’s really upset about Sue’s situation, saying, “She doesn’t deserve this,” and stating with better than average amount for him, “I really wanted this for her.” In an effort to bring him back from the abyss, Frankie starts singing – what else? – “More than a Feeling,” and it does the trick.

Better yet, we soon find out that Sue has indeed gotten into East Indiana State…and apparently five other schools, too, but it’s hard to imagine that she’ll end up going anywhere else, especially given the way Axl can’t even bring himself to get angry about the fact that they’ll be going to the same college. Instead, he just gets off one half-hearted jab (“Clearly, admissions standards have lowered significantly since I got in”) before welcoming her to the school.

I don’t usually make a point of commenting on the directing on The Middle, mostly because it’s just not an aspect of the show that generally strikes me, but I dare say that Danny Salles deserves special mention for his efforts this week. Yes, the shots of Sue from the other side of her computer monitor were inspired, but there were also some unique visual touches elsewhere in the episode, including the way Mike and Frankie’s heart to heart was shot. Nice work all around, really. With all due respect, I can’t think of the last time a sitcom director stood out enough for me to want to actually look and see who helmed a particular episode, so this was truly a top-notch effort.

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There doesn’t really seem to be a need to delve too deeply into the Axl and Brick storyline of the episode, except to say that there were certainly funny aspects to both Axl’s new living-room bedroom and how his new locale affects Brick’s concentration in a profoundly positive fashion, but they were definitely the lower-tier stories of the week. As a writer who struggles with his confidence in his work on a regular basis, though, I definitely laughed quite a bit at Brick’s sentences and his opinion of them.

“The Waiting Game” is definitely another one of those episodes that ultimately plays better for those who know “The Middle” well and can appreciate the depth of the character, but that doesn’t stop it from being an extremely strong installment all around.

Stray observations:

  • No point in detailing Frankie’s ongoing Curves joke, really, except to say that it was perfectly in character and made me laugh every time.
  • How did Brick singlehandedly move all of Axl’s furniture out of their room and into the living room? “Hate makes you strong.”
  • Big news on the Brad front: not only did we hear his dad’s voice and get a feel for how awkward their relationship must be, but he’s also going to be heading off to be an AmeriCorps member. Good for him!
  • “It’s a new fragrance I’m working on: ‘Not Axl, by Brick.’”
  • “Do you have any other hidden talents?” “I know how to change the locks on this house!”
  • New addition to my list of Future Band Names: Gas Station Chicken.
  • Lastly, as soon as I saw the title of this episode, two songs immediately got stuck in my brain, so I thought I’d share:

Squeeze, “The Waiting Game,” from 1987’s Babylon and On album

Todd Rundgren, “The Waiting Game,” from 1989’s Nearly Human album

The Goldbergs: “The Lost Boy”

It’s not exactly breaking news that Beverly Goldberg is capable of using guilt as a weapon, but this week she discovers that her kids are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore…until they do, because they feel guilty about how they’ve acted.

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The idea of a Bev-centric episode of The Goldbergs is a slightly dicey proposition: she’s been showing significant growth as a character over the course of the last season or so, but there’s that fear that too much screen time could result in the less than exhilarating attributes to take center stage. Indeed, that’s what happens in this episode, although to be fair, that’s kind of the whole point: she loves her kids, she wants to be around them all the time, and just because they don’t want to be around her, doing the things that she wants them to do with her, doesn’t change how she feels. She’ll even make up plans that never existed in hopes that they’ll either think they just forgot about them or, if it comes down to it, she’ll just remind them that they were once tethered to her body by a food cord, break out a little pack of tissues, and let the waterworks kick in.

After talking to Pops, though, Erica and Barry are suddenly empowered to fight back against Bev, and when she plays her predictable card of getting out of the car and claiming that she’ll walk home, they surprise / horrify her by actually leaving her on the side of the road. Pops backpedals on his advice immediately, naturally, and Bev manages to make the kids feel so guilty that they offer to spend the entire rest of the day bedazzling random items of clothing with her. When Pops goes to Bev and tries to talk her down, though, there’s a sudden tonal change the episode, one that doesn’t feel earned. That’s not to say that it’s not a sweet sentiment that Bev delivers to her kids, but it feels like an abrupt switcheroo for plot purposes rather than a legitimate epiphany.

More affecting in the long run, believe it or not, is Adam’s storyline, where he attends a Phillies game with Murray, gets pee shy, gets lost, and can’t find his father anywhere. You wouldn’t expect a father-son storyline to be filled with more emotion than one about a mother and her kids, but here we are nonetheless. Adam’s eternal cluelessness about sports rears its head before he ever leaves the house for the game, which he’s only attending because no one else is going to be home to watch him, but Murray’s resigned to dealing with the kid…except when it comes to going to the bathroom at a baseball field, which - even though we never see it - would seem to resemble The Worst Toilet in Scotland when it’s not a matter of peeing in a trough.

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After taking Adam to the restroom once, never realizing that the kid hadn’t successfully managed to use the facilities, Murray returns to his seat to watch the game and tells Adam to go by himself, but Adam forgets where he’s sitting and gets lost for so long that even Murray can’t ignore his son’s absence. Unfortunately, he gets too tense too quickly about the fact that he can’t quite remember what the hell his son even looks like and promptly gets upset and gets thrown out of the stadium, leaving Adam to fend for himself, which he successfully does until Murray’s is the only car left in the parking lot, at which point he sees Murray sitting on the car, waiting for his son. But does Adam get mad as his dad as he’d originally planned? Nope: he throws his arms around Murray, and Murray responds in as emotional a manner as we’ve ever heard him, saying, “You’re safe.”

If you’re a longtime sports fan or you’re from the Philadelphia area, then you probably loved this episode more than the average viewer, thanks to all the fun Adam F. Goldberg had while recreating Veterans Stadium, a.k.a. “The Vet,” which was demolished in 2004. Me, I wasn’t swayed by the sports history, only the sentimentality…and possibly a little bit by the use of John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me,” too. But there’s sentimentality, and then there’s schmaltz, and the end of Bev’s storyline definitely shifted far too much into the latter. Hopefully they’ll stay away from that sort of thing in the future.

Stray observations:

  • For the real Adam’s sake, I want to believe that the real Beverly Goldberg wasn’t obsessed with Bedazzling. But I’m betting she was. And I’m betting he’s got the pictures - or the videos - to prove it.
  • Bev got a lot of laughs with a variety of offhanded comments during the course of the time she spent with Erica and Barry, though I think my personal favorite involved her remarks about Red Lobster. I feel like those may have been ad-libbed, but I’ve been wrong about that sort of thing before, so who knows?
  • The fact that Adam got lost and that Erica, Barry, and Bev went to see The Lost Boys would’ve been more effective a tie-in for the episode if they’d been able to license clips from The Lost Boys. But they couldn’t. Oh, well.
  • “I have one thing to say: that was fucked up.” Beverly Goldberg cursing is never not funny.
  • Nice, if brief, use of Diedrich Bader. More for him to do next time, please.
  • What the hell are nubbies, anyway?
  • Any episode that references Battle of the Network Stars is all right in my book.

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