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The Middle: “Two of a Kind”

As long as it’s not something that turns into a habit, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a series delivering an episode that coasts almost completely on the charm of its guest stars, but it’s particularly acceptable when it’s a series like The Middle, which almost never goes down that road. Frankly, after having Jerry Van Dyke appear on the show as Frankie’s dad so many times, it’s a wonder that it took this long for someone to ask the question, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if Frankie had an uncle and we got Dick Van Dyke to play him?”

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And so they have, effectively building the entire episode around the Van Dyke boys, with the premise being that Tag’s estranged brother, Dutch Spencer, has gotten in touch after years without contact – so many that, by all appearances, Mike’s never met Dutch before – and the siblings reunite on the neutral ground that is the Heck house. Tag’s wound up long before Dutch arrives, rationalizing that Dutch has probably only gotten in contact because he’s getting old and thinks he’s going to die, worrying about what kind of shape he’s in and how he might have trouble getting around, which serves as the cue for the obvious but still funny line, “Move that ottoman there, he’ll trip right over that thing.”

In fact, Dutch is remarkably lithe for a fella in his late 80s, displaying fancy footwork from the moment he steps through the door. This completely frustrates Tag, who immediately pretends that the cane he’s holding is actually Mike’s, and it only gets worse when Dutch starts talking about his success as a businessman, regaling the rest of the family with tales of TV commercials and meeting Don Rickles. The thing is, Dutch isn’t holding court in a braggart sort of way, he’s just a heretofore-unknown quantity to the kids, and they’re fascinated by him. He’s also doing everything he can to try and reignite the spark between himself and his brother, reminding Tag about the song they used to sing together, but Tag is reticent to join in and ultimately ends up just grumbling on the couch, which is more or less where he remains for the duration of the episode.

Frankie’s frustrated by the situation, as she wants to do everything she can to facilitate the healing between the brothers, while Mike assures her that life’s a lot easier when you just go ahead and abandon all hope, and he grows increasingly grumpier as he finds himself stuck babysitting Tag while everyone else is enjoying the company of the effortlessly charming Dutch. The brothers grouse back and forth, failing to find any middle ground but still entertaining the viewers in the process, but just when it seems like there’ll never been peace between Tag and Dutch, they suddenly find what they’ve lost and start playing their song together. Of course, they still grouch back and forth even after that, but despite Frankie unwittingly reminding them about how Dutch taught her how to ride a bike, as they drive off into the sunset together, it’s clear that they’re back on speaking terms for the long haul…or until they get sick of each other again, whichever comes first.

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Everything else that happens in the episode is, with all due respect to Sue, little more than filler. It’s a funny idea that Sue should get detention for leaving school to have lunch at Arby’s (such a rebel she is), but it’s more mildly amusing than laugh-out-loud funny. The most effective part of the storyline, in fact, isn’t until the very end, when we get the payoff for Coach Tink Babbitt asking Sue to monitor the class in her absence. The idea of Sue learning from Coach Babbitt that she needs to toughen up or else she’s going to wind up as human mulch seems like it’d be ripe for future episode, if only Sue wasn’t about to graduate. It’s a damned shame, too: I think Sue could learn a lot from that lady.

That’s about it for the episode, though, really. Well, unless you want to call Brick’s brief obsession with the idea of popularizing an idiom of his own creation – crackers on butter – a storyline unto itself, but it’s not really, even if it does feel like a payoff when the idiom takes off enough to get repeated. No, this week is ultimately all of about getting a Jerry Van Dyke / Dick Van Dyke reunion to happen, and on that front they succeed, and they’re just way too charming together, whether they’re getting along or ripping each other apart. It might be slight at times, but it’s never less than entertaining. Hey, that’s family for you.

Stray observations:

  • I enjoyed the bit with Axl trying to instruct Sue how to prep for her day of detention, as far as what foods to pack. Remember, kids: Kit-Kats can be broken into four pieces, making them easy to share.
  • Mexting = Mexican texting. That made me laugh, stupid though it may have been.
  • I don’t know if it really qualifies as a callback, but I always enjoy being reminded that Frankie is just the worst storyteller ever.
  • “You’re yukking it up with Dutch, I’m stuck with The Claw!”
  • So the Donahues taught Sue how to ride a bike? Somehow, that figures.

The Goldbergs: “As You Wish”

When fathers and sons don’t share the same interests, it’s sometimes difficult for them to forge a lasting bond. Not that they don’t already have the eternal bond of family, but beyond that, then what? It’s been clear for awhile that Adam and Murray don’t speak the same language when it comes to sports, but when Adam – obsessed with The Princess Bride – wants to figure out a way to get his hands on some real, honest to God swords, he realized that he might be able to kill two birds with one stone: make Murray think he’s fascinated with fencing and get him to invest in fencing as a hobby, so that he can have one match, surrender, and live the rest of his life with the leftover swords.

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It doesn’t work out that way, of course. Despite assuring his father that he’s going to be the best damned fencing competitor ever, offering the point of comparison, “Name an athlete who’s really good at sports!” Adam, sadly, is in no way, shape, or form the Michael Jordan of fencing, and after he bombs out of his first match in completely embarrassing fashion, he tries to use the swords for reproductions of the film’s biggest scenes, only to find out that Murray’s planning to sell them to some divorced dad who’s trying to win back his son’s love.

After having to endure the “F” volume of the encyclopedia to try and work out a bit more about fencing as a sport, Adam eventually tries a second match, but although it starts out going at least as poorly, once he’s able to channel the spirit of Mandy Patinkin, it works out pretty well for him. In the end, though, he’s still clearly far more interested in The Princess Bride than he is in fencing, but that’s really how it should be, anyway. Plus, Murray ends up enjoying the movie and looking like Andre the Giant, so we’re calling it a win.

The other plotline of the episode focuses on Bev’s abilities as a professional yenta, which – in case you’re no more familiar with the specifics of the term than I was – is basically an intrusive, loose-lipped gossip, but in addition to doing “blah blah blah” all the time, she also fancies herself to be a matchmaker. In turn, she decides that she can pull off a set-up between Ms. Cinoman (Ana Gasteyer) and Coach Miller (Bryan Callan), and it might’ve worked, too, if it hadn’t been those meddling kids making up so many nasty rumors about what the couple were doing together.

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Instead, they’re called before the tribunal – well, it’s really just Principal Ball – and they’re told that if they’re going to be together, one of them’s got to go. Ms. Cinoman takes the bullet, but the coach ends up crying his way through class as a result, and Mr. Woodburn (Dan Bakkedahl) is basically just jealous that they’re happy and he’s not, which is why the yentas – led by Erica, no less – take it upon themselves to set him up with someone, too. The running joke throughout much of the episode is that Erica refuses to admit that she might be a yenta like her mother, but she ultimately proves at the end that she is. She’s not that good at it yet, but she’s getting there.

Stray observations:

  • This wasn’t a bad episode, but it just didn’t resonate a huge amount with me…beyond the Princess Bride stuff, of course. In fact, my biggest disappointment about the episode is that we never got to see what adaptations of the film the real Adam Goldberg did on home video. C’mon, don’t tell me you completely made up that story. It’d break my heart.
  • I think the single biggest laugh I got out of the episode was when they said that the coach and Ms. Cinoman got busy in the band room to the point where they were going to have to throw out all the oboes. This cut immediately to a shot of someone throwing their oboe in the trashcan.
  • I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of hearing more of Hayley Orrantia’s voice in future episodes. That was a pretty solid Queen cover.
  • Zorro most certainly does not suck.

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