The Middle: “Unbraceable You”

If you read any of the preview pieces or saw any of the commercials for the season premiere of The Middle, then you can’t possibly be surprised to see the header image that accompanies this review: After spending five seasons sporting a mouthful of metal, the occasion of Sue Heck finally getting her braces removed is a seriously big deal. As it happens, though, there’s also a serious storyline to be found elsewhere in the first episode of season six. Granted, it’s couched in humor, but realizing that your dad’s slowing down? Well, that’s just not very funny at all.

So let’s focus first on the stuff that is funny, shall we? Things kick off with as detailed a look at the Hecks’ summer as we could’ve hoped to get in less than a minute, which is to say that we get one gag per family member, and while the best of the bunch may have been Brick’s newfound appreciation of croquet, they were all good for a laugh. Despite all of the lazy relaxation enjoyed by the family during June, July, and August, any and all tranquility goes up in a puff of smoke when Nancy Donahue drops by and breaks the news that Sue and Brick should’ve started back to school on Monday.

Whoops.

It’s not a great start to the so-called Year of Sue: when she returns home from a decidedly short first day back to school (if her day went anything like Brick’s, she only spent about 47 minutes in the classroom before dismissal), she reels off a laundry list of senior-year firsts that she’s missed as a result of Frankie’s inability to remember her password to access the school’s website, but when it comes to her top annoyance, it’s the realization that she’s now the only senior who’s still got her braces.

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Brick’s return to school hasn’t gone significantly better (you know you’re having a bad day when you get stuck playing Hitler in the school play), but at least he’s decided what he can do to make things all better: get a new backpack. Granted, this means that he’s stuck with the least substantial storyline of the episode, but it’s one that’s ripe with fun visual gags and at least one hilarious mispronunciation – because why would Brick know how to pronounce “Shaquille” properly? – all the way through to his dumpster discovery during the closing credits. Better yet, because Axl doesn’t have to go back to college for another week, he has to suffer through Brick’s various different backpack incarnations.

On the other hand, in a case of “turnabout is fair play,” Brick also ends up having to listen to Axl’s concerns about Mike, specifically his concerns that he’s broken their father by repeatedly beating him in basketball. After a lifetime of losing to Mike (as we see through a couple of quick but hilarious flashbacks), victory over his father is something that never occurred to Axl, which is why he makes the most of it, while Mike throws out the old cliché about monkeys and Shakespeare, figuring that it’s an isolated incident… except it isn’t. Not by a long shot.

As a result, what once was fun gradually becomes depressing, resulting in a rare reflective moment from Axl. Brick, never one for sentimentality, bluntly states the facts: “It’s the natural order of things: Adults are supposed to slow down. We were put on earth to replace them.” With way more to think about than can possibly be healthy for him, Axl isn’t entirely sure how to handle the situation when a clearly-struggling Mike challenges him to yet another game. Thankfully, he doesn’t have to handle it at all: Bill conveniently pops by with his nephew, A.J., and suggests a little two-on-two, and by the time the whistle blows (so to speak), Axl realizes that, even if his dad is slowing down, he’s still got some moves to teach him and, more importantly, the two of them still make a great team.

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So let’s get back to the braces, shall we? After grousing about the fact that there’s no possible way that Dr. Miller—played by the always dependable Richard Kind—is ever going to take her braces off, Sue gets to her orthodontist’s office and… she’s right. Frankie, however, refuses to listen to Dr. Miller’s “see you in three months” mantra and demands the removal of the braces, bringing up all the financial dirt she knows about him as a reason why she’s convinced that his diagnosis is little more than bill-padding. He assures her that it’s legitimate concern on his part, making note of her spongy bone issues and citing a dental history that’s completely ridiculous yet sounds perfectly believable coming from Kind. But when Sue Heck assures him that she needs a win, that’s exactly what she gets.

Well, at first, anyway. But after enjoying the surprise and wonder of her family (even Axl is left unable to make a joke), a meal filled with every sticky, chewy food imaginable, and a victory lap through the halls of the high school with Brad at her side, assuring everyone of her gorgeousness, Sue’s worst nightmare is realized: her bones really are spongy, and as a result, her perfect teeth are rapidly turning back into a dental demolition derby. With everyone fearing the worst, Sue returns to see Dr. Miller, convinced that her longstanding positivity has been a waste of time and that the universe is sending her a message, but rather than put her back into braces, he simply suggests that she wear a retainer for a year. And just like that, the Year of Sue is back on track… and now that it is, even wrapping her retainer in a napkin and accidentally throwing it away can’t derail it.

Not a bad way to start a new season.

Stray observations:

  • Axl’s reaction to Brick’s messenger bag was classic: “Here’s your first message: ‘No one cares!’”
  • While it seems like a perfect position for Sue, do classes even designate a Sergeant of Arms anymore?
  • Never say that Brick doesn’t plan ahead: he carries a hairdryer in his guitar case in case someone gives him a swirlie.
  • Frankie didn’t have a ton of material this week, but the bit where she was trying to remember her password was funny, as was her frustrated reminder to Brick that “when I say ‘fine,’ it means I’m not paying attention!”
  • There were a number of great callbacks this week for longtime fans, but the best was Brick’s offhanded recollection that he wasn’t actually carried in the baby carrier he was using for his books. (The Ferguson’s baby was.)
  • Axl’s complaints about being woken up before noon (or later) never failed to make me laugh.
  • Mike’s mantra: “Sports aren’t about fun, they’re about having a clear winner.”

The Goldbergs: “Love Is a Mixtape”

Now that it’s sitting smack dab between The Middle and Modern Family on Wednesday nights, The Goldbergs literally could not ask for a better spot on the ABC schedule. That’s a lot of pressure for a series that’s entering its sophomore season, but given the way the show spent its first year honing its mixture of fun ’80s nostalgia and storylines about family relationships that would resonate with viewers in any decade, it’s easy to enter season two with a sense of hopefulness.

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As it happens, that’s how Adam is entering the season as well, still basking in the success of having kissed Dana Caldwell at the end of last season. Like Hands Across America, it’s a huge moment he’ll never forget, but it’s also left him uncertain about she feels about him, and the fact that they’ve spent the summer apart has only added to that uncertainty. As a naïve romantic growing up in the ’80s, he’s clearly only got one option available to him—other than, y’know, actually talking to her—and that’s to make her a mixtape that expresses all the love he has in his heart for her. After he gives it to her, he can only hope like hell that she feels the same way. Pops assures him that he’s really better off telling her how he feels face to face, but Adam speaks with the voice of countless generations of young men when he replies, “Here’s what I know about women: They confuse and terrify me.”

While his instincts for what a girl his age wants to do after school are a little off the mark, Adam clearly knows how to make a kick-ass mixtape: despite offering virtually no preface, the tape ends up being a hit with Dana. Unfortunately, it also ends up being a hit with Bev, who stumbles upon the “mixture tape” before he ever gives it to Dana, convinces herself that it’s an expression of a boy’s feelings toward his mother, and is so smitten with the gesture that she promptly declares him to be her favorite child. (To Barry and Erica’s credit, they grumble for a moment before realizing that they’re actually cool with that declaration.) At first, Adam is, too, especially since it means extra servings of Boo Berry and the opportunity to see Die Hard, which is why he convinces himself that he can maneuver the emotional minefield in such a way that he can have his cake and eat it, too, but the whole thing falls apart in spectacular fashion when, after Bev picks him and Dana up after date night at the laser show, she puts on her copy of the mixtape.

The end result is a complete nightmare, of course, thanks in no small part to Adam’s less-than-smooth handling of the situation, leaving him with both his mother and his girlfriend pissed off. So how does he try to smooth things over with Dana? By making her another mixtape, of course! And when she refuses his gesture of sorry jams, he decides to try giving it to Bev instead—sans case, lest she realize that he’d really made it for Dana—only for her to see through his ruse. (Or, more specifically, to see the cassette-case-shaped lump in his pocket.) Just as all seems lost for Adam, though, Pops has a heart-to-heart talk with Bev, after which she concedes that she’d convinced herself that Adam had made the tape for her because she didn’t want him to become as horrible as her other kids. Pops isn’t quite as successful at keeping Bev from trying to fix things, though, and that’s a good thing: Growing up with Beverly Goldberg as your mother might well leave you confused and terrified by women, too, but for all her smothering ways, it turns out she’s pretty good at delivering a grand romantic gesture, too. Telling your girl how you feel about her during a laser rock show? Nice one, Bev.

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Things get a little sentimental in the episode’s other storyline, too, but not until the bitter end, and not until after a significant amount of hilarity. When Barry discovers that Erica’s gotten her hands on a fake ID, he wants in, threatening to reveal her shenanigans to Murray unless she gets him one, too, resulting in a scene at a photo shop which serves both as a reminder of what life was like in the days before digital cameras and of the fact that David Spade—who plays the creepy camera store guy—is still extremely funny when he’s given strong material. It’s Troy Gentile who gets the funniest lines, though, and not just in the store as he’s scrambling to come up with a fake name, but in the episode as a whole. In short, there is a clear-cut winner in the race for Season Premiere MVP, and it is Barry Goldberg, who’s on fire from the moment he tries to weasel a Big Tasty track onto Adam’s mix tape.

After getting his fake ID, Barry does—as one might’ve predicted—the stupidest thing possible, loudly trumpeting his new acquisition all over school, to the point where even Coach Meller can’t ignore it anymore and has to confiscate it. Unfortunately, the confiscation takes place immediately after Barry’s promised to buy 10 cases of beer for a senior class party, forcing him to try and figure out an alternate way to win the hearts of the cool kids. Initially, Barry considers turning to Murray for assistance, but when the conversation falls apart, Barry tries swiping his dad’s ID and pretending that he’s a guy who’s just shy of 50, a plan which probably wouldn’t have worked even if he hadn’t tried it at a place where his dad buys a cup of coffee every morning. Desperate, Barry decides the best possible plan is to use the senior class money to buy hero sandwiches instead of beer (“If you arrive at a party with a hero, they’ll think you’re a hero!”), which is a pretty terrible plan even by Barry’s standards, but before he can get to the door, Murray shows up saves his son from thoroughly embarrassing himself.

If their story had ended there, it would’ve been a disappointment—after all, this is not the first time we’ve seen Murray step in and save his son from making a fool of himself in front of his peers—but there’s a last-second save, courtesy of the conversation between Barry and Murray over sandwiches, which concludes with Murray somewhat begrudgingly admitting that, yes, he’ll always be there to bail Barry out, “but don’t tell the others.” Yes, Jeff Garlin can be really, really loud, but it’s that tendency toward high volume which imbues his quieter parenting moments with an unexpected sweetness.

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As the episode comes to a close, we get a final scene that, somewhat embarrassingly, I honestly didn’t see coming: The Just Shoot Me reunion of George Segal and David Spade. Because Spade’s initial scene was with Barry and Eric, it didn’t occur to me at all, and it even took me a second when Pops walked into the camera shop, but when it hit me, I burst out laughing from that realization alone and had to actually go back and watch the scene again to appreciate the dialogue. What a great way to wrap up a great season premiere.

Stray observations:

  • You know why Adam and Dana are going to last as a sitcom couple? Because he made her a mixtape with a “Weird Al” song on it, and she did not mock him for that decision.
  • Pops’ reaction to “Pour Some Sugar on Me” was priceless.
  • God, I hope we get a full-fledged Space Camp episode at some point.
  • Favorite ‘80s artifact: rather than going with the more obvious use Boo Berry, I’m going with Adam’s Lost Boys T-shirt. It’s never actually mentioned, but it certainly caught my eye.
  • “Nice to make your acquaintance, Sophia Lopez!”
  • I loved the whole bit with Murray only acknowledging that his kids are calling him after they’ve called three times because he can’t ignore them anymore at that point and his decision that he was downstairs for the duration.
  • I don’t think I laughed harder at anything in the episode than I did at the sudden cut to Barry wearing a hat. The only thing that came close was at the conclusion of his nervous rambling while attempting to use Murray’s ID to buy beer: “I’m half-Hawaiian. Aloha!”
  • In a quick plug for one of my other gigs, if you head over to Rhino Records’ website, you’ll find a fun Celebrity Playlist from Sean Giambrone, a.k.a. Adam. The music may not all be to your personal taste, but you’ve got to give the kid credit for listening to stuff that’s outside the box for your average teenager in 2014.
  • Lastly, this is, of course, the first week that we’ve offered a joint review of The Middle and The Goldbergs, and I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity to write about two of my favorite sitcoms, but the fact that they’re airing back to back? Man, there is definitely going to be a learning curve when it comes to figuring out how much time I can devote to writing about each one, especially if you want to read reviews of Wednesday night shows while it’s still Wednesday.

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