The Middle: “While You Were Sleeping”

Sit down, kids, because I’ve got a hard truth to lay on you.

I hate to go the rip-it-off-like-a-Band-Aid route, but since this week’s episode of The Middle has laid the groundwork, I’ll just go ahead and confirm your worst fears: Frankie and Mike’s storyline is in no way an exaggeration. At some point in the future, probably when you least expect it, you’re going to wake up – most likely after having unintentionally fallen asleep on the couch while trying to watch a movie because, seriously, they could not have been more spot-on about the way they presented this phenomenon – and you’re going to realize that you are just as old, boring, and devoid of energy in the evening as you always thought your parents were.

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Yes, I know you’ve always said that it will never happen to you, but trust me: everyone says that, and everyone eventually discovers that they were wrong, and you will not be the exception to this rule. I realize that this probably comes as a major blow, what with all of the big plans you’ve already made for a lifetime of hardy partying, and I’m sorry that I have to be the one to put the kibosh on any intent you may have to perpetually rock on ‘til the break of dawn, but I’m just trying to save you from future disappointment by totally bumming you out now. I only hope that someday you can understand that my intentions were good.

Okay, that’s enough of that bit. Sorry if it went a little long, but you know how it goes: the season’s starting to wind to a close, the season finale is in sight, and everyone – both show runners and critics – are just trying to keep things interesting until then. And while I might not have achieved that goal, make no mistake, The Middle definitely did, delivering with “While You Were Sleeping” an episode which gave Frankie and Mike a strong, almost-too-realistic storyline about married life, paired Brick and Axl for a “where the hell did that idea come from?” get-rich-quick scheme which was just the right shades of weird and stupid to work perfectly for that duo, and let Sue be Sue while still allowing her to shine as brightly as she’s ever shined before.

Probably not much else needs to be said about Frankie and Mike’s date night extravaganza beyond the fact that, even though it was arguably a one-note joke, that joke was consistently funny throughout the episode, with lots of little sidebar conversations that doubtlessly sounded way too familiar to many married viewers. If Frankie took it one step too far into silliness by constructing a chart to try and keep track of exactly what bits of the movie – The Five Crimes of Eleanor, was it? –they’d both actually been awake for, then Mike brought it back down to earth by trying to skip to the best part of date night, only to be informed that “we get there when we get there.” But to be honest (and without naming names), I can think of a few people who probably really would go the chart route, so trust me, it’s not nearly as silly as you might think it is.

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And what can you say about this whole Heck Brothers Barbeque Sauce thing? Well, first and foremost, let’s not forget that, although it had a very ridiculous – but still very funny – center, it was bookended with material that wasn’t. Surely we’ve all had our moments where we’ve whipped something up in the kitchen out of desperation – let’s say you decided to try and spice up your baked beans a bit – only to surprise ourselves with how good the end result is: the second someone else tastes it and agrees with your palate, you can see how it could quickly snowball into dreams of being the next Jay “Roll That Beautiful Bean Footage” Bush. And although Mike ultimately dashed Brick and Axl’s big plans for culinary domination, things wrapped up with the two brothers still having bonded over the experience and making plans to write a book together: “How to Deal with Problem Parents.” (In a related story, I have now added “Dream Squasher and the Nag” to my list of potential band names…and also to my list of ‘70s movies I wish really existed.)

And so we come to Sue. There’s often been an ungainly balancing act with the character when it comes to letting her grow up without losing the attributes that made her so great in the first place, with her breakthroughs in maturity often occurring in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back fashion. Not this week. After going a few weeks without any significant mention of Darrin (and possibly none at all, but I just can’t swear to that), Sue’s shell finally cracks when the dress arrives that she ordered for a prom to which she no longer has a date, causing her to concede that “The Year of Sue” may well have turned into “The Year of Suck.” Indeed, she’s reached such a low point that when her boss sticks her with the evening shift on prom night – and pointedly twists the knife by mentioning how she blew him off as a potential prom last year – Sue barely seems bothered by it.

That situation changes when Logan, the shirtless Abercrombie greeter who regularly frequents the potato place, offers to serve as Sue’s date to the prom, but even that doesn’t remedy the situation entirely, as she still can’t find anyone to take her shift. For one brief moment, I thought Sue might say, “You know what? My tuition is covered and I don’t need your stinking job anymore, so I quit…and I’m going to prom!” But that wouldn’t have been very Sue-like, now, would it? Which is why her solution to the situation is to go to work anyway, while Logan - dressed to the nines in a rented tux – thoughtfully opts to loiter around the potato place ‘til closing time, so they can head out at the earliest possible moment. And when that moment comes, Sue steps out of the back room, looking probably the most beautiful she’s ever looked in the entire run of the series, so much so that it wasn’t until she actually started the process of shutting down the equipment that I suddenly thought, “Oh, crap, something’s going to go wrong.” And, lo, the cheese did begin to flow.

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But that which could’ve easily cemented “The Year of Suck” for Sue suddenly went in the other direction, with Logan not only helping her clean up the entire mess but also finally just telling her what most people figured out from the way he was looking at her at the very beginning: the reason he kept coming back for more potatoes was because he wanted to see her. It’s a revelation which causes a real Sally-Field-at-the-Oscars moment for Sue, who’d spent the lead-up to the evening just grateful that Logan was nice enough to ask her out, never considering that he might actually like her. Sure, there’s a little déjà vu by providing her with another happy ending that ends in a romantic dance, but you cannot deny the brilliance of Logan giving Sue the only thing she wanted out of the evening – a picture with him – and getting to do so by delivering the two most apropos words of dialogue possible: “Say ‘cheese.’” Sue giggled, of course. But so did I. It really was a perfect moment, one in which - unless I was imagining things, but I don’t think I was - we actually saw Eden Sher peek out from behind Sue Heck.

After six seasons, it’s about time those two finally crossed on the flow chart: we’ve always known that Sue was beautiful inside, but if she’s finally going to get to show it on the outside, then this truly is “The Year of Sue.”

Stray observations:

  • I didn’t try to keep up with all the various caveats Frankie and Mike had for cinematic attributes that were ostensibly off the table for their date-night movie, but I know I laughed at her desire to avoid future stuff and his desire to avoid anything with somebody who’s sick or dying. Also, the guy behind them giving an emphatic “uh-uh” to Annie? Big laugh.
  • The way Sue started the episode by getting excited about being able to get a “Keep Calm and Eat Ice Cream” shirt in an adult size was a nice contrast to the way things wrapped up for her, looking as grown up as we’ve ever seen her.
  • “Bow down to me, DVD player. I am your master.”
  • Maybe it’s because I’m a dad (though it’s probably just because I’m an awful, insensitive man), but I really giggled a lot at Mike’s efforts to unpause the movie even as Sue’s feelings continued to “leak out.”
  • Anyone else feel like the joke about Brad’s prom date may end up being one of the last ones we get before he goes off to college and/or Sue finally figures things out?
  • The running joke with Sue reciting the potato slogans out of dedication to her job had a great payoff during her phone call with a newly-former co-worker, reminding them that, although they might’ve been corny, “You did sign a potato pledge.”
  • Another solid two-part joke started with Frankie admitting that the bag containing their date-night dinner had been in there so long that the letter had come off and finished with her being called on her hesitation to eat the Heck Brothers’ Old-Timey Cover-Up Sauce because she didn’t know what it was. (“You make us do it all the time!”)
  • Yes, I realize it was an absurd level of cluelessness, but I still laughed at the way Sue said in a shocked voice, “Earl the security guard?!?”
  • This is now two weeks in a row where Sean has been used in a brief but delightful fashion. I approve wholeheartedly.
  • In closing, never be afraid to throw in a “darned tooting” now and then.

The Goldbergs: “Dance Party USA”

Some ‘80s programs look more dated than others ‘80s programs, but no ‘80s programs look quite as dated as dance shows. This is not a phenomenon limited to the ‘80s, of course, but as someone who came of age during that particular decade, I can personally vouch for just how badly some of the most popular looks of the era have aged. I mean, yikes.

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Still, just because the sights may make you cringe now doesn’t change the fact that, at the time, there were many, many people who wanted nothing more desperately than to appear on these shows and dance their hearts out and their asses off, which is why Erica and Lainey are so excited that they’re going to be appearing on Dance Party U.S.A. and – almost as importantly – that Barry is absolutely, positively not. Sorry, Barry, but you’re just not awesome enough.

But the thing is, Erica went through a period where she wasn’t awesome enough, either. Indeed, as it’s revealed during the opening moments of the episode, she spent a good chunk of the previous years of her educational career as a giant ball of awkwardness, and it was so rough that she’s the first to ignore this period of her life and focus on how great things are right now. Unfortunately, having Barry and his spaz-tastic dance moves front and center during their appearance on the show is basically the last thing Erica wants to have to deal with, so she denies him his request to go with them, with his pleas for her to change her mind falling on deaf ears.

Enter pink eye.

If you’ve never had pink eye, then count yourself lucky, especially if you grew up in the ‘80s, because it was apparently everywhere back then…including on Erica’s pillow, thanks to a pitiful Barry rubbing his face on the bed. In turn, as Barry is getting over the nasty case of the stuff that he acquired from putting a kaleidoscope he found under a bridge onto his eye, Erica’s getting a fresh batch, and it’s rough going for her, mostly because in rapid succession she has to stop wearing her contacts, sees so poorly without them that she has to wear glasses again, and runs into a locker door, causing her to have to wear temporary braces. In short, she looks just like she did before she cooled herself up, if you take my meaning, and while this is not a bad thing, per se, it puts her in a position where she’s very unlikely to make it onto Dance Party U.S.A., whereas Barry is doing a quick, intense, and hilarious training session with Coach Meller in order to be granted permission to be a part of it. The end result is your classic example of finding out what life’s like on the other side of the coin and realizing that, hey, we’re not so different after all! Which is to say that there are certainly some funny moments - the Coach’s training session with Barry and the end result on his dancing abilities are gold, as is Erica’s cafeteria meltdown when she discovers that she’s not going to be going on the show after all - but you can kind of see where events are leading, so it’s not like the ending is a real shock or anything. In truth, the whole thing mostly seems like an excuse to get Hayley Orrantia to wear her ugly-Erica ensemble for the majority of an episode…not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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Meanwhile, over in the land of Adam and Pops, we get a tale of a grandson who finds out the hard way that his grandfather is fallible. It looks like it’s going to be another classic time on the town with just the two of them - Atlantic City is the town in question - with Pops placing bets but still coming up a winner far more often than not…or is that actually the case? Either way, just because you get handed a free seafood buffet ticket doesn’t mean that you’re a success. It’s just a good start. Well, you know, except in this case, when it isn’t.

Look, the point here is that Pops has spent his life trying to portray himself as a real cool guy, someone who’s got his head screwed on straight, but now that Adam’s trying to emulate him, he’s proving himself to be a miserable failure as a gambler, so much so that his decision to play finger football results in Adam losing all of his beloved Transformers, his Nintendo game system, his first-edition run of Garbage Pail Kids cards, and much, much more. It’s a tremendous kick in the nads for Adam, particularly when neither Bev nor Pops can successfully win his stuff back for him from Principal Ball (“What happened to your jacket?” “Fuck that guy!”), and the boy is suddenly left feeling that his grandfather is nothing more than a common liar. It takes a heartfelt explanation from Murray about how grandparents might exaggerate, but even at that it’s only because they want you love them as much as they love you, in order to change Adam’s tune. So what we’re saying is that, okay, maybe Pops didn’t really karate-kick Mussolini in the face, but it’s a great mental image and, frankly, isn’t that enough?

It’s not? Well, look, it’s going to have to be, dammit, because it’s very late, and I’m tired. So very, very tired.

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Stray observations:

  • “I’ve told you before, Erica: I only like you as a lab partner, and even then I fantasize about other lab partners.”
  • You know how you can tell Erica’s a good dancer? Because she can walk like an Egyptian straight into the Safety Dance.
  • I really just never get tired of hearing Stan Bush’s “The Touch.” Journey’s “Faithfully” maybe I could do without for a little while, but I can always stand to hear “The Touch.”
  • You know you’ve crossed the threshold of comic book geekdom when a show makes a reference to The Incredible Hulk #181 and, without doing a lick of research, you instantly know, “That’s got to be the one featuring the first appearance of Wolverine.” And so it was.
  • “I gambled and I lost.” “Always keep a spare pair of underwear in your locker. That gem’s for free!”
  • I love the hunter and prey relationship between Bev and Principal Ball a little bit more each week, but I particularly dug the way he had a visible surge of confidence at the opportunity to show off his skill at cards. I know Stephen Tobolowsky probably had a stunt shuffler, but I don’t care, I’ll still pretend it was really him doing it, because that’s just how cool I think that guy is.
  • “I love dating a weirdo.” “That’s right you do!”
  • In closing, I could show you any number of Dance Party USA clips where you could relish loads and loads of big hair and small dresses, but instead I’m sending over a clip of a band performing on the show that really had no damned business being there in the first place. That’s not to say that they didn’t sound great, because they absolutely did, but then again you’d expect them to, what with them simply playing and lip-synching to the original recording.

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