ABC’s March 6th rerun of the December 12th, 2012 episode of The Middle (Wednesdays, 8:00p.m. ET) was simultaneously one of the funniest and most endearing episodes of the series ever aired, deservedly earning it the title of Best TV Show of the Week.
Frankie and Mike Heck’s 20th anniversary is imminent. Daughter Sue, naturally, is hyper and excited about the event, and plans to throw a “spectacular, super-secret surprise party!” for their parents. But her brothers – older Axl and younger Brick – are less than enthused when Sue tries to enlist their help in party planning:
Brick: “I’ll be reading. Book seven of Planet Nowhere comes out tomorrow.”
Axl: “How about we blow this one off and really hit it hard for their 40th?”
Sue tries to divvy up responsibilities – with predictable results.
Sue: “Invitations? I’ll do those. Food? I got it. How about finding a venue? That’s more of a ‘me’ job. Tell you what: how about you guys just work on the skit?”
Brick: “Can we go now?”
When Brick obtains his copy of the concluding book in his beloved sci-fi franchise Axl, mad because Brick beat him at air hockey and “won” his guitar, steals Brick’s copy of the newly-released book, the last in a series Brick has been reading all his life. Furthermore, Axl twists the knife by revealing the ending of the book. Brick is devastated and literally faints, and is reduced to a numb, staring zombie for several days afterward.
Meanwhile, out walking with her friend, Frankie sees her husband Mike waiting in a line. Frankie impulsively decides to call Mike and tell him she “sees a cute guy standing in line.” But Frankie is humiliated when Mike looks to see who is phoning him, then puts his phone back in his pocket without bothering to answer. Later, she confronts Mike:
Frankie: “I saw you look at your phone, see it was me, and shove me back in your pocket with your change and your lint. Nancy Donahue saw it, too. Yeah. It was kind of embarrassing.”
Mike: “So you’re mad because Nancy Donahue saw me not take your call?”
Frankie: “No, I’m mad because after 20 years my husband no longer wants to speak to me.”
This leads to Mike ranting about cellphones allowing people to call with “whatever pops into their head,” and claim he is more “thoughtful” for only talking about things that matter. “There’s two sides,” he says. Frankie replies, “No, there’s one very mean side. Now that I’m looking at you, I’m glad you didn’t answer, because you’re not that cute. At all.”
Later, Frankie awakens in the middle of the night and decides to forgive Mike – only to find he’s not in bed, but is in the living room alone, enjoying a steak and beer while watching TV. “It’s quiet,” he explains. But Frankie is fed up with Mike. “I just think it’s rude. You’re having fun in the middle of the night, without me. You’re cheating on me with Fun!…Y’know, this is worse than an affair. I could understand if there was someone prettier or younger than me, but you’re more interested in NOBODY!”
The grudge-holding continues into the next day, when Mike invites Frankie out to dinner for their anniversary:
Frankie: “Thanks, but I know you already have a reservation for one. At 1 a.m.”
Mike: “Look, I’m just trying to get through this.”
Frankie: “Awww. After 20 years of marriage: ‘Look, I’m just trying to get through this.’ Thanks so much. That’s beautiful. It’s like a fairy tale!”
Mike: “You are putting way too much emphasis on this 20 year thing. It’s not that big a deal.”
Meanwhile, Sue’s attempt to make a big blow-out party is failing. None of the people she’s invited want to attend, no one has funny or interesting stories about Mike and Frankie, and the church she has picked for a venue is taken. “We’re just going to have to scale it down. Simplify. Work within our means. But it is still going to be spectacular, and it is still going to be super secret!”
Frankie discovers Sue’s overly-ambitious “super-secret anniversary party” planner, and is thrilled to learn their children are throwing a surprise party for them. “It’s all our friends together at our church. Music and speeches and a skit. I can’t believe they’re doing this! And it’s all happening – everything’s crossed off.”
After days of Brick moping, Axl apologizes for spoiling the ending of the book. Brick explains how deeply Axl has hurt him:
“I don’t play sports. I don’t exactly have a ton of friends. I have books. You don’t read. You don’t understand. You don’t know what it’s like to live in different worlds. To travel on great adventures through the galaxy with people you know better than you know your own family. To live and die with them. Have you ever loved anything? Do you have any idea? These books are my friends, Axl. My best friends in the world. You took away something from me that I can never get back. You took it, and you wrecked it.”
That night, Frankie and Mike are dressed up and prepared for their “surprise party” – and are truly surprised to discover it is taking place in their own kitchen. Sue promises an evening of “skits, songs, and celebration of your marriage, followed by a delicious spaghetti dinner. Brick, present the appetizers.” Brick, bent over a mixing bowl, frantically cries, “You didn’t say I was doing appetizers!”
The “romantic anniversary party” becomes a debacle, with Sue’s “photo montage” consisting of her holding up pictures while Brick presents “appetizers” of Saltines sprayed with Cheez Whiz. “If you’d like to know how the dinner ends, ask Axl,” the embittered Brick snarls. The “party” degenerates into Sue and Axl screaming at one another:
Sue: “It’s twenty years. I wanted to make it special!”
Axl: “You’ve always gotta do this. You always gotta make a big deal out of everything!”
Sue: “You do, for family!”
Axl: “You know what YOU can ‘do for family’? Give us all a break!”
Sue: “God forbid I try to do one fun thing!”
Axl: “You always try to do one fun thing – but it’s never fun. Fine. Let’s just get through it!”
Frankie (whispering to Mike): “Is this the skit?”
Mike: “She’s got you down.”
Frankie: “He’s doing you to a T.”
An upset Sue apologizes for the failed party. Frankie reassures her, stating the anniversary really is no big deal. “We didn’t even get each other anything.” “Speak for yourself,” Mike says – and surprises Frankie with a diamond ring.
“So it turns out the guy who didn’t take my calls and eats steak in the middle of the night saved up all year to buy me a ring,” Frankie narrates. “Even the people you know best in the world can still surprise you.”
But one more surprise is in store: a truly contrite Axl presents Brick with a new ending to Planet Nowhere “that I came up with myself. So you can have the experience you missed out on.” While Brick states that Axl’s ending “sucks,” he is touched by Axl’s attempt to make things right.
One of the reasons The Middle is so frequently chosen as Best TV Show of the Week is its deft intermixing of humor and sentiment, which, however, rarely becomes “corny” but is nearly always genuine. Frankie’s desire for affection and togetherness clashes with Mike’s “don’t make a big deal out of it” laconic nature, leading to hurt feelings, realistically sarcastic arguments, grudges being held, and nasty remarks popping out even days later. Axl and Sue’s argument mirrors sentiments they have heard innumerable times during their parents’ arguments. Axl’s thoughtless bullying of his younger brother, and both boys’ ignoring of their hyperactive and sentimental sister’s plans, are all situations encountered all too often in real-life families.
And yet, also just as in real life, at the end of the day, despite their squabbles, the Hecks are a genuine family. Mike loves Frankie, and shows it, no matter how much he exasperates her. Frankie, while quickly angered, also is quick to forgive. Axl, though often a braggart fond of bullying Brick, is capable of taking responsibility for his actions and trying to make things right when Brick makes it clear how much he has been hurt. And everyone is tolerant of Sue’s hyperactive personality, and deep down does appreciate her effort to make everyone’s life better. For reflecting the best in middle-class, Midwestern families with humor and taste, ABC’s The Middle is fully deserving of the title Best TV Show of the Week.
Nestle (Lean Cuisine) sponsored this show. To thank them for supporting family TV, click here.