Written by Matt Haviland
Trudging along like the two-career family it chronicles, The Middle seems to get lost in the shuffle of more polished sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother and Modern Family –those television Donahues down the street. Even its title feels left over from the universally beloved Malcolm in the Middle, which comes to mind (and to Google results page) whenever the series is mentioned. But like its phantom namesake, The Middle brings authenticity to family drama surrounding the concept of “just getting by,” with a five-person household full of colorful performances. But make that four, because Axl Heck (Charlie McDermott) is going to college. In a shifting television landscape full of final episodes and meeting mothers, one of the most quietly interesting questions of Fall 2013 is: How will The Middle’s creators, Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, handle sending a major character to college on his own, separated from the people who have annoyed him but also kept him going with fresh storylines?
In the Axl Heck spirit of cutting corners, we’ll have to wait until next week to find out. Despite Axl’s unusual excitement for the first day of school–because it’s college–season five begins with a long stretch and several morning groans. Of course Frankie (Patricia Heaton) is sad about Axl leaving, and makes the whole family tag along for his departure. Of course Mike (Neil Flynn) is mildly exasperated. Of course Sue (Eden Sher) is freaking out about the junior peer leadership advisor position she interviewed for (though her quote about “leading when no one is looking, listening, or letting you” is classic). And of course Brick (Atticus Shaffer) remains in the background. With brand new plot lines to establish, most of the action feels stagnant. Even the pitiful care package Axl prepared for college (snacks, inflatable palm tree, bag of sand: “It’s gonna be hot!”) feels contrived. But there’s hope. The Middle works best with the family in close quarters. Things tend to escalate when these offbeat personalities are crammed into one car. Remember when they saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Serpico, and Fiddler on the Roof at the drive-in movie theater? Their sublime conversation on the ride back from Aunt Ginny’s funeral? The Hecks are at their finest in transit.
Once they get on the road, things improve. Frankie drags Axl through Bed Bath & Beyond to buy some more college supplies, so people won’t think she’s a lazy mother. There’s a funny little exchange about the now-responsible Brick’s cell phone for middle school which Frankie wants him to have, of course, so she can keep track of him (Mike: “So what is it? He’s responsible or he isn’t?”). But things really heat up when they’re on the highway and Frankie recalls suggests that they swap treasured memories. Suddenly, Brick is calling Grandpa Tag and putting him on speaker phone. Grandpa Tag mentions a savings bong he apparently gave to baby Axl. This sets off a savage chain reaction where the family is arguing about baby money, Brick is dropping his phone out the window, Sue is stressing about how the school didn’t receive her peer leadership advisor essay (which Frankie was supposed to fax them), Mike is already tense from having to talk to Tag on the phone, and is now explaining to Axl, who is already frustrated about stopping on the way to college, how his savings bond was used. “Relax, nobody stole your money…” Mike says. “We just diversified your portfolio into food, clothes, and braces.” And then they’re looking through the grass for Brick’s cell phone while Sue discovers that she only has fifteen minutes to fax the school her essay. Then Axl is walking on the highway with his blow-up palm tree while Frankie talks to him through the front window (“Do I really need to explain to you what an ‘iconic moment’ is?”) while Sue shouts at him through the back window about getting to Kinkos before 2:00 pm. Then Axl is back in the car and Sue’s essay is smeared, so everyone is trying to reconstruct her sentences by throwing out words that might start with “fluh.”
In other words, the episode gets very funny, very quickly. We recognize that everything before this was necessary to build momentum for the utter chaos that ensued. The Middle often feels like a traditional family sitcom, but in these moments, it becomes the PG-version of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. There’s a whirling madness of momentum that The Middle can build and then sustain indefinitely. We’re still reeling from Axl calling himself a “cash cow” by the time that Sue’s essay is being sent to the school–picking up more comic momentum by ending her essay with “God bless America,” more or less, on top of the copy machine–and after getting Brick’s phone back from an old man who called Mike with it (“Who the hell calls me?”), they take several bathroom stops before reaching the college. The images of Sue coming out of a truck stop and then Frankie trotting out from behind some trees on the side of the highway cinch the hilarity that everyone put Axl through before his first day of college. His stated reasons for wanting to get there faster? Making it to school before the girls put on their freshman ten, and wanting to beat his roommate to the dorms so he can choose “the bigger bedroom.” The image of him holding a blown-up pine tree gets funnier as he goes from location to location with it. Everything snowballs until they drop him off with a silent roommate named Kenny who’s playing World of Warcraft with his back turned. But soon, a passing student sees the inflatable palm tree and dubs Axl’s (and Kenny’s) room party central (“Hey dude, is that a palm tree?” “And sand!”).
Besides turning into a classic episode, “The Drop Off” promises a great season to come. Frankie is sad about Axl being off at college, but Axl is only 42 minutes away, so there’s considerable room for inventive plot lines. Brick in middle school, carrying (and dropping) a cell phone and becoming more independent. Now that Brick is a preteen, he may fall subject to serious peer criticism. Could we have another “Strange Botwin” on our hands? Things could get darker for him. And with Sue being a minor authority figure in high school (she got the part!), how much power will she have for programs like forcing popular kids to be friends with unpopular kids, as described in her interview? Axl finally has free reign to become the wildcat teenager he has always hinted at. But what about cognitive dissonance, being a hard-drinking college jock who is actually a sweet, easily-confused person? And Mike, of course, will have to deal with all of this. We shouldn’t forget the financial strains of college education, which should be fertile ground for conflict and social commentary for the Heck family. As a junior, Sue is on her way there, and already worrying about scholarships for pursuits other than “throwing a ball.” Because of this progression into different schools and roles within them (and perhaps career choices for Axl), there has never been richer soil for character development than The Middle’s fifth season.
Much like other family sitcoms (and more so than Malcolm in the Middle, which remained realistic but impressively antisocial), twisting situations for exponential laughter makes The Middle entertaining, but the unexpected family moments stick in our minds. These continue beyond the point where we might assume the episode is over. Back from college, the Hecks walk inside for dinner. Axl’s ghostlike voice comes in from another room, complaining about having no snacks in the cabinets. Poignant background music plays. We wonder if Frankie is remembering Axl’s voice from weeks or months ago. For a second, it’s a tearjerker. It’s sad because, in the tearjerker prior to this moment, Axl left Frankie without saying goodbye. She had to give his computer zombie roommate life lessons and a crying hug, instead (Mike: “I know, it’s hard saying goodbye to Kenny”). But Axl is really there in the kitchen! And complaining that Frankie didn’t super-size the ubiquitous Heck Three Bags of Fast Food. It’s a sweet moment, and a credit to everyone involved that the ghost voice of Axl complaining about snacks (by the way, how did he get there before them? Like Mike would say, “Better not to ask”) would have been poignant, too, and would not have struck the slightest note of corniness.
The Middle started its fifth-season premiere by showing us that writers can’t succeed by simply going through the motions. For a while, it seemed like everyone was doing what they would be doing. But soon enough, Axl slammed his head into a Bed, Bath & Beyond sign. Everyone started yelling in the car. Everything clicked. The twin momentum of Axl’s frustration and Frankie’s wistfulness accumulated to the point where the absurd image of Frankie standing next to some dude playing World of Warcraft in a dirty, smelly dorm room–while Axl ran off without saying goodbye and Mike just stood there watching–evoked sincere motherly heartbreak. And when everybody got home, they did it again. Then the camera pulled back while everyone got back into character. The Middle can be weightlessly goofy sometimes, but sometimes, it’s the heavyweight champion. There’s no finer heir to Frankie Muniz.