Written by Matt Haviland
Plot: Floating in the pool on the last Friday of their best summer ever, the Hecks are given shocking news—school started on Monday. Off to a frenzied start for what’s supposed to be her best year ever, Sue (Eden Sher) gets her braces off, and her teeth look great, but it might have been too soon. Meanwhile, Axl (Charlie McDermott) beats his father, Mike (Neil Flynn), for the first time ever in basketball, and then beats him again, and again. Meanwhile, Brick (Atticus Shaffer) enters seventh grade unsure of which backpack he wants to take with him. Frankie (Patricia Heaton) watches over them all, but not too closely. She’s only got so much energy, after all. Jeez.
After a year of proving it wasn’t immune to getting stale (which is understandable, given that we’re now entering season six of a show that long ago furnished itself a comfortable living room of comic territory), The Middle is back for Sue’s senior year of high school with sharpened pencils and a new cotton shirt of vibrant colors. There were great moments last year, sure. Who could forget the semi-patriotic whirlwind around driving Axl to college, the eldest Glossner kid (David Chandler) repeatedly ambushing Sue with kisses, Brick’s kitchen-table conversion to Buddhism, Frankie’s confrontation with the family about their making fun of her, or Mike’s tearful Christmas rendition of “Cat’s in the Cradle.” But the feeling of “been there, laughed at that” kept creeping over me throughout the season. So what about now?
Much like last year’s season premiere, “Unbraceable You” highlights the many strengths of The Middle in a glorious carousel of activity. The first strength on deck is the visual craftsmanship. Lots of shows have strong aesthetics. On ABC’s Wednesday-night comedy block alone, The Goldbergs looks like a fuzzy sweater from the 80s, Modern Family resembles a polished upper-middle class colonial, and last year’s Suburgatory was served every Wednesday night like a caramel apple over a checkered tablecloth. Even with these extravagant neighbors, The Middle holds its own. Similar to Wes Anderson’s recent triumph, The Grand Budapest Hotel, this episode feels like a lived-in dollhouse full of delightful moving parts. In one fabulously constructed shot, Mike takes a gallon of milk out of the fridge and then walks toward the camera. He stops to watch Brick walk past him into frame, dragging a messenger bag across the floor, and then continues walking toward us as he knocks a basketball out of Axl’s hand as he walks past Mike into frame (Axl saying, “Touche?”), while Frankie and Sue walk in behind them holding shopping bags full of candy and Mike finally walks out of frame. In about ten seconds, all three storylines converge in one shot in the kitchen. That kind of craftsmanship dominates the episode, each scene stuffed with bright colors and curious knickknacks. Though the whole series sports these touches, something feels rejuvenated in this episode, with almost every setting exuding the feeling of summer.
The Middle also continues to be a great showcase of physical comedy, the cast seeming refreshed and ready for the school year. Charlie McDermott bounds with energy in this episode and has tons of great moments, even when he’s off to the side, reacting to somebody else. After Sue agrees to his statement that “God clearly wants you to be ugly—why are we fighting his plan?” Axl bows next to the refrigerator like an Olympic champion, hidden behind the rest of the family. Even low-key characters contribute a lot of physical humor. When Nancy Donahue (Jen Ray), whose worried expression is worth many giggles on its own, says, “Frankie, school started on Monday,” the Hecks naturally freak out, but the hidden punchline that carries the weight of our laughter is Mike’s shrug with the newspaper as he floats in the pool. And though Brick’s b-story about finding a new backpack produces several flat punchlines, there are a couple of huge laughs, most notably when he drops the guitar case at school and it flies down the stairs and bursts open with candy at the bottom, which about a dozen kids immediately descend on.
The writers are also back with renewed enthusiasm and creativity. Brick’s description of his first day at school among a maturing seventh grade class goes from generalized statements to one contextually bizarre detail: “Boys are sitting with girls, now, there’s a kid in the locker room with a beard.” Sue’s fits of hysteria are as carefully written as ever (“…I missed the candlelight ceremony, where the seniors light the candles for the juniors, I missed the senior pep rally and the senior spirit rally, and I know they sound like the same thing, but they are not”). Axl is given gold throughout the episode. When Sue announces she’ll be running for sergeant-in-arms because she got her braces off, he retorts, “More like sergeant of pretty teeth,” and then grumbles, “It can’t be done!” Even when the writing gets broad, the Hecks pump it full of energy. Sue’s face contorts about three times when she tells her orthodontist, “Sue Heck needs a win.” You’re laughing before you consciously realize the line could be so funny.
But like most great comedies, there’s heart underneath the humor. The subplot featuring Axl and Mike begins with some huge laughs as Axl beats Mike for the first, second, and third time ever in basketball. The throes of victory are hilarious. But as Mike starts getting emotional about losing, we enjoy heartfelt moments between not two but all three Heck men. At first, Brick is uninterested in Axl’s feelings about beating his dad (“I’m not really a sports person”), but then there’s a great little moment where Axl tells Brick that it’s not about sports, but about feeling like his dad is the one who should win these things. And where they could have had Mike challenge Axl to another rematch and let the baskets swish where they may, instead, a father and son from down the street walk over and challenge them to two-on-two. After Axl dominates the court enough to make both him and his visibly creaky father look good, McDermott shows his wealth of tenderness as he tells his dad how great he did (“You must have picked his pocket like three times”), even though we know Axl did all the work, and Neil Flynn shows his own gruff softness with a fatherly explanation of the techniques behind his victory (“You know, the key to that move is, you gotta shade him to the right”).
Especially after binge watching several seasons, it’s easy to grow tired of a show’s modus operandi, even when things are as great as ever. And sometimes the most rewarding viewing comes years later, when you realize that you were living in the golden years all along—and because of the format, you’re actually able to see how great those years were firsthand by watching the episodes again. The fifth season of The Middle felt stale at the time, but retrospectively contained many golden moments. Even the forgettable moments were often hilarious or touching, such as Brick’s quest to fulfill dozens of old gift coupons he made for his dad, or Mike’s two speeches about winning an award for working at the quarry for twenty years. Looking back through these episodes, season five was the most unlikely, but perhaps common, of beasts—an aging sitcom that quietly sneaks in a full season of gems waiting to be rediscovered. Similar to the ungodly hilarity of the fifth season of The Office, perhaps my appreciation of last year’s adventures will deepen with time. And what about season six? With this often-great first episode setting the tone for what Sue Heck has dubbed “The Year of Sue,” and with promising storylines including Sue’s senior year, Brick’s foray into a pubescent school environment, and Mike’s visible onset of old age, this season is shaping up to be one that we can look back fondly on, and perhaps even enjoy as it happens.