Although I've spent much of The Middle seeing more than a little bit of myself and my family within the world of the Hecks, I have to admit that I didn't find nearly as much that I could personally relate to within this week's episode.
Not that that made it unfunny for me—as ever, I laughed a lot—but for better or worse, I've lived a life where, as of this writing, I've managed to go 41 years without ever having needed to take an overnight trip to eat Thanksgiving dinner. I haven't shared the holiday with my sister in more than a decade, owing to the fact that she lives in Colorado and I live in Virginia, so there's no sibling rivalry going on. And even though my wife and I split Thanksgiving between our respective families, having lunch with hers and dinner with mine, we live so close to them and see them so often that we don't really have to deal with a whole lot of that "oh, God, I'd forgotten how much you can annoy me" dynamic… as if distance should really be an issue with that, anyway. I mean, this is family we're talking about here. Does anyone ever forget how much their family can annoy them?
Well, apparently, Frankie can: As the episode kicks off, the whole Heck clan is in the car, heading toward her parents' house, and she's espousing the awesomeness of having everybody staying in one place for the holidays. Alas, the "nuggets of happiness" that she's so excited to experience quickly turn into lumps of coal: Her well-laid plans to stay in the guest room turn into another year of everyone sleeping on air mattresses, and the sister-sister relationship between Frankie and Janet, a.k.a. Auntie Fabulous, grows increasingly cold with each passing moment, thanks to Brick's inability to interact with his equally eccentric cousin, Lucy.
As the father of a kid who came about via in vitro, I had to smile a little bit at the constant references to Lucy as Janet's "miracle baby," and perhaps grimace a tad, too, at all the coddling that was going on. But you don't need to have had medical assistance to reproduce to appreciate the tension of the conversations Frankie and Janet were having about their respective children insofar as who has "issues" and who's "special." The situation with Mr. Bear may have served as the impetus for the sisters to really get into it with each other, but it's clear that no matter whether the stuffed animal had been damaged or not, something would've eventually led to a battle royale approximating the air-mattress shenanigans we saw tonight.
It's always nice to see Marsha Mason again as Frankie's mom, Pat, even if the whole frozen-food gag didn't do a whole lot for me, but it was a full-fledged treat to see Jerry Van Dyke turn up to reprise his role as Frankie's dad, Tag. Dick may be the one who gets the most respect in the Van Dyke family—in fairness, there's good reason for that—but I won't hear an ill word said about Jerry, who is nothing short of a master when it comes to portraying both guileless enthusiasm and utter cluelessness.
Which reminds me: In the midst of the battle between Frankie and Janet and, by extension, the situation with Brick, Lucy, and poor Mr. Bear, it was great to have the utterly unexpected storyline involving three generations of incredibly bad flirters. Axl's attempts were bad enough—"What kind of gum would you recommend?"—and Mike's efforts, with his unintentionally creepy comment about the cute cashier's Catholic schoolgirl uniform, were downright painful. I gotta tell ya, though: I laughed longest and loudest at Tug… not so much at what he said, although any reference to having "the winds" certainly warrants a case of laughing 'til you cough, but at the combination of the way he wiped away his post-flirtation flop sweat and his pained expression once he got back in the car. God bless you, Jerry Van Dyke.
As I said, I didn't necessarily connect with this episode in the same way I do with a lot of episodes of The Middle, but I still really enjoyed the various storylines, and although Mike clearly wasn't enthused at the idea of Frankie and Janet spending more time together, I have to say that I wouldn't mind seeing Molly Shannon back in the mix before too long.
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