[This post contains plot details from The Middle season 6 premiere episode, which aired on Sept. 24]
The Middle‘s greatest skill has always been balancing the absurd with the relatable. Is it likely that someone would wear braces for eight years, then have her teeth shift only a day after they come off? No. But how many families have searched through a restaurant Dumpster for a lost retainer? (I lost mine at a Piccadilly.) This ridiculous/mundane split is what makes watching a family in middle America so fun—even after six seasons.
Luckily, we get all of that in “Unbraceable You.” After their trip to Disneyland—or was it World?—the Hecks have spent their summer the way everyone should: by being lazy. The only problem comes when their Friday pool time is interrupted by a neighbor who tells them that school started Monday. They rush to get to their last 47 minutes of the first week of school, and the kid-focused episode kicks off.
Sue: Shortly after declaring her senior year to be The Year of Sue, it’s already off to a bad start (who predicted that?). Poor Sue misses everything: sign-ups, the senior picture, a pep rally, a spirit rally—which is very different from a pep rally. She’s also learned she’s now the only senior with braces. Visiting the orthodontist (Richard Kind) reveals that Sue will have to wait yet another three months to get them off. That’s when Frankie does what she does best: She fights for her kids. Her six months of dental school give her enough know-how to yell at Dr. Niller and demand Sue’s braces come off. She gets her way—but once again, Sue’s dreams are dashed as her teeth start to shift. She begins to doubt her never-wavering optimism, until Dr. Niller says he thinks he can fix her teeth with a year-long retainer. (I hope Eden Sher enjoyed that scene where she was orthodontics-free, because it was brief.) And Sue’s back in her optimistic world of rainbows and sunshine—right where we like her.
Brick: The family’s youngest child is in seventh grade now. Other kids have beards and sit with girls, but Brick’s biggest worry is what bag to carry. His “Shaq-quill” O’Neal backpack apparently isn’t still in style, according to “a guy on the sports team.” He tries out a messenger bag (which was made for someone 7 feet tall), a guitar case, and a BabyBjörn, before settling on a pizza delivery bag. Atticus Shaffer is right in the middle of that awkward age—both as a kid and as an actor. Luckily, Brick’s quirkiness fits him perfectly and his physical comedy skills are blossoming right when the cute kid antics are no longer appropriate.
Axl: He spends his summer vacation sleeping until noon and shooting hoops with his dad—both completely expected. But when Axl starts beating his dad for the first time ever—and feeling bad about it—suddenly it feels like he might truly be growing up. He has a lengthy talk (seriously, has Axl ever spoken so many words in a single episode?) with Brick about how “dad is dad; he’s like all-powerful and stuff” and how uncomfortable it is now that Mike’s “slowing down,” in the words of Brick. It’s something that happens to every child—when you realize parents aren’t just parents, but are actual, fallible people. The fact that this conversation is happening with the kid who used to only grunt makes it all the more poignant. Axl gets an easy way out when neighbors challenge him and Mike to a two-on-two game. Mike and Axl win together, so they can finally stop playing each other.
Frankie and Mike don’t get huge roles this episode, aside from the orthodontist yelling and basketball playing. But according to showrunner DeAnn Heline, expect that to change soon. Once they realize they have a second child heading to college next year, they’ll start to scramble for more odd jobs and extra work. Even when it’s extended by a week, lazy summers never last.