Emotional story lines on sitcoms run the risk of sucking out the humor — but in the season 7 premiere of The Middle, the ABC show uses a tense moment to its advantage when they send Sue off to college with the rest of the Hecks in tow.
The set-up starts off as fairly conventional: Sue is overeager to leave, Axl is annoyed that his baby sister is joining him at school, and Frankie is heartbroken that her only daughter is leaving. These are all recognizable, relatable feelings. The only thing is, not all of them are true.
For example, Frankie — who tells Sue she can’t talk about her leaving or else she might never stop crying — isn’t actually all that broken up about Sue’s departure. She spends the first part of the episode acting like she is though, and the show doesn’t reveal until about halfway through that she feels nothing at all.
“You’re a monster,” Mike responds after her confession, and he’s not entirely wrong, at least according to the narrative of kids going to college we usually see on TV. Just Tuesday night, Sceam Queens‘ series premiere featured a daughter and her single dad sharing an emotional goodbye — so emotional that they decided ahead of time that they would hug for a certain amount of seconds before the dad left the dorm room, all without making eye contact to avoid a case of the sobs. Frankie though? Frankie’s fine with it. And that doesn’t make her any less of a good mom.
But it does frustrate Sue, who wants her drop-off to be exactly like Axl’s. She wants warm-and-fuzzy; she wants family bonding. Instead, she gets her family separated into two cars (Axl and Brick in one, her and her folks in the other). This is Sue, though, and Sue has a solution: walkie-talkies.
Sue’s obsessive commitment to having a memorable — or, as she calls it, “iconic” —drop-off is incredibly endearing, and embodies much of what makes The Middle such a watchable, enjoyable family comedy. The Hecks are unabashedly, well, weird, and it’s refreshing to see honest-to-goodness kooks going through life together, and especially refreshing to see their inter-family conflicts. You can love each other but that doesn’t mean you always necessarily like one another — a truth that The Middle so often perfectly (and humorously) represents.
This comes into clear view when, later in the episode, Mike reveals Frankie’s true feelings to Sue in a heated moment, a flub that acts as a catalyst for the episode to end on a sappy note. Sue is, obviously, upset. Axl’s being a jerk (brothers, right?), her mom isn’t that bummed her daughter is leaving, and her fairy tale drop-off is more Brothers Grimm than Disney.
The ensuing drama isn’t all that captivating because of how predictable it was — of course Sue’s fantasy was going to come crashing down by episode’s end — but what happens next makes up for that: Frankie gets on her walkie-talkie and lets it all out in a one-sided conversation with Sue, who’s now in the other car with her brothers.
“How do you not miss someone you’ve held from the first moment of your life?” Frankie says. “The thing is, with you, more than the sad, there’s the excitement because I know you are so ready for this and you’re going to do amazing things. You’re going to Sue up the world. How lucky is the world? And how lucky am I that I get a front-row seat to all of it?” Sue’s crying; I’m crying; everyone’s crying — and Frankie just won Mom of the Year.
Sue being off at college is going to alter the dynamic of the show, but it already proved it can successfully juggle the kids-away-at-college subplots when they sent Axl away. As long as they don’t let Sue disappear and they do give Brick, who was slightly underused in this premiere, more story, The Middle is going to be just fine — and so are the Hecks.
The Middle airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.