"The Middle," which follows the antics of the quirky Heck family in Indiana, entered its second season on ABC Wednesday night. It also marked the show's first guest star of the season: Doris Roberts. Yup, the mom from "Everybody Loves Raymond." She reunited with "Middle" lead and "Raymond" star Patricia Heaton, playing the teacher of youngest child and strange, whispering savant, Brick (named after the Indianapolis Brickyard).
It's the first day of school, and the Hecks' morning ritual is spiraling into cereal-spilling, teeth-brushing, "shut up"-flinging bedlam. Axl's barely made it out of bed in time, and Sue springs a cross country sweatshirt order form on Frankie at the last minute (it's the only extracurricular in which awkward, forgettable Sue's found success). Meanwhile, Brick complains his backpack being "too wet" after Frankie washed it upon discovering a blackened, molded, summer-old sandwich inside. Their frantic mother finally and breathlessly gets them out of the door, and heaves a sigh of relief. Then the front door opens. "We missed the bus," Brick deadpans. Aye yai yai -- what's Frankie to do? The harvest-themed wallpaper trim makes her kitchen busy enough. What'll she do to transform the space into an efficient thoroughfare for school and work prep?
That night, Frankie lies in bed with Mike, ruminating the morning's events and their family's disorganization. She says: "If this was 'Supernanny, and we had the whole morning on hidden camera, Jo would crucify us." It's then and there Frankie decides she's going to regain control of the family so they can "be better people." Filling out assorted parental permission slips, Mike blanks on his daughter's middle name. (FYI, her full name is "Sue Sue Heck." Poor Sue. Even with a double-talk joke of a name, she's as memorable as your middle school locker combination.)
The next day, during the morning routine, Axl runs into the kitchen, panicking, screams, "There's a weird noise coming out of my clock! Make it stop!" He's in his unchanging outfit of simply boxers and socks -- it's the get-up of champions; isn't it all you really need? Turns out Frankie setting her oversleeping son's alarm is one of many steps she's taken to make the family "organized and armed for success." Another nod to family mechanics maven Jo Frost, Frankie's assembled a dry erase chart of chores for each family member. She even got Brick a brand new backpack. "That thing was practically walking itself to the garbage," Frankie tells her youngest. "But it was my friend," the "off" boy replies. And when Frankie learns Brick ran around with his new backpack over his head in class, trying to determine if it had the "same echo" as the old one, she decides to be proactive and calls a parent-teacher meeting, before Brick's teacher gets the chance to do so.
And so returns Doris Roberts in her narrow-eyed surveying, meddling best. As Brick's teacher, Roberts assumes the same, intrusive role she took with Heaton's character in "Everybody Loves Raymond," calling Frankie a "smother" (a smothering mother). Frankie eventually convinces the teacher to give Brick "special attention," since Brick is, like many intelligent people, somewhat unusual. The next day, Brick's teacher freaks him out by dragging his desk (with him in it) to the front row to give him the attention Frankie requested.
Later, Brick, an excellent student who loves school, suddenly refuses to go, telling his mom in his signature, whispering repeat to himself: "I'm taking a personal day... personal day." When Frankie returns for another parent-teacher meeting, asking the teacher to back off, Roberts, in her trademark, Marie Barone armchair-parenting, scoffs, "Now your kid's calling the shots?" and says Frankie's a "glommy mommy." Frankie, like Debra Barone so often did, left in an agitated huff. Ahh. I've missed that antagonistic relationship those two portrayed so well on "Raymond" -- I could watch bitter in-laws pick at each other's scabs all the live long day. (As long as they're not my in-laws. Or scabs.)
At home, still mourning his lost backpack, Brick looks up at his mom and asks, "Is there something wrong with me?" Realizing she made her "happiest kid miserable," Frankie knew she had to get that backpack back -- and she did, after leaping into the garbage truck that picked it up. She even had time for some light rummaging. ("There's a lot of shampoo left in it," she exclaims, picking up a bottle of the stuff.) But even after Frankie recovers Brick's "friend," the fickle kid says, "Nah, I'll just keep the new one. I can't tell if it's you or the backpack, but something smells rank." He tosses a perfect, sassy wave of dismissal.
While patching their above-ground pool with a sharp shooting target, Frankie and Mike reflect on the past few days over a couple of PBRs, deciding that there's no use in going crazy over trying to succeed or be organized. Happy and relieved, Frankie and the fam re-embrace the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants morning whirlwind. Axl wakes up late, and Sue shows her mom a printed-off version of the school newspaper, whose headline reads, "Overheated student ruins pep rally." (Sue, overzealous in her newfound membership to a group, left her cross country sweatshirt on all week in 80-degree weather, and passed out at the rally, bowling over and taking a bunch of the team with her.) "I'm in the school paper!" squeals Sue. As the kids scramble out the door, Frankie tosses them their lunch -- three huge Ziploc bags of five or six stale brownies each -- and breathes another sigh of relief. With a smile, she thinks that organized, successful families might envy their family. In the background, through the sliding glass door, we see the newly-patched pool burst open, flooding the lawn.
"The Middle" airs Wednesdays at 8 on ABC.