The Middle

"Keep TV out of this. We need TV. We got nothing else." Why do I relate to the Hecks of ABC's rollicking The Middle? This is why. In the middle of an existential argument prompted by the death of Aunt Ginny — whose 100th birthday had gone unnoticed by a family just floating through life — they draw the line at cutting out TV. In this case Celebrity Rehab, and how are Frankie and Mike gonna feel when they learn that their reality addiction has been benched this year? That's an issue for a future episode. For now, let's revel in a modern classic that has yet to get its due from the industry.

The extended opening scene, set in the family car as the Hecks drive back from Ginny's funeral, is a master class in great comedy writing and performance, opening on Frankie's observation that "She looked good." From there, Brick freaks out at the notion of dying in one's sleep — though Mike insists that's "what you're shooting for" — while Axl insists he'll be frozen when the time comes ("If I go, the world's gonna want me back"), and Sue panics when Mom and Dad start talking wills and inheritance: "This is not appropriate to be talking about!" she cries, while Axl teases her so mercilessly Frankie has to pipe in, "Promise you won't freeze your sister's head and put it on somebody else's body." Everything rings so true in this car talk: the parents' platitudes, the kids' panic, the bad behavior, the honest awkwardness.

The rest of the episode is just as strong, as we see that surviving Old Aunt Edie hasn't processed the loss, and they have to keep breaking the news to her (with only oxygen-sucking basset hound Doris for solace) ... As Brick and Axl keep eating Brick's baked state-map school project ... And most especially as Sue Heck (the great Eden Sher) becomes aware, thanks to "best former first boyfriend" Brad, that one of the guys on the wrestling team likes her. (Frankie and Mike keep pressing Sue on Brad's actual words, wondering who's crushing on who. "Why would a boy like Brad? That doesn't make any sense," is Sue's ignorance-is-bliss response.) But it's true, and even though she initially takes mom's advice to "make yourself happy first," which she regards as "Oprah deep," Sue and the rest of us are thrown for a loop when her admirer rallies the entire wrestling team to perform a choreographed cheer, chanting her name. (A name, by the way, that most of her teachers can't even remember.) It's a euphoric moment, so well earned, and sends us out on a high. May The Middle never die.

The only other moment this week that approached this level of giddy glee was on The Big Bang Theory, as Mayim Bialik's Amy lets out a most unexpected girlish squeal when Sheldon presents her with a beadazzled tiara as a make-up gift. "Put it on me!" she cries. "I'm a princess!" Though Sheldon moans mid-hug that he knew the tiara was too much, Penny and we agree it was just right.

Want more Matt Roush? Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!

IT'S HOMER TIME:
Every so often, The Simpsons shows it can still bare its satirical fangs and draw blood. This week's timely target: cable news hysteria of the Glenn Beck variety, as Homer's YouTube-circulated rant aboard a delayed aircraft gives birth to "Homer Simpson, Blowhard." Or, as a cable news exec puts it, "You are the kind of ill-informed gasbag the network can not get enough of." Enter Gut Check With Homer Simpson, "where the truth is served with a side of in-your-face" and where the news crawl is an equal-opportunity offender: "Satan tweets support for Santorum ... Obama calls mulligan on first term ... Romney changes position on phoniness. ... Steve Jobs unveils iGhost. ..." Homer's shtick leads to on-air crying jags over soccer-vs-football, but as Lenny explains, "When a man who loves America cries, it makes him super straight." And also dangerous, when he considers endorsing Ted Nugent (as himself) for the presidential race. The family hires a James Madison impersonator (whom Homer naturally confuses with Oscar Madison) to shock Homer out of his power trip. But it backfires, because as you'd think they'd know by now (in Homer's words), "If there's one thing I don't like being taught, it's a lesson!"

THE SECRET WEAPON: Many shows have one, a scene-stealer who you can't wait to see take center stage. On Once Upon a Time, that would be the terrific Robert Carlyle, relishing the dual role of creepy cackling Rumpelstiltskin (in fairy-tale world) and the crafty Mr. Gold (in Storybrooke). In a strong origin story penned by Jane Espenson, we see how the cringingly timid farmer, a "desperate soul," found his way to the Dark Side (manipulated by Brad Dourif's beggar-man in disguise), making a dire choice to save his son from the Duke's war, learning the hard way the show's moral, that "Magic always comes with a price." In Storybrooke, the "desperate soul" is Emma, running for sheriff and wondering, "If I'm not a hero and I'm not the savior, then what part do I have in [little Henry's] life?" Gold plays her brilliantly, giving Emma a moral dilemma — he sets the fire during which she saves the Mayor-aka-Evil Queen — which forces her to take a stand against her benefactor, rallying the town to vote her in. But far from making a "superlative enemy" in Mr. Gold, she now has a secret ally in her war against the Mayor/Queen.

My other fave scene-stealer of the week: Carrie Preston on The Good Wife as loony lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni, described as discreet but "different" as she's hired to help Will fend off the dogged special prosecutor Wendy Scott-Carr. Elsbeth always looks so scatterbrained, but her brain never stops calculating, and with a smile on her face as she confronts Wendy, she delivers the blow as she embroils Chicago's few honest judges in the bribery investigation, putting Wendy in the defensive hot seat. For now.

GREAT MOMENTS IN SEXUAL TENSION: We know Christine Baranski's Diane likes her men rugged on The Good Wife — remember Gary Cole as ballistics expert/Marlboro Man Gary McVeigh? — and now she's throwing off enjoyable sparks with Bryan Brown as a scrappy process server, who gives the firm a key tip to help squash a multimillion-dollar nuisance suit from a couple whose divorce they'd handled. Of course, he comes back to serve Will on the impending bribery case, but Diane looks happy to see him, anyway. ... The continuing saga of Tony and Ziva on NCIS took another turn when things went south for C-I-Ray after Ziva discovers he killed an innocent woman while going rogue to take down a terrorist on U.S. soil. "You'll find somebody someday," Tony insists, but she says she's not sure she wants to, insisting she's content with her life. Tony: "But are you happy?" Ziva: "Are you?" On that note, the victim-of-the-week's husband mistakes them for a couple, and even after being corrected, he leaves them with these words of advice: "Cherish each other, that's all I'm saying. Every day." Good thing he didn't throw "obey" in there. ... And in one of my favorite moments in Phil-and-Gloria Modern Family history, Phil realizes the way to his glamorous kind-of-in-law's heart is to yell at her. Especially when she screws something up as badly as Phil's seminar. "That's what I want, you yell at me because you love me!" she screams as they hug it out. No apology accepted, because that would break the mood.

ODDS AND ENDS: Tim Tebow's winning touchdown pass, in the first play of overtime to wrap the AFC wild-card game, is one of those wow moments you wouldn't believe if you saw it in a sports movie. ... Reveal of the week, from Revenge: Charlotte Grayson is Emily/Amanda Clarke's half-sister? Still doesn't make the brat very interesting. ... In a bit that was so TMZ mean I shouldn't have laughed but did, Family Guy's Peter Griffin tries to scare his just-turned-18-year-old daughter Meg out of a romance with the smarmy Quagmire by showing her before and after pictures of Joan Van Ark. "I don't want you to turn into a hilarious photograph," he clucks as she shrieks. ... In one of those cameos that give you pause at the way careers in TV ebb and flow, did you notice Jaleel White (the former Urkel) in the blink-and-you-missed-it walk-on as a house-hunter discovering the victim-of-the-week on NCIS? ... From the animal house: How appropriate for Parks and Recreation's designated mongrels April and Andy to adopt a three-legged dog, named Champion, who pees on Ron as they take to the ice for Leslie's hapless campaign rally. Easier on the eyes, if not the ears, is Alex's un-P.C. parrot on Happy Endings, blurting such racist and homophobic screeds ("White Power!" "Adam & Eve, not Adam & Steve!") I'm surprised it survived to the end of the episode.

AS HEARD AND SEEN ON TV: "Shaq, I wouldn't see your movies if they were playing on my eyelids." — Kenan Thompson as Charles Barkley in a Saturday Night Live sketch, dissing Shaquille O Neal as played by the actual Charles Barkley. Got that? ... "If you're watching this episode on an airplane, the airline depicted is not the one you're on." — A cautionary subtitle on The Simpsons as Homer and gang revolt when stranded on the tarmac for hours. ... "Now I know what I sound like to you when I say stupid stuff." — The Big Bang Theory's Penny gift-shopping with Sheldon, who thinks a humidifier would make a better make-up gift for Amy than jewelry. ... "This is the beginning of The Bachelor — but without the apple-tinis." — Castle's reaction upon entering a room filled with scorned women, all suspects in the murder of an oversexed liar of a Don Juan on Castle. ... "Do you see this? Do you think a depressed person could make this? No!" — A very depressed Ben (Adam Scott) on Parks and Rec, showing off his pathetic "Clay-Maysh" model from his aborted video Requiem for a Tuesday. ... "I am the toilet of this office. I flush away annoying problems so others can keep their hands clean." — The Office's Gabe explaining his nomadic role at Sabre. Leading to Dwight accosting him thusly: "You're a perfectly fine toilet. I'm just an extraordinary piece of crap." Tell us something we don't know. ... "I'm a theater critic. If I want to assault an actress, I do it in print." — Grant Shaud as a suspect on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, maligning a great profession. Honestly, the motives some people ascribe to we who merely love the arts. (Although after this week, I'm pretty sure Rob Schneider has a bone to pick with many of us. C'est la TV.)

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!