Episode 14: The Smile
By: Carlos Uribe
The Middle is a show about the Heck family, an average family in Indiana.
Are smiles contagious? That is the kind of question that Sue Heck would not only ask but take seriously enough to try and prove for a school paper. When a science (?) teacher assigns the class an assignment to come up with a hypothesis and to try and prove it right, he makes the appeal for students to follow their own heart in coming up with the hypothesis. Sue comes up with the contagious smiling. She tries her best to prove it by smiling to complete strangers. This includes other students, her family, a waitress at Red Lobster, and a small baby. She's not able to prove her theory because of the way she conducts the experiment. When she smiles at people, it's the kind of smile that appears forced and creepy. She simply tries too hard to prove her experiment so that people move away from her rather than smile back. Since nobody really knows she's doing an experiment, nobody can tell her that her execution of her test is deeply flawed. It doesn't help when another student presents a hypothesis where she's hoping to separate compounds in food that might stop people from getting cancer. All of a sudden her idea of finding out whether smiling is contagious feels a bit immature and childish even if she does try to save face by trying to state she's trying to find unhappiness. If only Sue knew that social experiments like this are conducted in order to better understand human behavior then maybe her excuse could have been more convincing. This adds too much pressure for Sue as she tries to prove her hypothesis with her forced smile while crying at the same time. Of course, this is Sue so at the end of the episode, she presents a paper where she states she hasn't been able to prove her hypothesis but she's not going to give up. In her paper, she's able to come up with several scientists and inventors who preserved even as people doubted them or they failed. Which leads to the teacher smiling. We don't know what grade she got for the paper but it wouldn't surprise me if it was a good one. This is a plot that fits Sue so perfectly that it makes sense the episode title comes from this plot. It's funny but it's completely character-based in a good way.
The best plot doesn't come from Sue. It might have been funny and it might have fit her perfectly but it's Axl's story that really resonates. He hasn't been accepted into a university at the beginning of the episode even as his friends are. One of them is going to Notre Dame while the other is going to an air conditioning school*. This dampers his mood at being a senior even as his parents struggle to find the answer of whether their kid is going to college or not. Since this is the twenty-first century and not the eighties, the answer doesn't come in the mail but through e-mail. Axl finds out he got in through his phone in the middle of class and it excites him. There's nothing better than Axl declaring he's leaving behind all the high school suckers before remembering he still has to graduate. This leads to two different paths that the character takes. The first is conducting a senior prank with his two best friends. The prank fails but we do get a strong scene where his friends realize they're all going to different colleges. They're lives as a group are ending forever. It's a bittersweet aspect about going to college. You might be going into a new stage in your life but it does mean leaving behind your old one. It's a scene in the episode that I can relate to very well as my final moments with my high school friends while we still went to the same school are some of my favorite moments. That the show manages to hit all the right chords should come as no surprise. The other path is where Axl tells his parents. I remember when I applied to college that I would check their websites constantly-almost religiously. When I got in, it was exciting to tell my parents. It's basically the same with the Heck family. Axl is very excited to tell his parents that he forces them to go to Red Lobster so he can share the good news. Alas, it's ruined by external events (a birthday and a soldier returning home) but he's able to tell them the good news when they get home. The Axl plot was absolutely perfect in execution as it hit all the emotional notes I could relate to.
When I got my iPad, I was very happy as I had wanted one for a long time. I had been patient as they're a lot of money and I was in the process of settling getting just a Kindle or a Nook. When I got one as a present from my grandfather, I was very much excited. I now basically use it every day and it's one of my favorite possessions. So I can totally relate to Brick wanting an iPad. He wants it so bad that he asks multiple times over the course of a month. When he finally seems to have given up, he gets one because his parents think it would be nice for him to have one. Of course, they're not going to buy a new one but one that had been refurbished after having gone through a fire. He's excited when he gets one and his two parents are happy to have bought their kid something they wanted. It's a sweet plot that I guess is about how you ultimately want your kid to have what they want even if it's not financially wise. It's also a product placement but it's one that was worked into the show so naturally that it didn't really feel like one.
The Smile is a pretty great episode of the Middle. Axl gets into college and the show manages to hit all the notes of what that means to a person. It's exciting but sad at the same time. The Brick story might have been a bit light as it's all about Brick getting an iPad but this product placement is fit into the show naturally. Finally, Sue's plan to prove that smiling is contagious is something that this character would take so seriously as to actually base an assignment on. It's a funny character-based half-hour that works well.
*Sadly not Greendale but how awesome would that have been?