Synopsis of Zoo

Written by Petch

"It was given to us that Frankie was the leading guy," Bryan Cranston says in a documentary on the recently released Malcolm In The Middle Season One DVD. "And when it first started out, he's in the front and we're blocking for him....(later) it changed into an ensemble piece." He's right. And "Zoo," the premiere episode for the fourth season, demonstrates that maturing kids and continuing location changes for Francis are winningly adaptable for the series' writers.

The basic premise of "Zoo" can be succinctly described in one sentence: the family embark on a disastrous excursion to the zoo, while dead-broke Francis takes on a new job as a dude ranch foreman. The entire outing seems to be a set-up for some logical shifting of character attributes we'll be seeing this season.

The obvious focal point is supposed to be Malcolm. For the first two seasons, he was a neurotic child, plagued by the petty pre-pubescent worries of that age bracket. As of the third season, he's grown into a neurotic teenager, with all the excess baggage that comes with that. And Frankie Muniz has adapted well to the demands of his character. Let's just hope the angst-riddled melodramatics stay funny and don't edge into annoyance.

Meanwhile, Dewey has come a long way from the cartoon-addicted imp of the early days, with Erik Per Sullivan now displaying a healthy command of his character as perhaps the wisest of the four brothers, especially when he and Malcolm take a tumble into a perilous tigers' den in this tale. A grumpy Malcolm, who's had his ass on his shoulders for most of the episode, is now in a state of near-panic, while Dewey calmly keeps him at bay as the carnivorous beasts close in. And if one of the sons needs to remain static, it's Reese, and Justin Berfield makes sure his character does just that. Ever the bullying type, Reese antagonizes a goat, who gets revenge by chasing the lad around the zoo for the majority of the outing. As usual, Berfield underplays just right, and the results are brilliantly funny. Especially when, in a fit of desperation, Reese chucks the marauding goat into the tigers' den, distracting the animals long enough for the workers to rescue Malcolm and Dewey.

The real gem of "Zoo," however, is Francis' storyline. With their '74 Cadillac broke down at a dusty, mountainesque gas station, he and Piama are down to their last five bucks when a jovial German couple, Otto and Gretchen, befriend them. After a short conversation, Francis is offered a job as a foreman at their nearby dude ranch, despite his inexperience with horses. That doesn't seem to bother his new employers, who cheerfully set them up with decorative living quarters free of charge. The key to Francis' maturation comes after Otto introduces him to cowboy Zeke, who appears to be a weathered ranch-hand. Once Otto is out of earshot, Zeke reveals to Francis that he's not a real cowboy, and that the job is a goldmine where no one does a lick of work but everyone still receives generous pay. It's easy to take advantage of the kindly Germans, as long as the employees watch each other's backs. And foreman Francis' response to Zeke? "You're fired." Three cheers for the former Marlin Academy cadet, who has, from all indications, truly shed his delinquent value system, especially as he amateurishly helps a cow give birth during the concluding shot. In the shadow of the malevolent Spangler and Lavernia, it will be most interesting to see how the dynamic changes with Francis' new boss being the cheery Otto.

In the midst of these proceedings, Hal and Lois have a nicely-written subplot of their own which can't help but be obscured by the other proceedings. The zoo tickets, it turns out, were gifts from Lois' old boyfriend Matt, who now runs an exotic rain forest exhibit there. Thus far, we never knew that Hal had a jealous streak, but his interactions with Matt--plus a hilarious 'flashback' montage of jealousy-related vignettes from the past--bring to light this new wrinkle in his character. The highlight comes when Matt's pet Tarantula is loosed upon Hal's body for a public demonstration of the spider's inherent gentle nature....which means the arachnid inexplicably bites Hal on the face. And after Matt's brief mention that there was at least one other suitor for Lois' hand while she was dating him and Hal, he confronts her with this new information. Hence, the two argue and then make up before a growing (not to mention 'oooh-ing and ahhh-ing') audience of onlooking zoo-goers, with the hilarious sight-gag of Hal's bulging facial spider bite taking center stage during the heated exchange.

For the first time since early in its debut season, the opening credits montage has changed, much like this reviewer predicted six months ago when the third season ended. We're treated to the same template (anime, monster movies and wrestling shots) over the same thirty-second rendition of They Might Be Giants' Grammy-winning "Boss Of Me" theme song. But this time there are newly-inserted shots from later seasons, replacing most of the dated ones that have appeared every Sunday night thus far. That's good; it was time.

If "Zoo" is any indication, then the fourth season of Malcolm In The Middle is off to a very positive and energetic start. Savvy viewers will note that one of the zoo workers is played by James Henriksen (brother of Lance, perhaps?), who also portrayed the haughty waiter in Season Two's "Dinner Out" episode. Also onboard as a zoo worker is character actor Daniel Roebuck, lauded for his screen debut as a teen murderer in 1987's River's Edge. Charles Sydnor now handles the incidental score, with some remarkably Giants-like cues. And as new semi-regular Otto, veteran comic actor Kenneth Mars will doubtless make a wonderful addition to this grand and ever-evolving series. Season Four has arrived. Bring it!

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