Synopsis of Long Drive

Written by Petch

A recent spate of specialty/novelty episodes, featuring celebrity guest stars, pregnancy revelations and gender-reversal scenarios, made for a fun diversion. But the series falls back on its ample feet with the solid "Long Drive," a four-way outing that allows practically all cast members to shine in each playlet.

The episode title refers to Lois' interstate journey to her sister's house, where she will soon spend some maternity leave free of the stress-inducing antics of her rambunctious sons. This present trip is just to transport some of her belongings, though, and in the passenger seat is an agitated Malcolm, clearly missing his contact with forbidden girlfriend Nicki. Lois, meanwhile, wishes to use the occasion to engage her son in a conversation about that old devil of a topic: sex. Despite the initial discomfort, Lois accidentally stumbles into the subtopic of personal validation, which piques Malcolm's interest, and the exchange becomes fruitful after all.

While this titular subplot endeavors to command the entire outing, the other three manage to run rings around it. Perhaps in first place is Reese's "Scared Straight" plight. Arrested for some unnamed misdemeanor, Reese is placed with a group of teenaged delinquents and sent to a penitentiary for a full day, where hardened (not to mention muscular) inmate Samuel is ready to terrify them. Problem is, Samuel's faux-drill sergeant schtick only amuses Reese, and by the end of the session, the other lads are giving Reese's sarcastic barbs far more consideration than Samuel's increasingly furious rants. Never mind that Samuel's good behavior has earned him a parole in the coming week, and Reese will be easy to track down thanks to the school district designation embossed on the side of his departing bus.

A close second is Hal's tale, in which he and his folk/bluegrass musical group "The Gentleman Callers" (Abe Kenarban and the poker buddies) bag a ritzy gig at a local country club. Since Malcolm and Lois are away and Reese is in jail, Dewey tags along with his dad. During the course of the afternoon, Dewey's innocent queries manage to turn the bandmates against one another: Why is Hal always in back of the group? Why doesn't Malik ever get to sing lead? And whose idea were these goofy "Five Neat Guys" sweaters? The sextet is ready to call off the whole engagement until a penitent Hal answers the emcee's call and begins performing their set by himself, in a hysterical solo dance of intermittent vocals and cowbell taps. The rest of the group change their minds and join him onstage for a rousing rendition of "Charlie on the MTA," bringing down the house. Meanwhile, Dewey's questions continue to ignite new controversies.

The Grotto tale this time is a classic case of Malcolm In The Middle skirting the comfort level with biting meanness, but damn if it isn't funny as hell. In a branding accident, Francis accidentally incinerates Otto's favorite cow Helga--as in fatally, folks. He attempts to hide the fact from his boss, but the ranch's top chef has conveniently appropriated the two sides of beef provided by Helga's carcass. This means that Otto's beloved missing bovine is now the ribeye on his dinner plate. After a feckless search in the dark for the unfortunate animal, Francis finally breaks down and tells Otto the sad truth. He explains that previously he couldn't bring himself to come clean with what had happened, but that he is also fully prepared to be fired, if that is Otto's decision. The kindly German won't terminate his favorite worker, though, and instead forgives him. Put that in your artificial limb and smoke it, Spangler.

Designating the high points of "Long Drive" is a tall request, because there are so many. When practically all four sections of a quartet of plots vie for top spot, then you've got a pretty damned good episode on your hands. Even the obvious-lesser of the bunch (Lois and Malcolm's sex talk) has enough warmth to balance the awkwardness. Plus, it's always fun to see Kaczmarek with that determined set to her jaw, hands firmly planted on the steering wheel of Hal's little blue Dodge sedan as she inadvertantly humiliates her genius son. And frequent readers to this website may remember my prediction that last season's introduction of Abe's poker pals would make for a fun group of recurring characters. Their meticulously choreographed folk tunes harken back to such elaborate setpieces as Marlin Academy's "Candyman" number from Season Two's New Neighbors. Witness Hal's one-of-a-kind performance on the cowbell; someone ought to get Christopher Walken on the phone.

It's getting old-hat to cry "Emmy consideration!" these days, but if Justin Berfield wants to submit an episode this time around, this one's a good bet. Reese's underhanded undoing of the hardened criminal Samuel is far and away the funniest work he's done this season. And "Long Drive" is yet another in Season Four's winning arsenal of top-notch outings.

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