Synopsis and review of Academic Octathlon

Written by Petch

Chris Eigeman gets the vote as the most underused guest star in this series. Since his introduction as Mr. Herkabe in last season's Emancipation episode, he has remained a rare and caustic asset to Malcolm In The Middle as the show has undergone a dynamic evolution from its early days.

And he practically steals the show in "Academic Octathlon."

Rob Hanning's maiden teleplay is on a par with those of the Malcolm veterans, showcasing a four-way tale in which there are no noticeable weak links. The focus is on Malcolm and the rag-tag group of former Krelboynes, who are conscripted by their former teacher Herkabe, to attend an Academic Octathlon and pit their smarts against other brainy nerds. But it gradually becomes clear that Herkabe's main goal is to regain some manner of former glory among these academic snobs, even at the expense of requiring his group to cheat.

Who's ever heard of directing in Ant-vision? That's the angle taken by Todd Holland during the clever, if minimalistic, subplot with Hal and Dewey. As seen from an ant's point of view (replete with floor-up and fish-eye lens technique), Hal and Dewey have a brief falling out after Hal refuses to give the growing lad back-rides to bed anymore, citing his aching back. Dewey's manipulative "but I won't love you anymore" protests hit the mark, and Hal's hackneyed attempts to rectify the breach in their relationship don't work. Only when he's furiously spraying ant-repellent under the kitchen sink and is knocked unconscious by the fumes does Dewey come around, dragging his Dad to safety and proclaiming his love....all the while seen from the perspective of the ant--which Dewey finally crushes with his thumb. Silly as it may sound, this subplot actually works pretty well, especially since it's shot entirely in Ant-vision.

Reese's tale is simple and typically riotous. He's looking to get out of taking Alison to the school formal dance, with its pricey requirements, but he doesn't want to break up with her. Since she's as dumb as he is, his insults and pranks fall flat, and even Lois sees through his attempts to simply get grounded. Finally, Alison gets the truth out of him but still holds him to his promise to take her to the dance--after which she'll be happy to break up with him forever. Meanwhile, Francis and Piama dispell a lover's argument of their own regarding housework but inevitably set up a chain reaction of arguments and make-ups among other couples who keep overhearing the same details--starting with Otto and Gretchen, naturally.

And in classic Malcolm fashion, one such feuding couple is later seen having relocated to the hotel where the Academic Octathlon is being held, still bitching away. Small world, no?

Malcolm, who refuses to cheat, is befriended by a competing student who pretends to be a hotel employee and who tricks Malcolm into leaving the event. Once an incensed Lois arrives to collect the boy genius, he spies the "employee" laughing it up with own classmates and, realizing he's been had, decides to stay and turn the tables on the whole event. Commandeering the answer key and secretly distributing copies to all competitors, he reduces the Octathlon into a cheat-a-thon whereby it's a matter of who can ring in first once the first syllable of a test question is voiced. Event organizer Mr. Baffert quickly cottons onto what's happening, but he won't have any part of a scandal. Hence, instead of one team going home with an undeserved trophy, they all do.

As well-rounded an outing as this one is, Eigeman stands out. Filling the meanness voids left by Daniel Von Bargen and Brenda Wehle, he also fills in the Krelboyne sounding board once occupied by Catherine Lloyd Burns. The Emmys do have a 'guest actor' category. "Academic Octathlon" just might get Chris Eigeman that particular nod.

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