Synopsis of Family Reunion

Written by Petch

Season Four's first Alex Reid-penned outing is yet another roll-the-dice affair, eschewing the multiple storyline formula and again trotting back to the well for the novelty of a memorable celebrity guest star. When this approach is done right, the team bats a home run. When it's done not-so-right, you get an episode like "Family Reunion."

Hal receives a phone call from his sister Claire, inviting the family to their father's birthday party, which is planned to be a festive and well-attended weekend event. Despite the short notice and the shabby treatment Hal's affluent clan have always exhibited towards Lois, they accept the invitation. And with the visiting Francis and Piama onboard, they pack the mini-van and hit the road, Lois' rudeness towards her daughter-in-law notwithstanding.

Upon arrival, the relatives are warm to Hal but snooty and stand-offish to Lois, as expected. Meanwhile, Hal's dad Walter (guest star Christopher Lloyd) is a jovial and clownish old geezer who takes a shine to Malcolm. Reese has been coaching Dewey on the fine art of endearing themselves to their wealthy grandpa, for the obvious reasons. The younger kids of the extended family latch onto Francis as their totem, meaning he is saddled with corralling the little hellions for much of the outing.

Hal attempts to inform his dad how badly Lois is being treated, but the non-confrontational Walter distances himself with jokes and goofy demeanor, much like he's done Hal's whole life. Finally, when Lois is tricked by the rich bitches into being excluded from a group photograph, she is reduced to tears. Her four sons decide to take matters into their own hands, but what starts out as the episode's most engaging moment--Francis, Malcolm, Reese and Dewey marching off to war--is reduced from inspired to insipid when they drive Walter's new golf cart over the catering table and into the swimming pool. What could have been a classic, dialogue-driven confrontation is instead wasted on contrived sight-gag material. Wait, I take that back somewhat: the shot the four brothers dressed in their Sunday best and sitting calmly in the golf cart as it sinks was kind of funny.

The finale has Hal, Lois, their drenched sons and Piama beating a hasty retreat in the mini-van. Hal and Lois verbally reprimand the boys for their behavior, though it's clear to all that they're just going through the motions and quietly approve. Lois suddenly finds herself being hospitable to Piama in a minor gesture that nonetheless garners a bigger response from the rest of the passengers.

A few bits in "Family Reunion" are very clever, particularly Francis' relay of an horrific ghost tale to quell the marauding kids. Christopher Lloyd has a nice scene with Frankie Muniz, wherein Walter and Malcolm dress in Confederate uniforms for a Civil War re-enactment. Unfortunately, the talented Lloyd is otherwise wasted in scenes with Bryan Cranston, which degenerate into two grown men engaged in tickle fights on tabletops. This is where Malcolm In The Middle's brand of physical comedy skates perilously close to the thin line seperating the farcical and the juvenile.

The episode also fires blanks with Hal's mannish sister Claire and her flamingly effeminate husband Tom. For a series that has taken clever jabs at the notion of gay couples in the past, the Claire/Tom gag is too undefined to make sense. And in one scene, Hal dreams he's on a psychiatrist's couch, relaying his dilemma to an inattentive Christ-like figure. It merely plays like South Park-styled "let's see if we can piss off church people" schtick that's been done beyond death.

To its credit, if "Family Reunion" must brazenly play the 'dysfunctional family' card, it at least does so without the overblown yelling that has weighed down some past episodes. And it's fun to finally see Piama participate with the rest of the family during an off-site excursion. Thinly written this time or not, Christopher Lloyd's turn as Walter marks the creation of a versatile new potentially-recurring character, much like Cloris Leachman as Lois' mom Ida, who will feature in the upcoming episode "Grandma Sues." As for Mr. Lloyd, he is always a pleasure to watch. Let's just hope he gets better material to work with next time out.

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