Synopsis of Forwards Backwards

Written by Petch

The aptly titled "Forwards Backwards" takes a staple Malcolm In The Middle component--Malcolm and Reese tormenting one another--and relays it with the Memento-like device of telling a story in reverse. Interspersed is this outing's riotous Francis subplot, with a legendary "devil cow" terrorizing the Grotto ranch, as well as Hal's misadventures while trying to buy Malcolm a unique birthday present, plus Dewey's preparation to play Abraham Lincoln in a school play.

With Malcolm's birthday approaching, he has been socking away money to buy Stevie's old laptop computer. But he and Reese are currently locked in an escalating war of pranks and abuses, each edging towards the inevitable dual grounding. Among the various shenanigans: a black eye; a superglue stunt affixing forearm to forehead; posting embarrassing "potty training" pictures on school lockers; public humiliation for hanging out with "friends" who don't even know your name; monetary theft; and a culminating game of vehicular "chicken" with arcade go-carts. I'll leave it to the reader to guess who's the instigator and who's the victim in each of the above scenarios. Meanwhile, juxtaposed into the storyline is a series of flashback shots, shown in reverse order, demonstrating the increasingly petty origins of this round of sibling rivalry.

At the Grotto, a series of ghoulish discoveries (slaughtered chickens and a flattened antelope, for starters) prompt Otto to recount the local legend of the mythical "devil cow," a marauding bovine who occasionally comes down from her mountain lair to wreak mayhem. Francis isn't buying into the supernatural aspects of the tale, however, taking up a shotgun to fend off the beast. And on a stormy and windy night, he eventually comes face-to-face with the animal, who's no demon at all. Her udders full, this moo-cow is in bad need of milking, which Francis accomplishes, saving the day and dispelling the legend.

Despite Malcolm's request for money instead of presents, Hal wishes to buy his son an actual birthday gift anyway. Knowing Malcolm's affinity for comic books, Hal asks for assistance in a comic shop, but the self-important attendant refuses to help the clearly non-afficionado Hal. With no other choice, Hal enlists Craig Feldspar's help, but it comes with a price. When Hal's patience briefly snaps after a day of driving Craig around while he shops and grazes, the rotund man is offended and calls off the deal. Later, as Hal again attempts to try his luck at the comic shop, Craig shows up in time prevent the attendant from selling Hal a worthless comic book at a $50 mark-up.

Malcolm will never receive the collectable comic that Craig has selected for him, though, as the aforementioned go-cart fiasco results in grounding and cancellation of birthday festivities. But apparently this is nothing new, as it's revealed that neither Malcolm nor Reese has ever enjoyed a proper birthday party because of fighting-induced grounding. The rare comic book, meanwhile, goes to Dewey as part of a battery of gifts to compensate for Hal and Lois missing his school play.

The school play subplot, in which Dewey is to portray Abraham Lincoln, is almost too thinly-written to be called a subplot. Nonetheless, it becomes engaging when he's finally to take the stage, expecting his parents in the front row but seeing two empty seats (Hal and Lois are pre-occupied with the aftermath of the go-cart incident). Fantasizing an imaginary set of parents, the little guy delivers an impressive operatic musical delivery (perhaps dubbed, perhaps not) of the Gettysburg Address which reduces most of the auditorium to tears.

As inventive as most any Malcolm episode ever shot, "Forwards Backwards" is Season Four's first Maggie Bandur-penned outing. It's a definite plus that somewhat-recycled ideas, when presented in clever, neo-cinematic packaging, can remain fresh and funny. It also needs to be said that the writing team has managed to keep Francis relevant to the series since his emancipation from Marlin Academy, which has by necessity reduced his contact with the family. And this outing, whether a step forwards or backwards, is certainly a step in the right direction.

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