Synopsis of Boys at Ranch

Written by Petch

It had to happen.

Given the logistic implausibilities of imposing a family visit upon Marlin Academy or Lavernia's logging camp in Alaska, the Grotto is finally a setting that's ripe for Francis' rambunctious siblings to inflict their brand of carnage on his off-site world. And the series has misfired a few times with novelty episodes, but that's not the case here.

"Boys At Ranch," it should be noted, is the first completely Lois-less episode of the series, and this is presumably due to Jane Kaczmarek's recent maternity leave. She's not even in the pre-credits "cold open." But even so, this outing is so tightly and smartly written, the final product manages not to be hindered by her absence. This episode is full of heart, humor and wonderful narrative elements.

With an offscreen Lois left to tend the house, Hal drives the boys to the Grotto, where they encounter an obsequious Otto and Gretchen, an illness-feigning Piama (until Malcolm informs her that Lois didn't come along), and an all-business Francis who is amiable but clearly not the mischievous older brother he once was. When Malcolm, Reese and Dewey trick Hal into signing a permission slip to ride three-wheeled ATV's--which they naturally destroy--Francis is furious and orders them confined to their room.

The following day, the obligatory three-way split in storylines occurs. Malcolm and Reese break away from the ranch and use one of Hal's credit cards to purchase contraband fireworks. Gretchen, who was initially angry with Dewey for breaking one of her prized figurines, bonds with him as she teaches him the masochistic joys of housecleaning. And it goes without saying that Hal bonds with Otto--but, of course, it's during a horseride into the desert, where they get sauced on Schnapps, fire pistols into the night sky, scare away their horses and end up stranded.

An angry handwritten note prompts Francis to meet Malcolm and Reese at a remote part of the ranch. Although he resists their taunts to light the fuse of the elaborate fireworks arrangement, his younger brothers remind him of his earlier miscreant ways. Despite his protests that he's married and a responsible citizen now, he inadvertantly lights the fuse anyway. The final conflagration literally turns the night into day. And the punchline is that there will be rewards instead of consequences, as the lost and drunken Hal and Otto presume the fireworks to be a sign from Francis signalling the way back to the ranch.

The highlights of "Boys At Ranch" include some wonderful interaction between Bryan Cranston and Kenneth Mars. Lost and drunk in the desert at night, Hal ponders his own worth as a father; Francis only "straightened up" once he was on his own. Otto assures him that Francis already had his good qualities on the day they first met, and that Hal surely had a hand in his firstborn's development. Meanwhile, Meagan Fay is finally given an opportunity to shine as Gretchen. She invests a hilariously Teutonic quality into her character this time around, and her scenes with Dewey, while the lesser storyline of the episode, exhibit strong potential. And the scene where Francis first comes galloping in--accompanied by a faux-City Slickers orchestral tune--to greet his dad and brothers, demonstrates cinematic production values.

Chalk up this one as another potential Emmy consideration VHS. "Boys At Ranch" is one of Season Four's very best so far.

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