Synopsis and review of Vegas

Written by Petch

The more-or-less cliffhanger issue from Malcolm In The Middle's fourth season finale was the gender of newborn Jamie, and Season Five's opening epistle "Vegas" wastes no time in settling that matter during the amusing cold open. The familiar "Boss Of Me" titles kick in. Then this little gem, directed by Hal himself (Bryan Cranston), roars into high gear.

As with the previous three season openers, "Vegas" is mainly an off-site adventure, giving the family a new and temporary environment in which to wreak havoc. The set-up involves Hal's prophetic dream of winning a slot machine jackpot and becoming a "kajillionaire." The symbols include a mysterious stain on his shirt, a floating balloon and the opening figure of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Later, he impulsively takes Dewey's casual mention of Las Vegas (where a national competition for pet rabbits is to be held) as a further "sign" and then cashes in their life insurance policies to finance the trip. Naturally, Lois hears a markedly different accounting for the thousand-dollar windfall.

Dewey's recent involvement with Junior Farmers Of America has been sullied by Reese overfeeding his pet rabbit Gordo. The hare is now calamitously fat, weighing in at eighty pounds, and Dewey is horrified by the impending trip to Vegas, where Reese will inevitably force him to include the animal in the proceedings. Malcolm, meanwhile, has just won a special state-issued award in the science field, which he has neglected to mention to his family. Incensed at being excluded from the ceremony, Lois confronts him at the dinner table, and with his guard down, Malcolm lets slip that he intentionally withheld the announcement because her attendance would have embarassed him.

Elder son Francis has now been at the Grotto ranch for a year, and the celebrated taskmaster has (perhaps intentionally) become severely lax in his duties, resulting in numerous small calamities at the ranch. Otto and Gretchen have taken no notice, presenting him with a special cake for his first anniversary of tenure, although Piama warns that if Francis doesn't get his act together, he'll eventually face repercussions from his generous boss. The notion is accentuated when Francis falls into a well which he failed to fence up--finding himself face to face with a scowling Otto, who has also fallen into the same well shortly prior.

The family eventually hits Vegas, and fed up with Lois' cold-shouldering because of his earlier faux pas, Malcolm buys tickets for the two of them to see Boone Vincent, her singing idol, to make amends. It does the trick, as Lois is enrapt when the has-been vocalist takes the stage and launches into a gaudy, Vegas-tinged cover of Pink's "Get This Party Started." A thoroughly unimpressed Malcolm can only watch, bouncing Jamie on his knee. Later into the set, a security guy hands Lois a backstage pass, apparently at Boone's specification.

While Lois is boodling around with the other autograph hounds after the show, Hal is seen in a montage sequence rushing from casino to casino in a feckless endeavor to locate the prophetic slot machine from his dream. He finds the machine during the anticlimactic finale, where his grand prize turns out to be not cash but a coupon for a free hotel room in Carson City, but with strings attached. Worse, in his initial euphoria at winning he has let slip to Lois what really funded the whole vacation. Elsewhere, Dewey's rabbit is disqualified from the competition because of its excessive weight, and Reese manages to sell the creature to one "Chez Richard" for a princely sum. Dewey reminds his brother that "Chez Richard" is the casino's restaurant, so the two conspire to rescue Gordo before he can be slaughtered and served to patrons. Reese feigns choking in the dining room to create a diversion, while Dewey attempts to spirit the hare from the kitchen. Both end up on the carpet of the unamused manager. And while stuck down in the well near the Grotto, Francis and Otto have their first-ever cross words but soon make up, especially when Gretchen and Piama pop onto the scene, having located them thanks to a fire caused by more of Francis' substandard job performance of late.

Center-stage of this outing is Lois' encounter with singer Boone Vincent. Played with vaguely sleazy smarm by David Cassidy, he woos her into his dressing room and deigns to empathize with her hurt feelings from Malcolm's earlier comment. It's a show-stealing setpiece, even though there's no indication that Lois would actually cheat on Hal. Cassidy also has a fine moment onstage, belting out a cover of Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" with changed lyrics suited to a male singer ("But I've made up my mind....She's keeping my baby!"), while a chorus of female dancers with artificial pregnant tummies clamor around him. The effect is subtle, but it's piercingly satirical if you catch it.

As a season opener, "Vegas" is no turning point for the series, but it's possibly a fine-tuning of some needed elements. First and foremost is Malcolm as the leading character, which was originally the point of the show. If this episode is any indication, Frankie Muniz has honed the character to the quirks that make Malcolm funniest, most likable and sympathetic, and has jettisoned the choices which make him annoying or which simply do not work. Especially endearing here are scenes wherein he's bitching, but he's constantly taking care of Jamie, who's in his charge. Justin Berfield is also in top form as the deservedly-dogged Reese, who is a riot during the fake choking segment in which various patrons attempt the Heimlich maneuver, with increasingly incapaciting effects on the lad. Dewey displays increased depth, as well as more complicated dialogue, while Lois has overcome the baby anxieties which were run into the ground last season.

The only red flag for "Vegas" would be the Francis tale, although the well subplot is one of the funnier Grotto scenarios. The problem is that the Grotto is not Marlin Academy. Otto is not Spangler. Neither was Lavernia, which was why the Alaska storyline was brought to closure at the end of the third season. Otto and Gretchen are certainly funny and likable people, but for the ranch setting to continue to deliver the goods, a major punch-up in the writing will be needed.

Cranston earned his directorial spurs on last season's Stereo Store, and he continues to prove his mettle with this one. And what of the addition of Jamie? So far the character is mostly unobtrusive and has the potential to grow into a workable child for storylines a season or two into the future. As for the reveal of the baby's gender, check the "quotes" section for this episode and you'll find the answer.

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