Synopsis and review of Christmas Trees

Written by Petch

Just in time for the Christmas season, Alex Reid leaves this little gem for us under the proverbial tree. Whereas the series' previous Yuletide outing, Season Three's Christmas, was a tepid entry (Cloris Leachman's Emmy notwithstanding), this one fills the stockings with good tidings and hilarity.

Forced into mandatory vacation without pay for two weeks while his company regroups from its legal troubles, Hal has decided to sell Christmas trees, as he'd once done successfully while in college, to help make ends meet. The boys offer to invest their own money for start-up capital, and Hal is moved to tears that his sons wish to partner with him in the venture. Once they are set up in a vacant lot, it becomes apparent that a local church is underselling them a few blocks away, so Hal and the boys are forced to lower their prices. The priests don't like the competition, and when their malevolent warnings go unheeded, Hal's lot is infested by a surly assortment of homeless people who scare off all potential customers. Forced to close up shop, Hal elects to simply sell the trees out of their front yard. A spiteful neighbor calls the cops to bust them for selling without a license, and they are forced to cease operation and move the trees indoors, where they clutter the house. Just when all hope is nearly lost, Hal beseeches a passerby to purchase one tree--the one sale that breaks them into profit. A whole 25-cents, anyway.

Lois and Craig's Lucky Aide adventure nearly steals the show, though. Commenting on his predisposition to injury and misfortune when every he's around her or her family, Lois declines Craig's offer to assist in Christmas decoration for the store. She finally relents and allows him a menial task, which naturally results in Craig being bitten by a possibly-rabid squirrel that somehow got into the box of decorations. He'll need rabies shots, the medics insist, unless the squirrel is captured and diagnosed as rabies-free. Determined to spare her co-worker the agony of abdominal injections, Lois leads the Lucky Aide staff--assisted by the same homeless people who routed Hal and the boys from their lot, in a quirky touch--to hunt down and capture the animal. In a humorously-choreographed setpiece underscored by "The Little Drummer Boy," the squirrel is caught and put in a cardboard box for delivery to the vet. Stopping to pick up a hamster cage for better transportation of the rodent, Lois and Craig accidentally loose the squirrel in the house, where it nests among the dozens of Christmas trees now stored inside. It's once again up to the merry band of homeless folks to re-capture the critter.

Unable to break away from the Grotto for the holidays, Francis and Piama instead witness the arrival of Otto's relatives from Stuttgart. They are an eerie facsimile to Francis' own family, with non-stop screeching and bickering. In fact, the incessant bitching makes the couple homesick for their own families, so they end up ditching the ranch and heading for Alaska to spend Christmas with Piama's combative relatives. In a funny twist, Otto and Gretchen turn up at Hal and Lois' home, happy to spend the Yuletide with a family "that actually gets along."

Although the cast uniformly shine here, Cranston in particular, special mention goes to three guest performers. Character actor Larry Hankin turns in a cleverly deadpan performance as Luther, the haggard leader of the homeless bunch. Meanwhile, veteran genre thespian Tom Towles is a riot as Ethan, a neurotic Lucky Aide employee whose painful reminiscences of rabies shots unnerve Craig. And Max Van Ville has a deft turn as Otto's nephew Hans, who seems to be a Teutonic incarnation of Francis in his rebellious teen years.

As with Matthew Carlson's recent Thanksgiving teleplay, the strong writing and proper balance of storylines make "Christmas Trees" a standout and fractures the notion that holiday-related episodes have to be cliche-driven, been-there-done-that affairs. And given his input thus far this season, Alex Reid has been a very good boy this year.

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