Synopsis and review of Hal's Christmas Gift

Written by Petch

Scoring his second Christmas episode of Malcolm In The Middle, maverick scripter Alex Reid delivers a fantastic teleplay which, under David Grossman's direction, not only carries the outing on a one-plot format but resolves the elusive "What about Francis" question. Add in a throwaway allusion that the bankrupt family might unknowingly be in possession of a priceless Picasso, and you've even got a potential goldmine waiting to visit the family in the future.

Normally cold opens don't count for the context of the balance of the episode, but this time it's achingly funny to note Reese covering up a smashed dollar-store artwork in the family den. The clandestine painting beneath includes a signature, which Reese chuckles and dismisses as "Pick Ass Oh" before he patches up the frame and replaces it on the wall. As broke as the family are, imagine how much money a rare Picasso might have brought.

Later Reese and Dewey return from some neighborhood tomfoolery to which they hadn't invited Malcolm. That's strange, the boy genius notes. Why has he been excluded from the latest rounds of shenannigans? Rather than answer him, Reese and Dewey pounce on Malcolm's accidental admission that he has hurt "feelings," of which he tells the camera, "In our house, that's the F-word." Meanwhile, Hal and Lois are compiling their short cash for Christmas presents when Francis phones, announcing that he and Piama will be coming home for Christmas after all. Great, more presents to buy.

Later, while at the shopping center, a fellow motorist happens to inadvertantly slam her car door into Lois' vehicle. When Lois protests, the woman haughtily dismisses the incident. The altercation quickly escalates into a hysterically farcicle contest of who can outdo whom in wreaking damage on the other's vehicle, marked with humorous slow-motion shots of the demolition derby antics underscored with a cheery rendition of yuletide favorite "A Marshmallow World."

With the family's crappy new car now rendered even crappier, the present budget is shot to hell, and Lois announces that the ensuing holiday will be a "homemade Christmas," with the family members creating handmade presents for each other. While the boys craft modest but good-hearted gifts for the parents, Hal cannot bring himself to foist his "Bloggle" board game invention upon the family. When Francis and Piama happen to arrive at the moment Hal's gift is due, the frantic dad panics and spirits the entire clan into the mini-van, where they will drive to the surprise present he has in store for them.

Therein lies the dilemma. Hal is only flying by the seat of his pants and has no emergency back-up present; he's only hoping some miracle will happen during the drive. During a restroom stop with everyone else out of the vehicle, Lois quickly cottons onto the truth and implores Hal to 'fess up before he digs himself in deeper, but he insists on carrying on. He's gauged the gas tank to where they'll reach the "point of no return" and have to turn back if a solution hasn't presented itself. Meanwhile, at the rest stop, Malcolm quizzes Francis on why Reese and Dewey would be excluding him lately, and the elder brother finally breaks down and explains that Malcolm's heavy-handedness is to blame. "Look, we love you," he informs the boy genius. "We just need a break from you every once in a while."

Francis also has a startling revelation to Hal and Lois while out of earshot of everyone else. He's been fired from the Grotto for mishandling of company funds (careless error, not theft), and a lawsuit from Otto is pending. Even Piama doesn't know and thinks they're merely on vacation. Hal initially chastises the former ranch foreman for not coming clean to his young bride, but isn't Hal guilty of something very similar with this feckless drive?

The gas gauge eventually reaches the "point of no return" position, and the scenario reaches a fevered pitch. As Hal pretends to pump gas into the minivan to buy more time (even offering vocalized "ping" sound effects for the gas pump), Lois demands that he call off the charade. Even his last-ditch idea to fake slipping on an oil spill and crashing through the plate glass window of the station is useless, as the owner informs the uninjured Hal that he's uninsured. Meanwhile Malcolm suddenly finds himself reaping favor from his brothers when he defuses a confrontation with the angry drivers of two motorcycles which Reese and Dewey have accidentally knocked over. In the midst of the back-slapping session, Dewey happens upon a credit card receipt on Malcolm's person. It's from a woodworks shop and lists two wooden clocks, very much like the ones he had given Hal and Lois earlier that day during the homemade Christmas celebration.

So, Malcolm not only "cheated" on the mandate of handmaking his presents, he's also been hiding a secret credit card during the family's period of financial crisis. Once again a pariah with his siblings, Malcolm must also endure his dad's admonishment, while Hal underhandedly horks the credit card from Malcolm's wallet. Moments later, a nearby billboard advertisement inspires Hal's "revelation" of what the special Christmas gift for the family will be: a skiing vacation at a nearby resort.

At the Mount Bundy ski lodge some distance away, Hal and Lois are pensive as the credit card transaction is approved. Surely this is the lowest they will ever sink, Lois ventures. No matter, Hal counters. They're getting a ski vacation for Christmas. And Francis' jovial demeanor during the whole trip has convinced Piama that it's time for him to quit his job at the ranch. Francis assures her he'll phone Otto with his resignation. Hal announces it's time for some hot chocolate by the fire. And it's once again a merry Christmas, albeit Malcolm-style.

"Hal's Christmas Gift," plus the advance word on the next several episodes, would indicate that Francis will be relegated to occasional-guest-star status for the time being. That said, it's too early to predict whether that will be a major impedence to the show; it certainly isn't a good thing. Nonetheless, this outing is. Alex Reid's Christmas gift is a very welcome item under this year's tree.

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