Synopsis and review of Graduation

Written by Petch

"Around here," a boy genius named Malcolm once informed the audience of his pilot episode, "being smart is exactly like being radioactive." That quip was accentuated with a well-timed overhead camera trick, one that is cleverly repeated during the third act of "Graduation." It's one of several nods to the pilot which occur in the longtime-coming series finale of Malcolm In The Middle, but the episode retains the signature smirking irreverence and thankfully never descends into mawkish sentimentality. Series creator Linwood Boomer, who wrote the pilot, steps behind the camera to direct (from a Michael Glouberman script) and even appears in an amusing unbilled cameo. With all the pieces and the players in place, this glorious curtain call to the seven-years-running show comes marching down the aisle with all the pomp and circumstance it can muster.

The title leaves little to the imagination as to the storyline. Malcolm and Reese are graduating, with Malcolm predictably achieving Valedictorian status (Stevie Kenarban is Salutatorian, natch). Smart move on the writers' part to require Reese to repeat the twelfth grade earlier, so he would be set up to graduate alongside his genius brother, who has been accepted to Harvard. Hal's dilemma, as per usual, is on the financial end. Even with various grants in place, the remaining balance of Malcolm's tuition is hefty, so he spends much of the outing jumping through hoops to secure loans and raise funds. In one hilarious sequence, he is even seen attempting to strike an ill-advised bargain with a loan shark (the aforementioned Boomer cameo, credited with the dubious pseudonym "Enzo Stussi") in a shady warehouse.

Since Reese will also be leaving the fold (he is to move in with Craig Feldspar after graduating), the brothers realize that the Malcolm/Reese/Dewey household dynamic will soon be no more, so it's time to dispose of a particularly damning piece of evidence which they have held onto for years in the interest of a mutual-blackmail check and balance against one another (it is a doctored X-ray which once caused a cancer scare for Lois, devised to comparatively lessen the severity of poor report cards at the time). But Dewey, who will remain at home with Jamie for the time being, reneges and spirits the artifact to safety, so a decoy is ceremonially burned by the trio. However Francis, who has come home with Piama for the graduation, stumbles onto Dewey's ploy and appropriates the trump-card X-ray for his own interest, though Dewey is able to counter-blackmail it back into his possession again.

Francis has a secret of his own, anyway. He has recently accepted a corporate office job, replete with tedious data entry duties in a small cubicle, which he absolutely adores. But Lois must not know--surely it will appear that he has caved to her insistence that he get a "real" job. When Hal cottons onto his firstborn's predicament, the weary cubicle veteran conspiratorily agrees to keep mum to Mom about it. And Reese, who is giddy about his temp job as assistant custodian at the high school, schemes with the visiting Ida to concoct the most noxious mess imaginable so that his projected clean-up of the same would prompt his promotion to permanent janitor.

While Malcolm agonizes over composing his Valedictorian speech, Abe arranges for a former classmate who is now a self-made millionaire to speak at the graduation ceremony. Quickly realizing Malcolm's potential, the man offers the lad a lucrative position with his company, provided that he begin immediately. But that would mean foregoing college, and Lois won't have that, so she infuriates Malcolm by turning down the offer for him. Meanwhile, Reese and Ida have concealed the fifty-gallon drum of horrible stuff in the back of the mini-van, and as the assembled clan prepares to leave, the cannister unexpectedly ruptures, covering everyone in a vile brown pasty substance. And as the family hoses off in the yard, Lois informs the sulking Malcolm why she didn't want him taking the easy path vis-a-vis the job offer; the expectation is that he will one day achieve the presidency, and he won't make a good leader if he accepts any free rides instead of busting his ass on the journey.

Later, the mostly cleaned-up family attend the ceremony. The repeat of the bird's eye camera shot from the pilot reveals that no one is willing to sit near them; they're clearly radioactive, at least in a figurative sense. There's a clever bit where the issue of the family's undisclosed last name is addressed--and unrepentantly left to mystery, as a screech of microphone feedback drowns out the surname when Principal Hodges introduces Malcolm for his Valedictorian speech. And as Malcolm begins his cynical but ultimately heartfelt speech, Lois beams proudly at her 165 I.Q. son.

The finale's pay-off comes during the cathartic "three months later" epilogue, a short succession of expository vignettes revealing how life has panned out for all. Dewey and Jamie hide in a closet as Lois is heard railing in outrage at their latest bit of mischief; with their older brothers gone, the day is theirs. Meanwhile, Francis is seen bitching at Lois over the phone that he'll get a job when he's damn good and ready, while Piama hands her office-bound hubby his brownbag lunch as he prepares for another day at the white-collar grind. Reese and Craig have bonded deleriously, and despite the failure of his 'cannister of filth' gag, Reese has managed to be installed as full-time janitor at North High School anyway. As nice dichotomy, Malcolm is also doing custodial work, albeit at Harvard, as part of a work-study program to assist with the tuition; his phone conversation with Reese is cut short as he ditches the mop bucket and scurries off to Calculus. All of the above, by the way, are underscored by Citizen King's "Better Days," the free-spirit ditty used in the final section of the pilot.

And what of Hal and Lois? The tumult of their eldest sons now a thing of the past, they are resolved to live happily ever after with only Dewey and Jamie to raise. As a wistful Hal waits in bed, a horrorstruck Lois emerges from the adjoining bathroom. What's wrong, he inquires. She silently holds up a home pregnancy applicator; a tight shot reveals a result of positive. Hal's grimace and girlish scream are classic Cranston and arguably the biggest laugh of the outing.

Say the words "series finale" and there inevitably will be expectations by fans--resolutions of certain plot points, appearances by key supporting characters, and above all general closure for the show. On those points alone "Graduation" is a fully functional series closer. Not every fan's wishlist is fully realized; my own pet wish was that they'd somehow work in a cameo from Commandant Spangler. But what Linwood Boomer and company have delivered is so roundly satisfying and hilarious that quibbling over bells and whistles is irrelevant. We may never know what their last name was, but we do know that for seven seasons we watched and we laughed as this family of loveable mischief-makers insinuated themselves onto our screens, probably into our VCR's (certainly mine) and/or TIVO's--and most definitely into our hearts--in a delectable chemistry of brilliant, single-camera television magic, made flesh by a so-perfect cast. Without a live studio audience and needless accompanying laugh track.

And if you're a lip-reader, when the principal speaks Malcolm's last name into the microphone and the feedback obscures it, it looks like he's saying Nolastname; I swear it does.

Back to episode info