Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Malcolm In The Middle (2000-2006, FOX), which is currently available on Hulu.
Malcolm In The Middle stars FRANKIE MUNIZ as Malcolm, JANE KACZMAREK as Lois, BRYAN CRANSTON as Hal, CHRISTOPHER KENNEDY MASTERSON as Francis, JUSTIN BERFIELD as Reese, and ERIK PER SULLIVAN as Dewey.
Season Three follows Two’s peak and, given this proximity, shares a lot of the same positive qualities, rendering it, like One, among the best of the series’ showings (just not the best). The reason it’s a comedown is mainly that the central premise — of Malcolm being minimized in his family but extraordinary outside it — is not quite as well-invoked in story. Yes, there are still episodes about Malcolm and the Krelboynes but they’re fewer than before, and not as many do as smart a job of involving the family (particularly the parents). Therefore, such outings are less entrenched within the show’s situation and almost feel like a side focus. In fact, Malcolm is, overall, a bit less centralized than he was before. This trend will continue throughout the show’s run — he’s never not around, but with the premise increasingly phased out, his narrative prominence diminishes, and he comes to share the spotlight more obviously with his brothers, and especially, his folks, who keep the proceedings very funny (they are the series’ prime assets), even though they naturally can’t make for as ideal situation comedy. Additionally, the show is not as imaginative as it was in Two. That is, Three’s not as fresh or creative with its stylistic quirks — all of which are more routine and come within stories that are either traditional sitcom fodder or unique only in their basic idea-driven boldness, which, again, can be hilarious, but isn’t fully satisfying under the terms of this genre, which asks for true affiliation to a situation — specifically, the characters. To that last point, the show becomes less special as Malcolm becomes less special. More stories have him moving either alongside or identically to his brothers, and this kind of shared action not only accentuates their commonalities (thereby downplaying their individual characterizations that exist via contrasts), it also acquits their behavior as more simply generic — for without distinct definitions informing their choices, it starts to feel like these ideas could occur on any laugh-seeking domestic sitcom with teen/pre-teen leads. However, none of these issues are serious… yet. I only bring them up now to explain why Three is not quite at the level of Two. That said, it’s still a great season — with several classics — and these concerns are yet to become so prevalent that they affect the series’ weekly output. Here, everything is still — by Malcolm’s own standards — at a well-above-average quality.
01) Episode 42: “Houseboat” (Aired: 11/11/01)
Malcolm’s and Stevie’s families vacation together on a houseboat.
Written by Bob Stevens | Directed by Todd Holland
Malcolm’s third season opens with an episode that takes place mostly on location — a trend witnessed in the majority of this series’ annual premieres. These templated excursions tend to work well because new settings provide new stimuli to which the characters can respond, all within Aristotle’s unity of time and place. This one, specifically, is a winner thanks to how it centralizes Malcolm, via a funny A-story where he keeps embarrassing and rejecting his dad in order to protect his own reputation and pursue the opposite sex, a growing, if generic, motivation as he matures. The opening scene in the store is a riot, setting up a hilarious half hour that serves as a fine example of Malcolm and why this year remains peak-adjacent. (Craig Lamar Traylor, Gary Anthony Williams, and Merrin Dungey return as the Kenarbans.)
02) Episode 43: “Emancipation” (Aired: 11/14/01)
Francis leaves the military academy and Malcolm rebels against his new teacher.
Written by Alan J. Higgins | Directed by Jimmy Simons
Another factor that contributes to Three being slightly less ideal than Two is that this year continues to move Francis further away from the family, reducing his dramatic/thematic relevance to the central situation — as he leaves the military academy and heads up to Alaska. Few of his subplots are worthwhile, and they’re seldom connected to the other characters. I mention that here because this entry features his emancipation and starts his northern journey… However, the real reason I’m highlighting it is its Malcolm material, which finds the Krelboynes getting a new teacher, Herkabe (Chris Eigeman), who pits them against each other in a ranking system that Malcolm tries to break. The scene where the kids go crazy is a hoot.
03) Episode 44: “Book Club” (Aired: 11/18/01)
Hal goes crazy watching the boys while Lois attends a women’s book club meeting.
Written by Alex Reid | Directed by Todd Holland
Evidence of an increased narrative prominence for the already well-utilized parents can be found in this outing, which claims a simple story about Lois going out to a women’s book club to get away from the kids, leaving them with Hal, who grows more and more exasperated trying to manage the brood by himself. It’s a lot of fun and a showcase for both characterizations — for those curious, both Bryan Cranston and Jane Kaczmarek were Emmy-nominated this season — as the Lois piece devolves into a plot against a seemingly perfect PTA mom, thereby accentuating Lois’ hot-tempered and self-righteous disdain for those who make her feel insecure, while the series exhibits some appreciated imagination as Hal is pushed to his limits at home, allowing Cranston to thrive as the bold, risk-taking comic performer that this series reveals him to be. It’s a great showing for both. (Edie McClurg and Amy Farrington guest.)
04) Episode 48: “Christmas” (Aired: 12/16/01)
Lois cancels Christmas while Francis spends the holiday with Grandma Ida.
Written by Maggie Bandur & Pang-Ni Landrum | Directed by Jeff Melman
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode, “Christmas” benefits from its holiday trappings, which tend to play well in domestic comedies about dysfunctional families, as characters are forced to spend time together, yielding often relatable conflicts that can then be maximized for comedic effect. This entry is especially well-written though, thematically uniting an A-story where Lois’ frustration with the boys leads to her cancelling Christmas and then feeling like a Scrooge, with a subplot where Francis spends the holiday with Grandma Ida, played again by the irascible accent-spouting Cloris Leachman, who, incidentally, won an Emmy for her work in this installment. Francis learns that Ida is, like her daughter, similarly a grudge-holding Grinch, and the parallel character beats not only tie together this script, but also provide some grounding emotional intel that tethers the show’s big comedy, and traditional structure, to something specific and situation-based. There are other funny, memorable offerings here in Season Three, but this, all around, is the one that I think depicts Malcolm In The Middle the best — as a sitcom that deserves to be on this blog alongside some of this era’s finest samples.
05) Episode 49: “Poker” (Aired: 01/06/02)
Malcolm and Stevie’s feud exacerbates their dad’s poker game; Reese joins Lois in dance class.
Written by Michael Borkow | Directed by Ken Kwapis
Apparently, the writers liked “Poker” so much that this year also got a sequel (imaginatively called “Poker #2”). However, that middling follow-up indicates a focus on elements that I think are peripheral to this outing’s appeal, for while, okay, it is amusing to have Hal playing poker with Abe’s buddies, the reason it’s worthwhile is that their showdown is fueled by a rift between their sons, who provide premise-adjacent character stakes that root the idea in a genuine aspect of the situation. Also, a large part of this excursion’s charm comes from its subplot, in which Lois drags Reese to a dancing class where he ends up being a hit with the older ladies. It’s funny and allows for a centerpiece at the end, where Lois and Hal dance around the room — a creative example of the show’s whimsy: a sensibility I wish this season invited more regularly.
06) Episode 50: “Reese’s Job” (Aired: 01/20/02)
Malcolm is eclipsed by a new student, while Hal and Lois scheme against Dewey.
Written by Gary Murphy & Neil Thompson | Directed by Todd Holland
The A-story for this entry is about Reese, but it’s the least interesting thing in the half hour. Actually, I feature this segment here because of its two subplots — one of which is a great display of character, the other a great display of the premise. The premise-validating subplot finds Malcolm being back in the middle when a kid joins the Krelboynes and has an even higher IQ. It’s not just a reminder of Malcolm’s exceptionalism, it also forces him into a new dynamic where he’s not the most special, and that’s a strong comic idea. As for the character-based subplot, Hal and Lois are at their wickedest when they scheme to convince Dewey that he can’t care for a pet by replacing his goldfish with dead ones — a tactic to which Dewey catches on, leaving them one step behind. It’s a hilarious exhibit of their series-defining dysfunction.
07) Episode 51: “Lois’ Makeover” (Aired: 01/27/02)
Lois puts makeup on for work while the boys plot to beat Hal in basketball.
Written by Michael Glouberman & Andrew Orenstein | Directed by Jeff Melman
This is another adult-centric outing, but both of its stories are comical enough to bump it up. The titular plot has Lois putting on makeup in an effort to improve her sales — a gag because it’s so unlike her character and obviously makes her uncomfortable. Even more enjoyable is the Hal story, which involves the kids, who are tired of his beating them in basketball and gloating — a notion that speaks to his childish qualities (like ego). When they realize they have a secret weapon in Dewey, who’s actually good, Hal fakes a leg injury to avoid being beaten. It’s very funny, and very Hal. So, although not a top-tier selection by this list’s standards, it’s a great showing for both Hal and Lois’ characterizations. (Stephen Tobolowsky guests.)
08) Episode 53: “Company Picnic (II)” (Aired: 02/03/02)
Hal’s company picnic proves to be an unpleasant experience for most of the family.
Teleplay by Alan J. Higgins | Story by Janae Bakken | Directed by Todd Holland
Originally airing in the second half of an hour-long block following the 2002 Super Bowl, this popular but gimmicky episode features a bevy of wonderful guests — Terry Bradshaw, Magic Johnson, Howie Long, Patrick Warburton, Bradley Whitford, Stephen Root, Tom Green, Christina Ricci, Heidi Klum, and the Emmy-nominated Susan Sarandon. Some of them appear in a hockey-related side story with Francis and the recurring Brenda Wehle, who is sublime as the menacing Lavernia. Yet the bulk of this offering — why I like it despite all these casting stunts — otherwise takes place entirely at a picnic for Hal’s company, where all the leads are in a fresh locale and off having their own well-suited subplots. While the Malcolm story is revealing for his character, and there are laughs with Reese and the bully, the best stuff comes from the adults; Hal is mistaken for his own new boss, and a fight erupts between Lois and Susan Sarandon, here playing a neurotic woman who vents about her troubled marriage and then turns into a brawler when Lois attempts to intervene. It’s campy, memorable, bold.
09) Episode 62: “Cliques” (Aired: 05/05/02)
The Krelboynes are forced to join the main school, while Hal becomes obsessed with dominoes.
Written by Michael Borkow | Directed by Jeff Melman
Hal has an amusing subplot where he becomes fixated on knocking down the dominoes that Dewey has been playing with while out sick from school — and there are several imaginative set pieces related to this trivial, but character-based idea. That part of this outing really brings the comedy. However, I’m mostly spotlighting “Cliques” for its A-story, which, in all honesty, I don’t love but consider a turning point in Malcolm In The Middle’s trajectory that begs discussion, for this entry finds the Krelboynes being dissolved and forced to join the main school. Now, it isn’t permanent — that is, the Krelboynes still sort of exist — but it does represent a pivot, for Malcolm and his gifted nature will be less prevalent in weekly story once he moves to high school next season, and he instead blends in more with everyone else… encouraging a diluted characterization and less narrative focus. “Cliques” is thus a prescient but pleasant ambassador.
10) Episode 63: “Monkey” (Aired: 05/12/02)
Reese knocks out a burglar while Craig gets a trained monkey to serve as his nurse.
Written by Dan Kopelman | Directed by Ken Kwapis
Season Three ends with a comedically bold offering that indicates how the show is becoming less specific to its leads and premise, and more classically idea-driven. Well, that’s the case for its beloved A-story. Actually, there’s some decent character stuff with both Reese and Hal, as a burglary affects them in different ways. Less thoughtful is what’s thrown to David Anthony Higgins’ Craig, who gets a helper monkey while recovering from an injury — only for the primate to turn homicidal. It’s a ridiculous notion that has nothing to do with character, and yet… it’s hilarious. You might want to say it’s evidence of Malcolm’s rebellious comic sensibilities and willingness to be near-absurd. But I think it’s less clever and unique than past examples — more generic: something any series could employ. And I enjoy it only because it earns laughs… and it’s an accurate illustration of where Malcolm In The Middle is going in the years ahead.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Charity,” which boasts an amusing scheme for the boys but depicts them as a singular entity in terms of action, and “Hal’s Birthday,” a solid family show where Francis comes home (with a new wife — a narrative device that doesn’t do much by way of story or comedy). I’ll also take this space to cite “Malcolm’s Girlfriend,” which capably centralizes the series’ title character, “Health Scare,” which claims several comedic ideas (including a funny subplot for Francis), “Company Picnic (I),” which sets up the big pay-offs in the entry highlighted above, “Reese Drives,” an overrated outing that merely boasts the gaudy notion of Reese in a car chase, and “Dewey’s Dog,” where all members of the ensemble give material-elevating performances.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Malcolm In The Middle goes to…
Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!