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.
This is the season where Malcolm In The Middle falls below its average, or baseline, quality. But while it has dropped and will continue to drop for the rest of its run, I believe the show is never truly dire, for every single year still has episodes worthy of highlighting. The interesting thing about Season Five, in particular, is that it remains very smart. For instance, it deftly ameliorates our fears that the new baby will trigger the same deleterious effects as most tots added to traditional domestic sitcoms — they’re a gimmicky narrative device that encourages sentiment over comedy in unmotivated stories — by bringing Jamie into the fold (and occasionally using him for story, along with a recurring babysitter) but ultimately knowing to keep its focus instead on the actual established characters. And Malcolm’s comedic intentions are never in doubt — in fact, they probably increase, in tandem with ideas that are becoming more outrageous. No, nothing’s quite as imaginative or whimsical as it was in the early days — what’s offered now is more akin to the kind of heightened, reality-undermining broadness that a lot of long-running idea-driven sitcoms indulge as they age, regardless of premise. And indeed, this is very much an idea-led sitcom, particularly by Five, where the trends we’ve been discussing these last few weeks are obviously felt. That is, fewer stories either deploy the initial Malcolm-centered premise directly, or even attach themselves well to the leading characters. Now, it’s basically just funny ideas that could appear on any single-camera family show that is more interested in comedy than literal realism. (The finale is a perfect example of this ethos — more below.) As always, this is not ideal sitcommery and I don’t love it, for the storytelling is less uniquely specific to the show’s created situation, and yes, this bears out in the rise of more middling episodes and not as many true classics. However, again, the season is far from terrible — in another display of its smarts, it chooses to have Malcolm go to work with Lois at her store, a move that sparks several entries focused directly on their relationship. In this regard, I see Malcolm still trying to play to its strengths and find ways to exist as a unique sitcom. Its best days are over and this is easily its weakest season yet, but heaven knows this blog has seen worse.
01) Episode 87: “Watching The Baby” (Aired: 11/09/03)
Dewey watches the baby.
Written by Alex Reid | Directed by Levie Isaacks
One of the few Season Five episodes to utilize the baby for story, this entry ends up on this list because of its imaginative fantasy sequences, as Dewey concocts an elaborate ideal about his parents and their secret life while he watches his little brother when dad’s out and mom’s asleep. This also calls attention to the family’s questionable parenting — an aspect of the series’ situation that can still be mined for plot. Outside of that, the other subplots are sort of middling and par for the course — Malcolm, Stevie, and Reese are pranked by some popular girls — but they’re amusing enough, even by the standards of this grander season.
02) Episode 89: “Thanksgiving” (Aired: 11/23/03)
Malcolm sneaks out to be with a girl on Thanksgiving.
Written by Matthew Carlson | Directed by David D’Ovidio
This Thanksgiving-themed outing is a very traditional holiday show for a working-class sitcom family. Yet what I like best about it is its use of character — not only is Francis in the house (this is his last season full-time; he’s still at the ranch with Kenneth Mars), but Malcolm is also centralized in a teen-appropriate story where he gets drunk after sneaking off with a girl. The big centerpiece has him returning home and vomiting in the turkey that Reese has prepared — a nice callback to a unique offering from Season Two, where Reese became a culinary master. So, with enough nods to character and the series’ design, this is a laudable sample from the year.
03) Episode 91: “Malcolm’s Job” (Aired: 12/07/03)
Malcolm gets hired at Lois’ store.
Written by Maggie Bandur | Directed by Steve Welch
As mentioned above, Five smartly has Malcolm working with his mother at the Lucky Aide — a natural excuse to pair them together more often in story. I appreciate this, for although the premise — of Malcolm’s exceptionalism juxtaposed against the way he’s used to being treated by his family — is barely evident anymore in weekly plot, putting him next to the flawed Lois cements some of the other familial themes that give this series its identity. That’s what I most want to celebrate about this installment — the best written of the Malcolm/Lois segments this year. (The Hal subplot is funny as well — utilizing the baby without being about the baby.)
04) Episode 93: “Block Party” (Aired: 01/04/04)
The family discovers that their neighbors have been throwing an annual party without them.
Written by Rob Ulin | Directed by Levie Isaacks
Roseanne scribe Rob Ulin joined the staff this year and one of his credited offerings is this standout half hour that indirectly reminds us of the family’s dysfunction via their reputation in the neighborhood. It’s also a chance for the show to exhibit its classic template — the public event where all the main characters go off and have individual subplots. While Malcolm can’t help but continue his family’s awful perception, there are amusing notions for both Dewey and Reese, and Lois and Hal, as the latter duo compete in a kielbasa eating contest. It’s not particularly clever, it’s just funny — perhaps the most laugh-out-loud sample from the first half of this year. (Guests include Paul Willson, Mark Moses, and Randall Carver.)
05) Episode 98: “Lois’ Sister” (Aired: 02/22/04)
Lois is suspicious of her visiting sister.
Written by Gary Murphy | Directed by David D’Ovidio
Laurie Metcalf, another alum from Roseanne, guest stars in this installment as Lois’ sister. She’s smart casting, for Metcalf is not only an inherently comic performer, but her very presence also evokes associations with the blue-collar rebellion embodied by that aforementioned classic — a series to which Malcolm owes a small portion of its DNA. The story first seems overly traditional, with the snooty sister needing a kidney, but it takes a hilarious turn when Lois plays martyr by donating her organ without telling her sister. This ensures that this narrative is even more about Lois than its affable guest, and in the sense that it’s a strong showing for Jane Kaczmarek (who was, once again, Emmy nominated this year), it’s a winner because of how it features one of the series’ funniest players, revealing more about her character.
06) Episode 99: “Malcolm Dates A Family” (Aired: 03/14/04)
Malcolm becomes fond of his girlfriend’s intellectual family.
Written by Rob Ulin | Directed by Steve Welch
One of the only episodes here in Season Five to acknowledge the premise of Malcolm In The Middle as it was initially rendered, “Malcolm Dates A Family” is an MVE contender that utilizes an A-story tailored specifically for this lead, whose high intelligence is vital to the comic idea. Meanwhile, there are big laughs in the subplot where Lois forces the guys to boycott their favorite pizzeria after she feuds with the owner — a fairly generic notion for the hot-tempered sitcom wife archetype (that is, it feels like we could see this on Raymond or King of Queens), but since it takes advantage of these characterizations as they’ve been established, it simply works.
07) Episode 100: “Reese’s Apartment” (Aired: 03/21/04)
Reese is kicked out of the house and gets his own place.
Written by Dan Kopelman | Directed by David Grossman
The series’ 100th aired offering finds Reese getting kicked out of the house — another routine (teen) sitcom story that I nevertheless think is particularly welcome on Malcolm In The Middle, given its history with Francis, whose fraught relationship with his mother led him on a trajectory that looms over this entire idea, emphasizing the premised dysfunction that is seminal to the series’ comedic and dramatic shape. Thus, this seems like a real display of the show’s identity — not the narrative engine with Malcolm and his intelligence, but the overarching construct involving the family’s imperfect parenting, and how that affects everyone, especially the children. (The Malcolm subplot also makes sense for his character as well.)
08) Episode 103: “Dewey’s Special Class” (Aired: 05/02/04)
Malcolm tries to keep Dewey from joining the Krelboynes.
Written by Maggie Bandur | Directed by David D’Ovidio
Although this is a decent list, there’s nothing really competitive with the best of other seasons, so choosing an MVE (Most Valuable Episode) is not easy. However, I decided to select this installment, “Dewey’s Special Class,” because I think it simultaneously is the smartest example of the year’s idea-driven bent, while also boasting an A-story that has some genuine relevance for the leading character, and specifically, the initial premise that is now so seldom invoked in plot. The main narrative is led by Malcolm — who is burdened by the fact that he’s exceptional out in the world, yet so accustomed to blending in and NOT standing out inside an otherwise average, but messy, family. Here, he’s trying to spare his younger brother of the same fate by helping him cheat on a test so he doesn’t end up joining the gifted Krelboynes. Unfortunately, this backfires and Dewey is put in the remedial “Busey” class — a group that’ll return next week, giving the series a chance to deploy its littlest regular in stories designed only for him. This, then, is a good use of both Dewey and Malcolm. As for the big laughs, they come in the subplot with Hal, who — along with Craig (David Anthony Higgins) — becomes obsessed with a knockoff Dance Dance Revolution, a childish game that allows for physical comedy in accordance with their goofy, immature characterizations. It’s an idea that would work on most shows, but it’s especially funny with these performers — particularly the fearless Bryan Cranston.
09) Episode 104: “Experiment” (Aired: 05/02/04)
Malcolm and Stevie need Reese’s help with an experiment.
Written by Alex Reid | Directed by Bryan Cranston
This entry — directed by Bryan Cranston — is one of the few segments in Season Five to tailor its A-story around Malcolm and the premise that the series originally created for him. That is, “Experiment” acknowledges Malcolm’s brilliance — which is uncommon for this family — and has fun with a bit of a reversal of expectations with Reese, the dullard, who ends up solving Malcolm and Stevie’s scientific problem. The Hal subplot is funny as well — evidence of his childishness and how that makes for reliable comedy. So, ultimately, this is just a solid display of several lead characters — a rarity in this mostly situation-undermining era.
10) Episode 105: “Victor’s Other Family” (Aired: 05/09/04)
Lois brings the boys to visit her late father’s other family.
Written by Eric Kaplan | Directed by David Grossman
There are two very funny outings this season that guest star the Emmy-nominated Cloris Leachman in her recurring role as Ida. I could have featured both but opted to choose the best one — “Victor’s Other Family,” which is more revelatory for Lois and the kids, as we learn that her father had an entire other family. This allows for comedy and drama steeped in generational dysfunction, emphasizing the contrast between the two women and how this shaped their daughters. Also, it’s another opportunity for some stunt casting, as the other mother is played by Betty White, Leachman’s former Mary Tyler Moore costar. It’s a wink to their shared TV history, which so many of their later one-off sitcom appearances would indulge. (For instance, they both appeared together on Maybe This Time and The Ellen Show.) Frankly, I wish White got funnier material here, but the main characters do the heavy-lifting and her presence is additive.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Goodbye Kitty,” which boasts flashback Lois/Hal scenes, “Malcolm Films Reese,” an idea-driven outing with big hahas in both main stories (one of which has some Malcolm relevance), “Christmas Trees,” an idea-driven holiday entry, and “Ida’s Boyfriend,” the other (very funny) segment featuring Cloris Leachman as Ida. I’ll also take this space to cite two solid Malcolm/Lois showings — “Softball” and the atypical “Malcolm Visits College” — along with the second part of the season finale, “Reese Joins The Army (II),” the boldest example here of Five’s enhanced idea-led quality, offering grand comic plots that exhibit the show’s boldness but otherwise have no link whatsoever to character or premise, thereby feeling disconnected from the particulars of Malcolm In The Middle and the general situation that should be inspiring its stories.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Malcolm In The Middle goes to…
“Dewey’s Special Class”
Come back next week for Season Six! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!