Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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, JUSTIN BERFIELD as Reese, and ERIK PER SULLIVAN as Dewey. With CHRISTOPHER KENNEDY MASTERSON as Francis.
Season Seven, like all of Malcolm In The Middle but especially its last few years, is very idea-driven, stuffed full of funny notions that may or may not have a genuine link to the show’s premise or its characters. However, with enough time to plan for its own finale (a likely outcome at year’s start), Seven has a crusade for dramatic closure that indeed yields more weekly stories that feature the original Malcolm-led premise, about a brilliant kid trying to blend in as he does at the center of his dysfunctional middle-class family. In that regard, there are more entries here than, specifically, in Five and Six that feel like they’re related to some part of the situation, and thus, I like this list better than the last two (and even they weren’t bad). That said, by this point in the run, Malcolm is no longer as fresh or rebellious as it was in 2000 — the show has made itself less narratively special, and it stands out less alongside its competition. Heck, its very success accelerated the rise of the clever, laugh track-less single-cam sitcom, which took off while all the late 1990s’ good multi-cams were dying. Now, by 2005, most of the best TV comedies were not only shot with one camera and no live audience — Curb Your Enthusiasm, Scrubs, Arrested Development — but many were also taking advantage of Malcolm’s stylistic conventions, like smash cuts with quick gags, and even direct asides to the viewer. Now, some of this came about when the sitcom genre embraced aspects of the emerging reality TV trend (the “mockumentary” is rooted in this aesthetic), along with the medium’s increased blurring of the lines between comedy and drama — something we’ll talk more about with the series ahead. But Malcolm’s legacy is that it helped to popularize this production style, which, in the ’90s, was considered outré, for by utilizing it on a show that nevertheless was structured like a “typical” suburban family sitcom, it was revealed as a feasible option for more mainstream efforts. Of course, as we’ve seen, Malcolm In The Middle — thanks to its funny, sharp writing and strong performances — was anything but “typical.” Even at the end of its impressive run, it remains a hilarious show with smart ideas. This isn’t the series at its best, but for a final season, it’s amazingly solid.
01) Episode 130: “Burning Man” (Aired: 09/30/05)
The family goes to the annual Burning Man festival.
Written by Michael Glouberman | Directed by Peter Lauer
Malcolm In The Middle’s final season opens with a popular entry in which the family attends the famous Burning Man festival — a place where, like in many of the series’ strong location shows, several of the characters shine in individual subplots. The funniest stuff is afforded to Hal (for those who keep track, Bryan Cranston was Emmy nominated for his work this year), whose efforts to maintain his RV are viewed by the attendees as a piece of performance art — perhaps a self-aware comment on the show’s increasingly strange depiction of its familial dysfunction, which has always been rooted in an image of traditional sitcommery that’s parodied here. A wacky, memorable start to the year. (Jeff Doucette and Rosanna Arquette guest.)
02) Episode 134: “Jessica Stays Over” (Aired: 11/04/05)
Malcolm’s friend coaches him on how to manipulate his mother.
Written by Matthew Carlson | Directed by Alex Reid
Hayden Panettiere returns as the recurring Jessica in this, her best outing, for it’s not really about her, but instead about the relationship between Malcolm and his mother, whom he attempts to become better at manipulating… before realizing that open communication and spending quality time with her is its own reward — a reversal of expectations that also displays, I think, the ways in which Malcolm is different from his other brothers (or would be, without their influence). Accordingly, this is a smart Malcolm show from the back half of the series’ run. Also, the subplot of Hal versus the bee is pure comedy. A favorite (and one of the few scripts here credited to Matthew Carlson, the new head writer for this final season).
03) Episode 136: “Blackout” (Aired: 11/18/05)
Several people are exposed during a blackout caused by Jamie’s balloon.
Written by Eric Kaplan | Directed by Steve Welch
“Blackout” is probably the most imaginative episode in the latter half of the series — the closest it ever comes to reigniting the heralded spark of creativity in its Sliding Doors-inspired “Bowling” from Season Two, for this entry similarly messes with its storytelling structure, and it’s similarly gimmicky in that regard, presenting a sort of Rashomon where we see the events unfold from several different perspectives… but not the characters’ — no, from three separate locations in/around the house. However, this ostentatious device doesn’t get in the way of the people or the comedy, and instead, it enhances the rebellious comedic spirit, yielding a memorable sample of Malcolm In The Middle that is both unique and yet still simple.
04) Episode 138: “Malcolm Defends Reese” (Aired: 12/16/05)
Malcolm intervenes when Reese is humiliated by their teacher.
Written by Matthew Carlson | Directed by Bryan Cranston
There’s a suspension of disbelief required for this A-story because it asks us to buy that Malcolm and Reese are in the same class. (Same grade? Fine. Same class? Ehh…) However, since it utilizes both characters and their relationship well, it’s worth the leap — particularly, as the reversal of power in the classroom allows Malcolm’s excellence as a student to come to the fore, especially in contrast to the less intelligent Reese. This not only invokes the premise but does so in a way that’s focused on their specific dynamic. Also, I appreciate the subplots — with Desperate Housewives’ Kathryn Joosten as the chatty babysitter, and Hal giving Dewey terrible advice about girls. A good character show. (Chris Eigeman appears as Mr. Herkabe.)
05) Episode 139: “Malcolm’s Money” (Aired: 01/06/06)
Hal and Lois consider spending Malcolm’s scholarship money.
Written by Michael Glouberman | Directed by Steve Love
As noted above, Malcolm In The Middle’s imminent end (which was announced in January 2006, but known to be a probable outcome earlier) inspired the season to focus on closure for the characters, and specifically Malcolm, a senior who would be going off to college. That means the premise is once again brought back into the picture for a handful of excursions — this being one of the funniest, with a Married… With Children-esque plot where Hal and Lois decide to spend the money that Malcolm has basically received as a scholarship. It’s an idea that utilizes the central aspect of Malcolm’s depiction as he was initially defined, and also exploits the trademark dysfunction of his hilarious parents. (The Reese nursing home subplot isn’t as great in terms of situation comedy, but it’s amusing, and Gloria LeRoy is a choice guest.)
06) Episode 142: “Mono” (Aired: 02/12/06)
Hal enjoys being invited to parties, while Lois and Malcolm are quarantined.
Written by Andy Bobrow | Directed by David D’Ovidio
Lois and Hal both have opportunities to be great in this installment, as the former’s ball-busting personality is accentuated in several parts of the narrative when she gets mono and is forced to quarantine. Smartly, this script knows to involve the title character too, so it pairs Malcolm alone with his mother, for a bonding experience that’s probably not as reflective as it could be, but at least acknowledges her style of parenting and why it is the way it is — an important aspect of the series’ situation. Meanwhile, Hal learns that the neighbors were only shunning them because of Lois — a humorous, character-specific idea that’s also steeped in continuity, for we saw how the neighborhood felt about this crazy family years ago (in “Block Party”).
07) Episode 143: “Hal Grieves” (Aired: 02/19/06)
Hal mourns his father’s death by showering affection on his children.
Written by Eric Kaplan | Directed by Christopher Kennedy Masterson
Truthfully, I’m not crazy about the fact that the climax of this entry features a gimmicky guest appearance by George Takei (as himself) — a stunt that Malcolm In The Middle typically avoids, preferring more broad, comedic ideas. But the setup for its story makes this one worthwhile, as it’s focused on the usually light-hearted Hal, who grieves the passing of his father (to whom he was never close — another bit of continuity) by spoiling and showering affection on his boys — a notion that calls attention to his style of parenting, which is such a huge part of his characterization. Accordingly, this is a tribute both to Hal, who is more multi-dimensional here than ever, and the series’ mostly traditional family setup: goofy dad, tough mom.
08) Episode 144: “A.A.” (Aired: 03/05/06)
Lois is shocked at the reception she receives at Francis’ A.A. meeting.
Written by Al Higgins | Directed by Steve Welch
This might be my choice for the best Francis story of the entire series — perhaps rivaled only by “Ida Loses A Leg,” where Lois apologized to her eldest son for their dysfunctional relationship — because it very comedically, but supported by the weight of their acrimonious history, addresses their contentious dynamic with an air of finale-approaching closure. Specifically, it’s a lot of fun to see Lois depicted and believed by a crowd of people to be the bad guy — a perspective that’s based on enough truth inside her characterization to sting. Also, the subplot for the remaining boys at home is light, but reminiscent of the kind of average, everyday fare they’d usually get as typical teens. An underrated winner.
09) Episode 145: “Lois Strikes Back” (Aired: 03/19/06)
Lois seeks revenge on four girls who humiliated Reese.
Written by Gary Murphy | Directed by Alex Reid
My pick for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Lois Strikes Back” is also, I think, the best offering since the peak era, boasting the finest use of the finest characters, a narrative plotting that is uniquely smart, and of course, an inherently comedic notion that, on this show’s idea-led terms, is already one of its best. Unsurprisingly, Emmy-nominated Jane Kaczmarek is the star of this half hour, for Lois’ hot temper gets the better of her when she plots revenge on four high school girls who humiliated Reese. It’s a perfect story because it both takes advantage of the most dysfunctional (and therefore funniest) aspects of Lois’ character and also benefits from a reversal with Reese, the bully who is now the bullied. Her individual schemes to get back at the girls (one of whom is Emma Stone) are an audaciously awful riot, made even better by Malcolm — the thoughtful, more sensible child, and his efforts to stop her. This is a terrific display of the series’ eponymous lead, for it depicts him as being more rational than his cracked-out family — a usage that speaks to the very differences that once gave the show its regular premise. Also, I celebrate this tight script for incorporating an otherwise inconsequential subplot about Hal building a mechanical pitcher into the Lois/Malcolm/Reese A-story, creating a thematically cohesive gem that features all these regulars brilliantly and in pursuit of big, bold hahas that only a series as comedically courageous as Malcolm would be willing to go after, both with its ideas and with its characters. A classic. I’m so glad to have it here.
10) Episode 151: “Graduation” (Aired: 05/14/06)
Malcolm’s future is uncertain as he prepares to graduate.
Written by Michael Glouberman | Directed by Linwood Boomer
Malcolm In The Middle’s series finale has enough ponderous sentiment to satisfy the implied demands of this era, which has almost come to expect emotionally laden drama as a condition of narrative closure. It’s not bad here, however, because it doesn’t feel totally out of place on this show, which, after all, was always a traditional family sitcom in design. And more importantly, it’s still more funny than not, with the series’ laugh-seeking objective still prominent, even in Malcolm’s closing valedictory speech, which is a more wistful summation of Malcolm than the preceding centerpiece, where Lois — in her frazzled, character-specific style — encapsulates her view of Malcolm: he is an exceptional person whose struggle (growing up in a family like this) will only make the things he does more exceptional. It communicates an understanding of this show’s conceptual hook for the title character, and as such, brings it full circle in a way that satisfies the situation, allowing me to highlight it as a mostly favorable example of what a sitcom finale should be. As these Big Events go, it’s above average.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Halloween,” a fun but fairly ordinary Halloween show, “Bride Of Ida,” which guest stars the Emmy-winning Cloris Leachman in one of Grandma Ida’s most outrageous half hours (it also claims an unideal Hal subplot), and “College Recruiters,” which has fun with the idea that Reese is married and enjoys having Hal treat Malcom’s college recruiters like a string of wealthy suitors. Also, there are several outings that are uneven, boasting one good story — “Health Insurance,” which has a worthwhile central idea for Hal, “Bomb Shelter,” which is mediocre except for the Hal stuff, and “Morp,” a surprisingly clichéd entry that any teen show could do, but with a decent subplot for Dewey and his folks. Lastly, I’ll also cite two solid offerings that have fine notions but just aren’t as special as the ten above, “Reese Vs. Stevie” and “Secret Boyfriend.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Malcolm In The Middle goes to…
“Lois Strikes Back”
Come back next week for more sitcom fun! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!