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.
Malcolm In The Middle’s second season is the series’ best for several of the reasons discussed last week. Not only did the precocious first year discover that the utilization of Jane Kaczmarek and Bryan Cranston was seminal to the show’s comic appeal — thereby allowing Two to benefit from already knowing that it must feature the parents well — the premise of Malcolm being ordinary at home yet extraordinary out in the world has also remained new enough to be routinely invoked in story, especially via the concept of the Krelboynes, the gifted class to which he belongs. In other words, this season boasts the classic intersection of novelty (of premise) and knowingness (of character) that typically makes for a peak era. What’s more, there’s a sense of “anything goes” that’s never more narratively inventive, comedically fresh, or situation-connected as in Two, which corroborates the spiritual rebellion that inherently exists within Malcolm’s single-camera format, evidenced by the storytelling quirks (fourth wall breaks, fast cuts, quick scenes) that distinguish it from the otherwise more “traditional” kid-centered domestic sitcoms it basically resembles. In this regard, Season Two is the strongest display of the series’ identity en masse — premise, character, and comic sensibility. Future seasons will not be as commendable, particularly as Malcolm loses some of his centricity as a result of the show’s initial narrative engine (his giftedness) no longer being regularly reiterated in plot, and the show’s idea-driven creativity becomes more labored, with scripts turning their wackiness to more generic, less situation-specific fare. Also, Two is the last year where Francis is at the military academy — the place that suits him best because there’s at least some dramatic/thematic affiliation with the dysfunctional parenting that continues to dominate the series’ primary settings. He’s never deployed properly as far as I’m concerned (that’s why I prefer him limited to a recurring capacity), but this is the best he’ll get. And, indeed, this is, all around, the show’s best season — with a high quality that no other collection replicates. I like almost every entry here — I’m simply prioritizing the ones that I believe are exceptional with humor while also engaging the characters and/or the premise. As a whole, this list represents the series at its finest.
01) Episode 17: “Traffic Jam” (Aired: 11/05/00)
Lois, Hal, Malcolm, and Reese are stuck in a traffic jam.
Written by Dan Kopelman | Directed by Todd Holland
Season Two picks up where One left off, continuing the story of “Water Park” (last week’s MVE) as the family is forcibly required to return home early. On the way back, they all get stuck in a terrible traffic jam — the setting for this half hour, which follows a quintessential Malcolm In The Middle template, wherein the cast (or the majority) is at one location, with each character getting a little subplot that, as in this case, works for their fairly well-established personas. Also, the side thread of Dewey having a wild adventure by himself is quirky and broad, speaking to the series’ comic identity and its willingness to go for bold ideas even in this era, all for the sake of laughs. Already, Malcom’s ability to play into its communicated sense of self is thriving.
02) Episode 18: “Halloween Approximately” (Aired: 11/08/00)
The boys create a slingshot while Lois and Hal consider running off.
Written by Dan Kopelman | Directed by Todd Holland
Francis is home for this enjoyable entry that finds all the boys in prank mode — an element of their characterizations, and this show’s ethos, that will continue to accelerate as the run progresses. I think it eventually becomes a little too conventional — with my primary complaint being that such stories emphasize the brothers’ commonalities and minimize their differences (thereby making it seem like such ideas could be used with any group of teen/preteen boys) — but it’s still fresh and exciting here, especially when the plot also involves Malcolm’s gifted friends, the Krelboynes, who are a personification of the series’ specific lead-centric premise (a construct we want invoked often). Meanwhile, there’s a fun subplot for the parents as they steal a joyrider’s car and consider running off together — a great display of their characters.
03) Episode 19: “Lois’ Birthday” (Aired: 11/12/00)
Lois is upset when the boys forget her birthday.
Written by Alex Reid | Directed by Ken Kwapis
Remember: despite all the stylistic tweaks and narrative twists that seek to differentiate this series from other family comedies, Malcolm In The Middle is ultimately traditional in its basic structure and subject matter, with stories that trod familiar ground for this subgenre. An episode like this really reveals the show’s elemental similarities with other comedies — in a way that then allows it to distinguish itself using the components of its own “situation,” or identity, to validate its value for this series. In fact, the idea of the matriarch feeling unappreciated because the rest of her brood (plus husband) has forgotten her birthday is terribly common, but when it culminates in a fight at a batting cage with the family and a bunch of hired birthday clowns, it’s a lot of wild and wacky, memorable big-laugh fun — ideal for Malcolm.
04) Episode 20: “Dinner Out” (Aired: 11/15/00)
The family has dinner with Stevie and his parents.
Written by Michael Glouberman & Andrew Orenstein | Directed by Jeff Melman
Stories that heavily involve Craig Lamar Traylor’s Stevie do a fine job suggesting the initial premise, of Malcolm’s giftedness, because Stevie is also an obvious member of the Krelboynes. And stories that heavily feature his parents — Abe (Gary Anthony Williams) and Kitty (Merrin Dungey) — also do a fine job of accentuating Malcolm’s family’s dysfunction, specifically with the adults, by contrasting them against another example. “Dinner Out” is the first and most comedically satisfying version of this template, with Kitty starting to become corrupted by the chaotic Lois, à la the Rhoades with the Bundys (of Married… With Children). And with a funny climax, this well-situated narrative feels like pure Malcom In The Middle.
05) Episode 31: “The Grandparents” (Aired: 02/11/01)
Lois’ parents come for a visit.
Written by Gary Murphy & Neil Thompson | Directed by Todd Holland
Robert Loggia and Cloris Leachman guest star in this episode, for which they were both Emmy-nominated, as Lois’ parents. This is Loggia’s only appearance, but the former MTM star will become a valuable recurring presence, racking up the award nods (and even winning two) for her portrayal of the unpleasant Ida — complete with exaggerated Eastern European accent (a Leachman hallmark) — who’ll continue to become more and more outrageous. This isn’t her most impressive work in the sitcom genre, but it’s an appreciated boon to Malcolm In The Middle, and while this particular outing isn’t her finest showing on this series, it represents the starting point for an enjoyable aspect of its “situation”: the generational dysfunction.
06) Episode 32: “Traffic Ticket” (Aired: 02/18/01)
Lois fights a traffic ticket from a vindictive cop.
Written by Larry Strawther | Directed by Jeff Melman
This Lois-focused offering is a great showcase for the Emmy-nominated Jane Kaczmarek, who, along with Bryan Cranston as Hal, do a lot of the weekly heavy-lifting with regard to the elevation of already comic material via imaginative performances. “Traffic Ticket” is a particular delight because it ably displays both the best and worst attributes of the Lois character — like her righteous pursuit of justice, and her unwillingness to admit fault. Also, it’s revealing to see the other regulars maneuver around her (namely Hal, and her coworker, the recurring Craig, who’s played well by Ellen’s David Anthony Higgins), as they do in this story, which both condemns and vindicates her character as a surprisingly multi-dimensional figure. (I say “surprisingly” given the idea-driven and not always realistic comedy thrown her way.)
07) Episode 35: “Tutoring Reese” (Aired: 03/11/01)
Malcolm tries to tutor Reese to keep him out of the remedial class.
Written by Ian Busch | Directed by Ken Kwapis
As discussed above, one of the main reasons that Season Two of Malcolm In The Middle has such a high batting average and is therefore the series’ peak is that it’s still mining stories from its initial premise — the exceptionalism of its title character, who is humbled by his place in the house and how he exists at the center of its mania. There are plenty of outings here that involve the Krelboynes, Malcolm’s gifted peers, but the best of these also involve the family, more fully engaging the situation. That’s why I highlight this excursion, for it accentuates its lead’s persona by contrasting him against Reese, who’s obviously less intelligent, especially compared to his younger brother. This feels like a good use of the regulars within the premise, and with a tight script that connects other narrative threads (like Francis), it was a shoo-in for this list.
08) Episode 36: “Bowling” (Aired: 04/01/01)
Malcolm has different experiences bowling, depending on which parent takes him.
Written by Alex Reid | Directed by Todd Holland
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Bowling” is unequivocally the best half hour of the entire series, with an imaginative and even gimmicky narrative structure — employing the flashy Sliding Doors device — that I would typically be loath to favor on principle, except when it manages to create an undeniably impressive showcase for elements of a sitcom’s identity, such as, in this case, its characters and its comic ethos. For starters, this gaudy idea is not original — Frasier did a lesser version earlier this same season — but it embodies the experimental rebellion of Malcolm In The Middle, particularly in this early peak era, before the show congeals into more generic, templated, idea-driven hijinks that are a poor substitute for true sitcommery. That is, this is a great display of several of the show’s key regulars, for the whole idea of two different scenarios, based on whether Hal or Lois takes Malcolm and Reese bowling, is a veritable tribute to the excellent characterizations that Bryan Cranston and Jane Kaczmarek have been helping build, with the action literally shaped around the obvious (and contrasting) aspects of their personas, which are so distinct and well-defined that they could believably spark a separate string of events. (Remember: they are this show’s best attribute, so in utilizing them so well, this is automatically a winner!) Also, the story knows to keep Malcolm in the middle — a structurally important part of the series’ promise to the audience — and during this point in the show’s run, where it’s still writing its younger leads as individuals (Frankie Muniz was Emmy-nominated this season, incidentally), this is a sublime indication of the series’ strengths: a wonderful sample of Malcolm In The Middle and its comedic inventiveness. (Of note: “Bowling” earned two Emmys — for Alex Reid’s script and Todd Holland’s direction.)
09) Episode 40: “Evacuation” (Aired: 05/13/01)
The entire neighborhood is forced to evacuate to the school gym.
Written by Gary Murphy & Neil Thompson | Directed by Todd Holland
There’s an audacious, almost absurdist impetus for this installment’s narrative that I both appreciate as part of Malcolm’s basic comic sensibility in this era and find to be unnecessarily ostentatious for a peak season that is usually still more tied to its characters. However, I most appreciate that the whole thing is caused by a lead (Hal), and that’s why I’m ultimately able to feature this memorable offering in which the family is, once again, taken to an episodic locale where they each have individual subplots that work for their personalities and relationships. In particular, the battle between Malcolm and Lois is related to her parenting, while both Hal and Dewey have really funny connected adventures. I also must celebrate the centricity of Malcolm to the plot, which does a good job at weaving all these ideas together.
10) Episode 41: “Flashback” (Aired: 05/20/01)
Lois and Hal recall when each of their children were born.
Written by Ian Busch | Directed by Jeff Melman
Season Two ends with one of the most “traditional” sitcom entries of the entire series — the ubiquitous flashback show, or to be more precise, the flashback anthology show, with four different but thematically united set pieces, showing us each of the four kids’ births. Naturally, Malcolm has fun making every delivery unique and non-traditional, in an effort to disguise what is otherwise a very common sitcom device, especially for this kind of subject matter. Truthfully, I don’t think it’s the best or most original segment on this week’s list, but I do find it to be a seminal display of the series’ identity and the ways in which, at its finest, it’s able to simultaneously embrace the tenets of its DNA that honor and reflect the sitcom aesthetic while also deliberately acquitting itself as special and one-of-a-kind. As always, I wish more of this came from character, but Season Two is the best on that metric overall, and by the standards of this show, this is a memorable, series-validating excursion.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Surgery,” which emphasizes Malcolm’s genius and also enjoyably showcases how his existence as a genius affects the rest of his family, and “Reese Cooks,” which boasts a memorably comic and detail-oriented A-story for Reese. I’ll also take this space to cite “Therapy,” which has an amusing idea for Malcolm, “The Bully,” which uses the personas that both Malcolm and Reese have at school, “Krelboyne Girl,” which introduces the recurring Cynthia, “New Neighbors,” a popular outing that basically pits the family against their new neighbors for a feud (an example of this show’s traditionalism), “Hal Quits,” a decent Hal show with a solid Malcolm B-story, “Malcolm Vs. Reese,” which has a laugh-building subplot where Dewey is supposed to cat-sit for Craig, and “Carnival,” a straightforward sample of the show’s comedic sensibilities.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Malcolm In The Middle goes to…
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!