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 Four sees Malcolm In The Middle hitting its midpoint, literally and figuratively, as it’s now starting to become a less special, more generic series, with stories that feature less of the initial premise — of Malcolm being ordinary in his house but extraordinary out in the world — and a weaker connection to “character” in general, evidenced by funny idea-led notions that could exist on any sitcom, especially those with teen/pre-teen kids. A large part of this is due to what was discussed last week — Malcolm is becoming less distinguished, and this minimizes all the boys’ characterizations, rendering their uses in plot less specific to this show. There’s still some imagination in the storytelling — corroborating Malcolm’s earlier reputation for creative rebellion — but even this is less attached now to the leads’ particulars. Also, while Malcolm is still very prevalent in weekly story — and he’s actually allowed to grow up, as he goes to high school and starts dating — his persona continues to diminish alongside the premise, so he thus feels less central to the show and its situation. This is obviously true in the latter, and lesser, half of the season. You see, Four is also the year where Jane Kaczmarek was pregnant. The actress’ blessed event also became her character’s, and the back half of this season endures a marked decline in quality, not because of the baby, but because of ongoing strain to story (and Lois’ minimized usage). Fortunately, if the threat of a baby (a hacky narrative device) looms large — looking to change the series by making it even more commonplace — Five will mostly manage to avoid those associated clichés. Plus, if we’re seeking a silver lining, the new child helps keep Malcolm in “the middle” while emphasizing the adults’ dysfunctional parenting. The problem is simply that the back half of Four almost entirely sheds the situation as it pertains to Malcolm, previewing the series’ further mitigation of its premise in the years ahead… As for Francis, he’s now working at a ranch for Kenneth Mars, a funny performer who nevertheless can’t elevate these subplots, for Francis is just too far away from the other characters to matter. However, his material is no worse than it was last week, and overall, things are still more good than bad. In fact, with both halves of the year averaged together, Season Four is Malcolm at its own middle — not as strong as the three years prior, but much better than those ahead.
01) Episode 64: “Zoo” (Aired: 11/03/02)
The family goes to the zoo.
Written by Michael Glouberman & Andrew Orenstein | Directed by Todd Holland
Season Four continues the trend of opening with an on-location show that takes the family to a new setting for a handful of interrelated subplots. This year brings them to the zoo and claims several stories that, true to the series’ ongoing trajectory, are not quite as character-driven as before. While I suppose it’s fun that Reese the bully is bullied himself by a mean goat, and there are indeed performer-elevated laughs when Hal is bitten by a tarantula during a demonstration with Lois’ ex-boyfriend, the main idea of Malcolm and Dewey getting stuck in the tiger pit doesn’t feel well-motivated by anything having to do with them. If this season was just a little bit better, I would have kept this entry among the Honorable Mentions — it’s funny, and there are a lot of good moments, but many of the show’s growing concerns are evident.
02) Episode 65: “Humilithon” (Aired: 11/10/02)
Lois embarrasses Malcolm in his first week of high school.
Written by Michael Borkow | Directed by Jeff Melman
Malcolm officially enters high school in the year’s sophomore outing, and with this natural progression comes the de facto dissolution of the Krelboynes, which was previewed at the end of the previous season. This reduces the ways in which episodic story can engage the pilot’s initial premise, and it’s a large reason for the series’ accelerated descent into a more generic form of sitcommery, relative to its former baseline. However, this selection is most favorable compared to its competition, for it acknowledges Malcolm’s reputation as a nerd and capably uses his parents’ outrageousness — both Jane Kaczmarek and Bryan Cranston were again Emmy-nominated this year — with thematic pertinence, as Malcolm’s desire to “blend in” as he does at home is still (at least, for now) not possible at school (because of his parents). Smart.
03) Episode 66: “Family Reunion” (Aired: 11/17/02)
The family attends a celebration for Hal’s father.
Written by Alex Reid | Directed by Ken Kwapis
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Family Reunion” is the half hour that I’ll remember most from this season once Malcolm In The Middle is in this blog’s rearview mirror. It’s a memorable display of the adults’ dysfunction, seen through a wider lens, as we finally learn more of Hal’s history when the family (including Francis and Piama) attends a party for his dad’s birthday. Christopher Lloyd is inspired casting as Hal’s father — he and Bryan Cranston have a similar mania; I wish he returned after this installment — and his sheer presence reveals a lot more about Hal’s character. Also, it’s always fun to see the hot-tempered Lois try to control her righteous anger, as she does here when continually slighted by Hal’s relatives (including guest Brenda Strong)… that is, until her boys get revenge on the snooty group in a comedic climax that matches the show’s reputation for big-laugh rambunctiousness. So, with a strong use of the parents and a family-rooted story that emphasizes key aspects of the series’ identity, this funny offering stands out as a winner, particularly in Four. No other MVE pick would satisfy.
04) Episode 67: “Stupid Girl” (Aired: 11/24/02)
Malcolm dumbs himself down to date a girl who’s less intelligent.
Written by Dan Kopelman | Directed by Todd Holland
This underrated segment really does well centralizing Malcolm in its eponymous A-story that reminds us of his exceptionalism, as he deliberately downplays his own smarts to court a girl at school who is, well, less than his intellectual equal. It results in him truly starting to shed some of his brain cells, and while this script doesn’t go quite as far as you might expect, the idea itself is still tailored specifically to this character and his situation — making it a solid addition to this list. Meanwhile, there’s an amusing Hal subplot, as he becomes addicted to crushing things in a steamroller, and Lois is paired with the reliable Stevie (Craig Lamar Traylor) in a small story that dovetails nicely with the main Malcolm narrative. It’s not a gem, but it all works well.
05) Episode 70: “Malcolm Holds His Tongue” (Aired: 01/05/03)
Malcolm tries to hold in his thoughts and opinions.
Written by Gary Murphy & Neil Thompson | Directed by Jeff Melman
I’m sure the Hal subplot, in which he joins a speed-walking group and zealously faces off against a rival, is the core appeal of this excursion for a lot of viewers, and indeed, it’s very funny — a unique idea for the childish, obsessive Hal, the primary avatar for this series’ parody of adult authority. But I also like the A-story, which centralizes Malcolm and puts him in a position of suffering — as his efforts to stop speaking his mind accentuate his characterization while tangentially acknowledging implications of the premise: the suggestion that his spot in the family squeezes him into being more long-suffering. In other words, he has it worse than the rest of them. I wish he was used like this more often — it’s a way to extend the situation’s life.
06) Episode 71: “Boys At Ranch” (Aired: 01/12/03)
Hal and the boys visit Francis at the ranch.
Written by Gary Murphy & Neil Thompson | Directed by David D’Ovidio
One of four episodes that Jane Kaczmarek missed while on maternity leave, “Boys At Ranch” finds Hal and the boys visiting Francis (and Piama). As such, this entry is notable for integrating an aspect of the series that is too often separated to the point of irrelevancy. What’s more, it does a fine job of exploring Francis’ role within the family — who he is to his younger brothers, and how Hal views himself as a father, specifically given his eldest son’s delinquency. Truthfully, though, highlighting this offering also provides another chance to shoutout Kenneth Mars, who is a delight, as is Meagen Fay as his equally eccentric wife, two forces guaranteeing guffaws, even in subplots that tend to have nothing to do with the other characters whatsoever.
07) Episode 72: “Grandma Sues” (Aired: 02/02/03)
Grandma Ida sues the family for an injury on their porch.
Written by Michael Glouberman & Andrew Orenstein | Directed by Jimmy Simons
Cloris Leachman, again nominated for an Emmy, returns in this installment as the nasty Grandma Ida, whose unpleasantness kicks into overdrive when she attempts to sue her daughter’s family after a Man Who Came To Dinner-esque fall on the porch. It’s a broad and unoriginal idea that is typical of the sitcom genre but ordinarily stretches emotional logic. However, with Ida’s mean personality well-established, her choices remain consistent with the character, and such boldness allows the notion to stand as an amusing sample of the series and its storytelling. Also, this outing is fun because of Malcolm — he, again, is put-upon because he’s “in the middle”: a tangential way of invoking the premise in this era. (Incidentally, Lois and Hal learn of her pregnancy here — launching an arc that will culminate in just three months.)
08) Episode 73: “If Boys Were Girls” (Aired: 02/09/03)
Lois imagines what her life would be like if she had girls instead of boys.
Teleplay by Nahnatchka Khan | Story by Alexandra Kaczenski | Directed by Ken Kwapis
This gimmicky entry offers a “what if?” scenario that I would typically deplore on other series, for such idea-driven stunting is an inherent rejection of the situation as it actually exists. However, every sitcom is different, and Malcolm In The Middle’s initial reputation for imaginative storytelling gives scripts more leeway to take risks and deviate from the norm, especially as a means of defining the show as unique against a traditional domestic format. So, I truly appreciate this episode — where Lois imagines a more favorable reality in which she has girls instead of boys — as an example of the series trying to satisfy its identity in new and creative ways during this otherwise middling era. It’s not as character-rooted as Season Two’s iconic “Bowling,” but it’s in that vein and at least plays with Lois’ characterization and her parenting.
09) Episode 76: “Stereo Store” (Aired: 03/16/03)
Hal gets a second job while the boys’ new babysitter is one of Malcolm’s classmates.
Written by Matthew Carlson | Directed by Bryan Cranston
The recurring Hayden Panettiere debuts in this outing as one of Malcolm’s classmates, Jessica, whose ability to manipulate other people often confounds the smart but earnest Malcolm. In fact, that’s the primary comedic idea here, as Malcolm is thoroughly challenged by Jessica when he realizes that his high IQ is no match for her cleverness. It’s a notion that calls attention to his premised brains and how he usually functions in relation to others, along with the associated character flaws he possesses as a result. In this regard, “Stereo Store” is a fresh display of both his characterization and the series’ situation — at least, in its A-story. The stuff with Hal at the store is less memorable, and, as with all the Lois-less shows, we do miss Jane Kaczmarek. (By the way, with 151 total half hours produced, this is Malcolm’s literal midpoint.)
10) Episode 82: “Future Malcolm” (Aired: 05/04/03)
Malcolm plays chess with a cranky middle-aged man in the park.
Teleplay by Michael Glouberman & Andrew Orenstein | Story by A.J. Poulin & Ron Corcillo | Directed by Ken Kwapis
Jason Alexander guest stars in this otherwise unexceptional entry that nevertheless gains points in my book for tailoring its main idea to Malcolm, utilizing the characterization that has been established for him and this premise. The very thought of presenting a man who could symbolize Malcolm as he might exist in the future is a character-based source of comedy. Also, there are some big laughs in the subplot with Hal and Lois, as Hal’s attraction to Lois’ growing figure encourages him to mess with her food so she continues to gain more weight than anticipated. It’s a unique gag from the trunk of dysfunction that so delightfully colors this family, and in particular, the boys’ imperfect parents. (Vernee Watson also appears.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Kicked Out,” a Malcolm-centered, Lois-less entry where Hal’s parenting is scrutinized, along with “Baby (I)” and “Baby (II)” — the first part is great for how it displays Cloris Leachman’s Ida, the second for its take on the traditional “chaotic birth show,” even though neither deploys Malcolm well enough to compete with the more situation-validating selections above. I’ll also cite “Forwards Backwards,” which is most memorable for its creative structure, “Garage Sale,” which benefits from a few character ideas and some strong narrative cohesion, and “Academic Octathlon,” which makes rare use of the premise-backed reminder that Malcolm is a gifted student.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Malcolm In The Middle goes to…
Come back next week for Season Five! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!