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, JUSTIN BERFIELD as Reese, and ERIK PER SULLIVAN as Dewey. With CHRISTOPHER KENNEDY MASTERSON as Francis.
By this point in the run, Malcolm In The Middle no longer has a specific “situation” as it pertains to Malcom and what the first few seasons presented as this otherwise traditional family sitcom’s premised hook: the surprising brilliance of the oft-ignored middle child. All Six can claim is the heightened dysfunction that runs top-down from these ridiculously funny parents to their misbehaving children, whose individual distinctions are less pronounced now that Malcolm’s conceptual persona is removed from the equation. Oh, I suppose Dewey starts to reveal an eccentric genius of his own, but he’s still a catch-all for wackiness and not a viable narrative proxy for Malcolm, who is diluted and minimized by these lines being blurred. Frankly, this means Malcolm is now basically an idea-driven sitcom where character and premise matter less, and value purely stems from the comedic merit of episodic notions, particularly those for the adults. Our standard for picking the best thus falls — we merely ask that these amusing ideas have some relevance, however slight, to an aspect of the situation. And, thankfully, the series is still fairly successful on these (reduced) metrics, for its capacity for Big Laugh comedy has never been in doubt, and many of these ideas, while not as imaginative or fresh as those from early seasons, are clever and thoughtful… I also want to make note of Six’s wise decision to bump Francis down to recurring. He (with Piama) now only appears when he’s at home and a story specifically needs him. This reduces his conceptual displacement — and the variance that once existed in singular episodes because of his subplots is transferred, more broadly, to the simple fact that EVERY entry now has an abundance of plot threads, some of which are obviously better than others. In that regard, episodic variance remains… just in a different form. Again, though, most of these ideas are funny, even if they’re not great examples of sitcommery as far as this blog is concerned, and maybe aren’t the best compared to those on some of the other rebellious, idea-driven/heavy comedies that were starting to thrive during the latter half of Malcolm’s run (like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and The Office). So, Malcolm is no longer tops by its own standards — or mine — but it can still be enjoyed, and, mostly, I do.
01) Episode 109: “Buseys Run Away” (Aired: 11/14/04)
The Buseys run away when Dewey leaves their class.
Written by Michael Glouberman | Directed by Bryan Cranston
As we saw in last week’s MVE, putting Dewey in the special needs class (called the “Buseys”) is a tangential reminder of the initial premise with Malcolm being in the gifted class, and there are two outings in Season Six, including this one, that use the Buseys for story — thereby invoking a peripheral version of the concept in which Dewey is something of a proxy-Malcolm. It’s not fully satisfying, but it’s better than nothing, and here, it’s funny — as is the Hal subplot, where he becomes the leader of a group of dimwitted bodybuilders who work out in the park. It’s idea-led foolishness, but it’s okay for his character — and very comedic.
02) Episode 110: “Standee” (Aired: 11/21/04)
Hal fights with the garbageman, while Lois and Malcolm get into a work dispute.
Written by Rob Ulin | Directed by David D’Ovidio
Despite not loving the actual specifics of the Lois/Malcolm story, in which they fight over the cultural appropriateness of a cardboard cutout of a black janitor drinking beer — an atypical clash without any real stakes rooted in their own characterizations — I do appreciate the reversal of power at the store that motivates their opposition to one another here, along with the overarching assertion that they’re only opposed because of their instinct to disagree, which is a result of the dynamic they have at home. I also really enjoy Hal vs. the garbageman, which boasts a lot of memorable visual gags — one of the year’s funniest subplots.
03) Episode 111: “Pearl Harbor” (Aired: 12/05/04)
Hal competes with the neighbor over Pearl Harbor Day decorations.
Written by Neil Thompson | Directed by Peter Lauer
Although the show is not as imaginative with its storytelling anymore, it still can be clever with some of its ideas. A great example comes in this entry, where the childlike Hal competes with his neighbor over holiday decorations… for Pearl Harbor Day. It’s idea-driven humor, obviously, but it plays well with this character and Malcolm’s rebellious tone, and its satire of typical suburban tensions at least feels somewhat in the spirit of the series’ domestic design. One of my favorite notions here. Meanwhile, Hayden Panettiere’s Jessica returns for a subplot that reaffirms her comedically unique characterization as she tries to manipulate Malcolm and Reese.
04) Episode 113: “Hal’s Christmas Gift” (Aired: 12/19/04)
Hal lies about having a good homemade Christmas gift for the family.
Written by Alex Reid | Directed by David Grossman
This Christmas episode is a lot of fun, boasting a delectable sequence where Lois gets into a car-totaling bout of road rage with another woman in a parking lot. It’s a hilarious moment that feels like a perfect encapsulation of her hot-tempered character. But the good times continue, as the family is then forced to exchange only cheap, homemade gifts this year, and Hal, after seeing how thoughtful everyone else’s presents were, lies about having a great surprise… which of course he doesn’t. It’s a wonderful display of Malcolm’s trademark dysfunction, centered on Bryan Cranston’s reliable Hal, and it makes for easily one of this season’s best half hours, with more of an affiliation to the show’s sensibilities than most on this list.
05) Episode 114: “Hal Sleepwalks” (Aired: 01/16/05)
Reese manipulates a sleep-starved Hal, while Malcolm tries to write a song.
Written by Gary Murphy | Directed by David D’Ovidio
Another great showing for Bryan Cranston as Hal, this offering, like so much in Six, basically contains a lot of comedic ideas. The Malcolm subplot — where he plays guitar and writes a song — is really only worthwhile for its centerpiece, where his tortured creation is revealed to accidentally be cribbed from the Meow Mix jingle. A funny thought. Additionally, the A-story, with a sleep-starved Hal being manipulated by Reese, is also amusing, in keeping with the show’s ethos in this era, while Dewey is a Malcolm stand-in for a decent, if overly familiar, school-set plot. It’s a just a laugh-filled outing for this laugh-prioritizing season.
06) Episode 115: “Lois Battles Jamie” (Aired: 01/23/05)
Lois thinks she’s losing her touch as a mother.
Written by Michael Glouberman | Directed by Steve Welch
While not quite as flashy as some of Six’s other highlights, this episode — which, despite its incorporation of the baby, actually is something of a throwback to a slightly less ridiculous, more thematically pure time for the series — has Lois doubting her skills as a parent and reflecting on her past, particularly with the troubled Francis. This acknowledgment of the parental dysfunction that makes for so much comedic and narrative fodder on Malcolm In The Middle speaks to a main part of its identity — reiterating how the parents are always its strongest comedic/dramatic force — and in this regard, it feels like a straightforward example of what the show can still be, even without Malcolm’s genius as a major story engine. (Incidentally, the talented Jane Kaczmarek was again nominated for an Emmy Award this season.)
07) Episode 117: “Billboard” (Aired: 02/13/05)
Lois catches the boys attempting to vandalize a billboard.
Written by Rob Ulin | Directed by Bryan Cranston
One of the season’s most memorable outings, this segment stands out because of its unique setting and narrative setup — as Lois catches the boys attempting to vandalize a billboard. This leads to a big brouhaha of idea-driven proportions, but what I most appreciate about it — and why I consider it an MVE contender — is that it’s still a fine showcase for some of the key characters, including Lois, whose fundamental rage is palpable, and Malcolm, whose efforts to disguise their disobedience as a social statement imply the individual intelligence that, in the (g)olden days of Malcolm In The Middle, gave him a wonderfully specific shape.
08) Episode 118: “Dewey’s Opera” [a.k.a. “Opera”] (Aired: 02/20/05)
Dewey writes an opera about his bickering parents.
Written by Eric Kaplan | Directed by Linwood Boomer
My choice for this season’s MVE (Most Valuable Episode), “Dewey’s Opera” is a gimmicky excursion that nevertheless has genuine value on behalf of both character and, if not premise, then at least the series’ basic structure and the tonal ethos that renders it unique. To that last point, the idea of having fantasy opera centerpieces is not exactly original in a genre that has always enjoyed flirting with musicality as an occasional stunt, but it’s still a stretch for a traditional family sitcom, and as such, it reflects well on Malcolm’s boldness, reminding us of its willingness to play outside the box. That’s key to its identity. Also, the opera — which stems from the mind of the eccentric Dewey — is inspired by his parents’ bickering: a notion that’s not only rooted in character, it’s also tied to that oft-referenced dysfunction that is common in this type of “dopey dad and angry wife” sitcom, but exaggerated enough here to appear individualized for Malcolm And The Middle and its cast. Accordingly, I think this is Season Six’s best — and most entertaining — reinforcement of the series and its charms. Yes, I wish Malcolm himself was better deployed, but that’s hard to find this year; since the other regulars are well-showcased, and the show’s general situation is acknowledged, it’s an easy standout.
09) Episode 121: “Ida Loses A Leg” (Aired: 03/20/05)
Ida loses a leg while staying with Lois and the family.
Written by Andy Bobrow | Directed by Steve Welch
There are two funny entries this season that guest star Cloris Leachman as Ida, and while the other, cited below as an Honorable Mention, makes better use of the Emmy-nominated genius herself, this one is more wholly satisfying, for it’s got a bit more meat by way of character. Specifically, there’s a great catharsis as Lois apologizes to Francis for the bad parenting that led to him leaving the house — launching the trajectory that we then followed (starting with him in a military academy). This directly involves her characterization and the chaotic household that is vital to the show’s premise, enlivening its otherwise traditional design. Additionally, I love the audacious boldness of having Ida lose a leg in an accident — and then, when Dewey tries to bury the leg, it being absconded by a dog. It’s Big Laugh ridiculousness. An MVE contender.
10) Episode 126: “Motivational Speaker” (Aired: 04/24/05)
Dewey starts seeing another mom, while Hal becomes a motivational speaker.
Written by Rob Ulin | Directed by Steve Love
Like many of the highlights from Season Six, this installment is really a testament to the adults, both of whom get comedic stories where the performers shine. The Hal plot is less directly attached to anything else within the situation, so it’s more of the one-off idea-driven fare typical of this season… but the Lois subplot, in which she’s angry and hurt that Dewey has been “seeing” another mom on the side, is, while also idea-driven, at least connected to her specifically dysfunctional parenting and the domestic format that contains these regulars. Also, the Reese/dog subplot is good for easy laughs, emblematic of this year’s sensibilities.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Reese Comes Home,” which amusingly resolves last year’s absurd cliffhanger by centralizing the no-nonsense Lois, “Chad’s Sleepover,” which has fun with the mounting suspense of a nude picture of Lois, “Ida’s Dance,” the other entry this year with Cloris Leachman as the hilarious Ida, and “Stilts,” which is most memorable for its centerpiece of Malcolm fighting an elderly man while both are on stilts. I’ll also take this space to cite “Tiki Lounge,” for its hint of a Malcolm understanding (and a decent Hal/Lois subplot), and “Mrs. Tri-County,” which sets out to mock Lois as the ideal of motherhood… but actually celebrates her without a real comic pay-off.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Malcolm In The Middle goes to…
Come back next week for Season Seven! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!