Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday, on a Wednesday! This week, we’re starting 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.
As this blog turns its attention to shows that premiered in the first decade of the 2000s, we’re starting with one that debuted in January 2000 — in the latter half of the 1999-2000 TV season, which I technically consider part of the 1990s. I think it’s vital to contextualize Malcolm In The Middle like this, as arising from the 1990s, for the majority of its competitive contemporaries, during the years in which it was at its best, are not the shows that we’ll be covering in this upcoming slate, but rather, the late 1990s sitcoms that ran into the 2000s and also had some of their best showings in the early half of this decade. You know, the sitcoms with seasons I just reran — Frasier, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, The King Of Queens, That ‘70s Show. Most of this era’s best were live audience multi-cams, and compared to them, Malcolm In The Middle stood out as a single-cam, laugh track-less rebellion, emerging right before this style of TV comedy would come to the fore again, partly due to Malcolm’s success. Yes, there had always been a school of viewers who preferred sitcoms without a live audience — mainly because it’s annoying to be encouraged to guffaw at something that’s not funny (which is why multi-cams must be genuinely comedic) — and the 1990s certainly had a few classic single-cam predecessors, especially on cable. But it was still notable for mainstream network sitcoms to be shot like this in 2000, and in particular, to eschew a laugh track of any kind. This made Malcolm distinct, in the same basic way that dramas (or burgeoning dramedies) were different from comedies — enjoying a perceived gravitas or sophistication that rendered it intrinsically unique and more critically interesting to those perpetuating the industry’s (and culture’s) enduring dramatic bias. To that point, the single most important trend we’ll observe as we cover the best samples from the most recent 25 years is already suggested by Malcolm In The Middle — the sitcom form has increasingly adopted more of the traits associated with prestige dramas from cable (and streaming), rejecting the core tenets that once defined TV comedies as a singular, separate aesthetic.
Okay, Malcolm In The Middle — created and run for six of its seven seasons by Night Court alum Linwood Boomer — may visually reject the dominant sitcom aesthetic of its era, but it is still very much a comedy. Not only does it want to be funny, it is funny, never abandoning the comedic objective that most distinguishes sitcoms from other genres — a line that future half hours (both single-cams and multi-cams) have since blurred. (The show is often compared to The Wonder Years, but, again, unlike that similarly teen-focused single-cam from the decade prior, there’s nothing about Malcolm that would confuse it for a “dramedy.”) Meanwhile, Malcolm’s single-cam setup and all the narrative flourishes that it invites (for instance, Malcolm regularly breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to the camera) as a result of its storytelling not being beholden to the limitations of a multi-cam production, acquit the show as fresh and forward-thinking — a primary cause of its appeal, both then and now. But this packaging actually belies a traditional family sitcom, exemplifying the subgenre as it stood in the 1990s. To wit, Malcolm embraces the working-class sensibility that emerged in the late 1980s as a counter-reaction to the overly idealistic (and typically upper-middle class) fare from earlier that decade. Yet it’s without the commitment to realism initially attached to this movement by the torch-bearing Roseanne… Of course, Malcolm isn’t the burlesquing satire of Married… With Children either (or its animated derivative, The Simpsons), residing somewhere in between them — not so flimsy as to be an extended sketch in sitcom form, but more than willing to be narratively ridiculous (less rooted in literal realism) for the sake of a good laugh. Also, while the show is loaded with kids and indeed anchored by one, the adult couple is a seminal component — drawn with the same “goofy husband and menacing wife” brush that, elementally, had also been applied to Ray and Debra of Everybody Loves Raymond and Doug and Carrie of The King Of Queens (a de facto family sitcom — with Arthur, her father, as their virtual child). That’s a construct that has long existed within this genre. And in that regard, Malcolm In The Middle is really not reinventing the wheel — it’s just painting it up a bit to look like new.
Longtime readers may remember I’ve not always been a fan of Malcolm In The Middle. Although I knew it occupied a relevant place within the sitcom genre, it wasn’t until I examined it for this year’s survey that I cultivated a true appreciation — now believing that there are a dozen episodes worth adding to this site’s rolodex. My apprehension mostly stemmed from the fact that, I repeat, it’s loaded with kids. And truthfully, there are parts of the series — related to the kids — that I still don’t love. For instance, while I think Boomer and his scribes do a fine job distinguishing the boys from one another, such that they have separate personalities, and, as a whole, the text believably replicates the attitudes and voices of children or teens their age, I don’t think the show does a good enough job of having them uniquely motivate story. That is, there are so many plots that any of the three boys in the house could play — especially in the latter half of the run, when the storytelling becomes more generically idea-driven (like late Night Court) and the initial premise, of Malcolm being in the “middle” of his family but exceptional everywhere else, is no longer well-applied in weekly narratives, thereby minimizing (not in size, but in texture) his presence. More succinctly, I believe the show is very idea-led in a way that’s not premised, because it’s not great at directly attaching story to character — at least not to the kids. What’s more, I really don’t like that Francis is too often sequestered away from the ensemble in subplots, as this limits his interactions with other members of the cast and takes us out of the home setting — the place we most want to be. His time at the military academy during the first two seasons makes for his best usage, for there’s a comic point implied about the discipline of the military being a consequence of this particular family’s dysfunctional household. At least, it’s better than the year he spends in Alaska or the two on the ranch (much as I enjoy Kenneth Mars), which feel tangential to everything Malcolm represents. Frankly, I don’t mind when he’s demoted to recurring in the final two seasons, for he’s usually too removed from the show’s “situation” to matter. (You’ll notice I tend not to favor episodes with heavy Francis B-stories — they often ignore the premise and aren’t the best examples of this series.)
However, though this show is imperfect, it has one major attraction — the main reason I can sincerely say I enjoy it: the parents. Dopey Hal and hot-tempered Lois are played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston and Jane Kaczmarek, respectively — two hilarious performers that, like Romano/Heaton and James/Remini, have rich chemistry and elevate their material. Thanks to their work, and the show’s genius idea to depict the adults as even more wild and unruly than the kids — a notion that it latches onto early in the first season and then maintains for the rest of the run — Malcolm is able to stay a reliably funny, special sitcom, for although, again, this basic arrangement of the goofy man and the ball-busting wife isn’t new, the strength of their comedic rapport, along with the show’s own creative ability to make familiar prospects seem fresh and exciting, grants the series a consistent baseline. It’s even more consistent, again, than the premise itself — of Malcolm being brilliant, but humbled by a dysfunctional family — which becomes increasingly less cited in story after its Season Two peak. Naturally, Two is the series’ best, both because of how it spotlights its lead and the conceptual hook it builds around him, and also because the show is at the height of its imagination, willing to take narrative and comedic risks that pay off, especially when supported both by the premise and a cast of characters who are already well-established — particularly the two adults. Fortunately, if the show declines in the back half of its life, it’s never awful. I think every year has episodes worth highlighting, and the series ends before it gets dire… As for how it compares to its competition, I’d say it’s a contender during its first four seasons — that liminal period in the early 2000s where the hits of the 1990s remained dominant, and the sitcoms of the new decade were still establishing a collective identity. Malcolm In The Middle really ushers us into this new era, and I’m excited to begin coverage of it here with Season One, the series’ second-best showing, for its rebellious reputation is proven right from the start, while also boasting a steady use of premise, and a quick understanding of how to best utilize the funniest characters.
01) Episode 1: “Pilot” (Aired: 01/09/00)
Malcolm doesn’t want to be moved to his school’s gifted class.
Written by Linwood Boomer | Directed by Todd Holland
Malcolm In The Middle‘s pilot is a great entrance into the show’s world (including its visual rebellion), introducing us to the main characters in its central family — each of whom is fairly well-delineated already — along with the basic premise that gives recurring shape to many stories here in the series’ first few (and best) seasons: the notion that Malcolm is humbled by his position in this hectic house, despite his exceptionalism outside of it, especially at school, where he is a gifted student. The setup of Malcolm joining the Krelboynes (the gifted class, apparently inspired by Little Shop Of Horrors) is well-done and includes his first interactions with one of the show’s best peripheral players, Craig Lamar Traylor’s Stevie. It’s a very solid start to the series. (Of note: this installment won Emmy Awards for both its writing and directing.)
02) Episode 2: “Red Dress” (Aired: 01/16/00)
Lois tries to figure out which of the boys ruined her anniversary dress.
Written by Alan J. Higgins | Directed by Arlene Sanford
As noted above, the real strength of Malcolm In The Middle is supplied by the parents — Jane Kaczmarek’s Lois and Bryan Cranston’s Hal, both of whom have series-defining episodes in this first season, which quickly comes to understand that they’re terrific and should be spotlighted often. In fact, the simplest reason early years of this show (particularly Season Two) are so great is that scripts already know how to best feature the adults while still being able to keep some affiliation to the premise, and specifically, Malcolm’s centricity to it. Obviously, this is Lois’ breakout entry here in One — Kaczmarek was Emmy-nominated this year — and it’s a riot, evidencing the dysfunctional yet loving mania that gives this series its non-idealistic but also not-literally-realistic comic sensibility. Also, I appreciate that Francis is used in support of the main story. (David Anthony Higgins debuts as Craig, and Paul Willson guests.)
03) Episode 5: “Malcolm Babysits” (Aired: 02/13/00)
Malcolm is hired as a babysitter while his family temporarily lives in a trailer.
Written by Maggie Bandur & Pang-Ni Landrum | Directed by Jeff Melman
Admittedly, this isn’t one of the strongest on this otherwise strong list, but I bumped it from the Honorable Mentions because it has a funnier-than-baseline teleplay with a lot of worthwhile character moments, particularly for the already reliable Lois and Hal. More importantly, however, I decided to highlight this offering because I think it mines comedic gold by contrasting its central surname-less family with a more traditional upper-middle class ideal — thereby emphasizing the former in the process — before ultimately proving both to be dysfunctional. In this regard, it feels very much like Malcolm In The Middle is sharpening its own identity and communicating to the audience self-awareness about what it is and wants to be.
04) Episode 8: “Krelboyne Picnic” (Aired: 03/12/00)
The family attends the picnic for Malcolm’s gifted class.
Written by Michael Glouberman & Andrew Orenstein | Directed by Todd Holland
One of the true gems of this first season, “Krelboyne Picnic” is easily the best installment after the pilot to explicitly engage the premise as set up in that premiere, with a narrative reminder of how Malcolm’s brilliance makes him feel like an outsider in the middle of his bizarre but “average” family. Because it has such relevance to what this series promises to be, and by inherently positing the title character as its nucleus, this is an outstanding sample of Malcolm In The Middle. But more than just its thematic importance as evidenced in story, it’s also a great showcase for the regulars, as all of the leads have little subplots that make sense based on how they’re defined. And this will become a winning template for the series going forward, as episodes go to a singular location where everyone has individual character-revealing fun.
05) Episode 11: “Funeral” (Aired: 04/09/00)
Malcolm tries to get out of going to his aunt’s funeral.
Written by Maggie Bandur & Pang-Ni Landrum | Directed by Arlene Sanford
This unusual entry is narratively tighter than most segments of Malcolm In The Middle, with the entire action revolving around the upcoming funeral for a deceased aunt that no one liked. Even Francis is involved in a way that’s not just tangential to the main story but also additive to both its telling and the comedy. (So much of his usage throughout the series is unideal because it’s disconnected from the things we love best.) Additionally, I most appreciate that Malcolm is at the center of this plot, at first scheming to get out of attending the funeral and then, after Lois gives up and takes a bubble bath as the rest of the house falls into disarray when everyone else is left to their own devices, he schemes to reverse course. It’s a funny idea, rooted in some relatability that’s then carried to comic extremes — like so much of this series, in this era.
06) Episode 13: “Rollerskates” (Aired: 04/30/00)
Malcolm asks his dad to teach him to roller-skate.
Written by Alan J. Higgins | Directed by Ken Kwapis
While Lois shined in the early “Red Dress,” Bryan Cranston’s Hal gets a similarly revelatory showcase in this offering, the series’ first half hour to zero-in on the Seinfeld alum’s material-elevating nuttiness, which expands the typical “dopey dad” persona into an even more bizarre, childlike, and frankly, rebellious figure. His best work is done opposite a strong partner — either the equally well-portrayed Lois or the premise-centered Malcolm. In the case of this installment, he’s paired — and paired well — with Malcolm, particularly in a fun scene where, after his son says an expletive, Hal’s unusual punishment backfires and creates an awkward exchange as Malcolm reads a list of dirty words to his face. It’s one of the funniest scenes here in Season One, exhibiting the dysfunctional parenting that gives the show comedic and narrative color.
07) Episode 16: “Water Park” (Aired: 05/21/00)
Lois and Hal take Malcolm and Reese to a water park, while Dewey stays with a babysitter.
Written by Maggie Bandur & Pang-Ni Landrum | Directed by Ken Kwapis
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Water Park” is the funniest entry from Malcolm In The Middle’s first season, confidently displaying the show’s rebellious stylistic intentions and comic boldness — specifically, its downright wackiness, which encourages crazy, fresh, unexpected ideas. That’s how I’d describe the subplot, where Dewey is babysat by an equally awkward and eccentric person — an elderly woman played by the divine Bea Arthur (who was Emmy-nominated for her work here). Regular readers of this blog know what a fan I am of Arthur — she makes good material great by bolstering her characters with an innate tension that finds gigantic laughs in minutia. Her dancing with Dewey to ABBA’s “Fernando” is a series highlight and worth the price of admission. However, the bulk of this outing is stellar as well, with the rest of the family headed to a water park — where Malcolm and Reese engage in a prank war (a common example of this series’ emergent storytelling) that culminates in Lois being pushed down a water slide after scolding them. It’s a wonderful moment that really feels like a tonal extension of the boys, revealing exactly why I think Malcolm In The Middle does a better job than most sitcoms of writing for its younger regulars — its wild and woolly tenor matches its characters, and at its best, this is reflected in story. Big fun. (Of note: this was one of three segments produced when FOX expanded its first season order from 13 to 16.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Home Alone 4,” which involves Francis well and centralizes Malcolm, “The Bots And The Bees,” which is great for Lois and Hal in each of their respective subplots, and “Smunday,” which boasts a fine display of the series’ storytelling. I’ll also take this space to cite “Sleepover,” which is an important entry for Stevie, and “Cheerleader,” which has a hysterical scene where Hal talks to the boys about sex.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Malcolm In The Middle goes to…
Come back next week for Season Two and a new Wildcard Wednesday!