Malcolm in the Middle Deserves a Second Look

Malcolm in the Middle doesn't come up in the all-time great sitcoms conversation as much as it should.

Reese (Justin Berfield), Malcolm (Frankie Muniz), Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan), and Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) around the dinner table on Malcolm in the Middle
Photo: Fox

This article contains spoilers for the final episode of Malcolm in the Middle.

Besides animated series, there are very few sitcoms which maintain a consistent level of hilarity with every beat of comic timing. No matter what point you turn on Malcolm in the Middle, any episode, something will make you laugh within 18 seconds. I’m not talking giggles or chuckles, but full-out guffaws that make you miss the next six jokes.

Other shows may be more consistent in overall quality, but none match the stream of funny that comes out of the series created by Linwood Boomer, himself the third of four siblings who was placed in the “gifted” class at school. After graduating, Boomer acted on Little House on the Prairie, another show focusing on a middle child. The semi-autobiographical Malcolm in the Middle doesn’t just call for a second look. It screams for a repeat binge.

Malcolm (Frankie Muniz) is the middle of four brothers: the older Francis (Christopher Masterson) and Reese (Justin Berfield), and the younger Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan). A fifth brother named Jamie is born after season 5, but everyone blames him for the series’ demise. The brothers are consistent and willful troublemakers, who have social disruption down to an art and a science. In this respect, they take after their father, Hal (Bryan Cranston). Their mother, Lois (Jane Kaczmarek), already ground all the rebellion and natural delinquency out of the father, and is now imposing that discipline on her sons. She has plans for them. Malcolm is a reluctant genius, and Hal and Lois consider him the family’s last hope. It doesn’t seem right, but life is unfair.

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Like Roseanne, the family on Malcolm in the Middle are unabashedly working class. Though not quite at the same level. Hal has a dead-end office job, and Lois works at the Lucky Aid grocery 38 hours a week so they can still pay her part time hours. Financial concerns define characters, hiding snide social commentary under the simplest of responsibilities, like paying bills or canceling a summer holiday to pay for hospital expenses. The family has no savings, but it does have a plan: Malcolm. He already does his parents’ tax returns.

When the series was first pitched, studios and networks were convinced a show about an awkward genius and his offbeat family would flop. They should have watched again. Malcolm in the Middle was greenlit by former Fox president Doug Herzog, who pumped marketing dollars into the series, squeezed it between The Simpsons and The X-Files, and allowed Boomer to break sitcom rules to create the show’s unique formula. Herzog didn’t last very long at Fox, even though he also greenlit The PJs, Family Guy, and Futurama.

Malcolm is a mix of the destructive Bart and the super-intelligent socially-conscious Lisa on The Simpsons. Malcolm learns he is a genius with an IQ of 165 in the pilot. This makes him a freak at gatherings. The Krelboynes, the elite class full of gifted kids he is forced to join, also cut him no slack. He’s kind of a freak to them too. Malcolm really just wants to be a normal kid, troubling his parents, tormenting his brothers, and occasionally trying to get a date, which inevitably transforms into a new way to torture himself. Not that the fatherly talk about relationships from Hal would ease that anxiety. Life is unfair, even in love. Especially in love. It’s genetic.

Malcolm may fantasize about becoming part of some better-off family he babysits for extra cash, but his reality is preferable. Sure, every member of his family is neurotic, reckless, destructive, and indictable, but they stick together, if only because it’s easier to keep stories straight as a team effort. They can outwit any bully or adversary, whether it’s on the playground or in a suit or uniform. They are a highly dysfunctional family whose methods outweigh their results.

The family on Malcolm in the Middle has a last name, which goes unmentioned. If a situation warrants the surname being called, such as in an assembly, a noise will obscure it. (But the name can be seen on Francis’ Marlin Academy uniform in the pilot.) The 15-year-old eldest brother could not be contained in the family unit. Francis’ introduction comes by way of a montage of arrests, hastily-dressing dates, and burning cars which add to his legendary status. The other brothers go to Francis for advice, but usually to no avail because his own life is far too chaotic, and he always blames Lois anyway. Francis has a wild arc because it flows outside the family orbit, yet is always drawn into the gravitational flow, especially when he has a family of his own.

Each character endures extreme growth spurts over the series’ seven seasons. Reese begins as a bully, taking out his lack of intellectual prowess on anyone who can string sentences together. He rules the school grounds, extorting lunch money and blackmailing minor authority figures, but still finds the time to join the cheerleader squad. Reese learns independent thought is dangerous during his short but memorable stint in the army, so he renders himself incapable of it. His mindless adherence to the opposite of his own instincts makes him the most down to earth of the brothers, unless he’s flying off in a balloon chair. Never underestimate Reese, he even tweaks a science experiment Malcolm and his best friend and fellow genius Stevie Kenarban (Craig Lamar Traylor) were working on by accident. Just don’t ask him to do it again.

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Dewey is proof that little to no parental supervision can lead to great things. He is a freewheeling enigma, whose adventures can leave the reality of the series, or ground it to a complete halt. Dewey expects nothing, and is still let down, so he endlessly amuses himself, photobombing strangers’ photoshoots or conversing with a cartoon character who can only speak to him. Dewey is also a musical prodigy, not only composing a complete classical work, “Dewey’s Opera,” from the thematic strands of his parents’ arguments, but concocting his very first keyboard, complete with kitchen utensils, golf clubs, and car horns. The pride in his parents’ eyes, as they are dragged away by the police, is a testament to dysfunctional family unity.

Hal is the dad every kid fantasizes about having until they realize they’ve awoken from a fever dream. Bryan Cranston brings more to Hal than an actor’s regular dossier, whether figure skating or covered in bees. We completely understand how Vince Gilligan saw Cranston in the back seat of The X-Files and made him drive Breaking Bad as the antihero Walter White. Hal’s own brand of genius, evil as it may have been, can be used for good, like when he taught a bunch of bodybuilders a balanced checkbook is as important as a balanced exercise regimen. From his appearances on Seinfeld, it was evident Cranston excels so much in comedy it is almost a shame to straitjacket him in drama. Cranston is the most animated actor working. He could be a cartoon character and wouldn’t need digital effects. His face is that elastic. His voice that versatile. Of course Hal loves Lois far more than she loves him, all his interpretations make sense in the quantum physics that holds the family universe together.

Jane Kaczmarek’s Lois is revolutionary as a sitcom mom. She nonchalantly rejects stereotypes, and maintains a maniacal devotion to her family. Lois may train her kids like the toughest war-time drill sergeant with a metal plate in the head, but when Reese actually joins the military, she is his most trusted reconnaissance. Lois is unquestionably the head of the household, commands the utmost respect not only from her own boys but every child, and many adults, in an eight-block radius.

Lois is also the most subversive protagonist on TV. She exemplifies an unshakeable sense of justice. After learning Reese got a failing grade on a paper that was actually written by Malcolm, Lois realizes the bigger crime is that the teacher failed her son for spite. The proof? Nothing Malcolm writes, even at his worst, would merit a failing grade. The scene shows off Lois’ righteousness mixed with excruciating timing, it is impossible not to laugh or agree with her, especially as Francis makes a surprising appearance. Lois digs to the bottom of truth and yanks it like a root canal. Kaczmarek was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award every year the show ran, as well as nominated for three Golden Globes. She never won. Life is unfair. Cloris Leachman, who played Lois’ mother, Grandma Ida, won two Emmys.

From manipulative babysitters, to egotistical teachers, and all manner of extended family whose only joy is the occasional tickle, like Christopher Lloyd as Hal’s father, the supporting cast, and guest players were also perfectly suited for their parts in the family’s universe. Malcolm’s best friend, Stevie, is an asthmatic African-American genius confined to a wheelchair, but uses it as a weapon of wit and social commentary. “With my intelligence and tokenism, the sky’s the limit,” Stevie tells Malcolm. It is a spirited blow to marginalization, and a lesson in true human nature. Every character on Malcolm in the Middle is defined by some unfair misjudgment of character flaw or idiosyncrasy. The marvel of it is the show remained almost completely stigma-free, even at its most caustic.

Like the characters, Malcolm in the Middle throws off all conventional formulaic wisdom, and burns the rulebook. The first thing Boomer twisted was plots. Episodes weave separate but equally compelling stories into the action, all running concurrently, often in different locations. Each concludes by closing credits, but never how it is expected. Because so many sequences were filmed on location, there was little need for a studio audience providing laughs. Malcolm in the Middle then did away with the laugh track entirely, braving moments of uncomfortable silence for genuine laughter.

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Network sitcoms liked to keep the essence of the TV experience intact, and rarely challenged viewers’ conceptions of televised realities. Sitcoms cued the home audience to laugh, and maintained the distance of performance. Malcolm regularly breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience. This is almost the norm now, but at the time was unexpected. Malcolm also rolls his eyes at the viewer, and makes other forms of contact. He really wants the audience on his side, and is not afraid to show his vulnerabilities or his genius, all kept in check by a necessary, almost crippling, sense of self-doubt.

The family is supposed to exist outside the norm, and the production team maintains an off-kilter focus on the offbeat family. Most of the era’s sitcoms were filmed from multiple angles and needed no post-production edits. Malcolm in the Middle was shot on one forever-moving camera, on film instead of digital video, and was heavily edited in post-production. The opening sequence alone presents a skewered angle over barely recognizable references of contemporary teen compulsions, all to the tune of They Might Be Giants’ “You’re Not the Boss of Me Now.” It is more than a song or a calling card, it is a mission statement.

Over the course of the series, music provides major propulsive energy, my personal favorite is when Hal teaches Malcolm to skate to the cheerful rhythms of Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown,” the song was on my playlist for weeks after. But I also love when Commandant Edwin Spangler (Daniel Von Bargen) teaches the Marlin Academy cadets to sing an intricately arranged rendition of “Candyman,” to impress a visiting colonel, or Malcolm struggling to write his first original song, only to have it turn out to be the melody from a cat chow commercial.

Much is said about the dysfunctional aspect of Malcolm in the Middle, but the offspring turned out more than alright. Of course, Malcolm is so fully prepared for life, Lois would toss him to the wolves to save Reese, but Lois and Hal passed a spark of genius on each of their children. Dewey grows into a pianist so accomplished you can easily picture people crying at his concerts. Reese becomes a master chef, and it is no problem imagining him reducing lesser culinary artists to puddles of tears on cooking competition shows on any network. Knowing Francis turned into his own father is enough to make the audience cry.

Malcolm is accepted into Harvard in the show’s finale, but Hal can’t afford an Ivy League education, so Malcolm pays tuition by working as the university’s janitor. Life is unfair, which is exactly how Lois plotted it from the beginning. Malcolm is destined for better things than just his family, but he needs to have his narcissism and intellectual snobbery scraped from under his fingernails.

“You know what it’s like to be poor and you know what it’s like to work hard,” Lois tells Malcolm after a less than lustrous graduation. “Now you’re going to learn what it’s like to sweep floors and bust your ass and accomplish twice as much as all the kids around you. And it won’t mean anything because they will still look down on you, and you will want so much for them to like you, and they just won’t. And it’ll break your heart. And that will make your heart bigger and open your eyes and finally, you will realize that there’s more to life than proving you’re the smartest person in the world.”

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Too bad Frankie Muniz preferred racing cars to espionage capers like Agent Cody Banks, Malcolm could have been the greatest president, even if it would prove Lois right.

Malcolm in the Middle is available to stream on Hulu in the U.S. and Disney+ in the U.K.