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Malcolm in the Middle

Sunday, October 29, 2000 by

So there’s this new American family comedy. Its central character is a gifted child from a dysfunctional family – throw in a black kid in a wheelchair, a right-on teacher, girlfriend problems and a whole host of other clich├ęs. Serve up with the proclamation that it’s a live action version of The Simpsons from the same network who gave us Ally McBeal. Bound to be truly appalling, isn’t it? Well, you’re wrong.

Malcolm in the Middle is a true gem of a programme – that singular rarity – a programme that parents and children alike can both watch and, far more importantly, laugh out loud at. Having been initially put off by the comparison to The Simpsons that the British media used liberally prior to it airing, I must confess that I sat down to watch it in a negative state of mind. It seemed to yet another anodyne formulaic, cast/story/plot by numbers job that the American networks excel in.

However, I was joyously proved wrong – and I don’t mind admitting it. The premise of the show is that Malcolm is the kid with the high IQ who is the middle of three brothers still at home (the eldest is forced to go to military school after a series of mishaps) and it’s the story of his, and his family’s everyday lives. The balance between comedy and pathos is absorbing, the performances are beguiling and the direction catches the mood and style of the show effortlessly.

In particular Malcolm, played by Frankie Muniz, and his brothers are wonderful but it’s Malcolm’s mother, played by Jane Kaczmarek, who steals the show. Hers is a performance of consistent brilliance bordering on genius that should, at the very least, receive an Emmy nomination. Despite being the only female in the house, she is the central figure in the family – more appropriately, she is the eye of the incessant storm that is MITM. Despite being a show packed with male characters, the best lines invariably come from women. Witness when Malcolm’s mother answers the door topless unintimidated by the fact that Malcolm’s guidance counselor has arrived at her home for a chat, she merely offers, “they’re just boobs, lady, you see ‘em every morning when you look in the mirror.” And Malcolm’s teacher confessing that her life is empty and that all she ever comes home to are three cats and Bob … Bob being her showerhead.

The device of having the lead character talking directly to camera to express himself is an often overused and abused gimmick – but it works wonderfully here. The asides are sharp and pithy, and Malcom’s observations are frighteningly accurate. This was brilliantly exhibited by the youngest brother standing in front of the eldest and punching himself whilst making painful sounds. Mother appears, drags the elder one off and the younger one takes his seat and starts to watch TV with a contented smile. Malcolm turns to camera and proudly declares, “I taught him that!” Having been the victim of that ploy many, many years ago it truly resonated with me and was beautifully played.

What this show understands is that childhood represents a constant power struggle – with bigger kids, teachers, parents … and, of course, siblings. Malcolm and his brothers squabble with a ferocity that is rare on TV and is funny just for being so grounded in truth. At the same time, childhood is a constant bid for acceptance by the powers that be. This is the parallel theme of the show as Malcolm longs for acceptance by the “normal” kids – even after his cover of normality is blown.

In the States, this has become the first major post-Simpsons success in a number of years for Fox and it’s easy to understand why America has taken it to its heart. From the opening theme (played by the magnificent but cruelly underrated They Might Be Giants) to the end credits, this is a wonderful half-hour opportunity to view the world through the eyes of a 10-year old kid. With his endearing yet cynical wit, Malcolm navigates his way through the sometimes treacherous, always entertaining waters of childhood. But, as he says, “The best thing about childhood is – at some point it stops.”

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