Sunday, October 02, 2005

New TV Season: Malcolm in the Middle

Malcolm in the Middle is back, in its first season without series creator Linwood Boomer as the showrunner. Instead, one of Malcolm’s longtime writers is at the helm of the series, and I don’t remember his name right now.

The show is now in what’s expected to be its last season. Malcolm is now in his senior year of high school and Reese is repeating his senior year of high school after intentionally failing his finals to delay graduation. So after this year it wouldn’t make much sense to continue the series anyway, but there is also the matter of falling ratings and a death-knell Friday night time slot. Well, it was a good run.

The season premiere finds Malcolm and Reese plotting to sneak off and attend Burning Man. They’re quickly caught, but Malcolm does such a good job convincing his parents that Burning Man is about genuine artistic expression that they decide to make it a family outing. Hal calls in a favor and borrows his boss’ prized RV and they drive to the desert.

Malcolm and Reese quickly ditch the family, Lois embraces her artistic side, and Hal makes Dewey his slave in protecting the RV. Reese gets caught up in the spirit of Burning Man, and Malcolm meets a fortyish but hot hippie woman who’s some kind of shaman. They hit it off, and Malcolm sleeps with her. Again I’m amazed at the kind of weird-ass stuff that they get away with on this show. Probably it helps that since they’re no longer a big hit show, they’re pretty much flying under the radar. Not that teenagers sleeping with older women never happens on TV, but this is basically a family show, not Dawson’s Creek.

Naturally Malcolm is psychologically incapable of being happy. The morning after, he is dismissive of the spirtual “rebirthing” ceremony the shaman woman conducts, and she dumps him. But after an encounter with closed-minded Hal, who’s going nuts protecting the RV from the Burning Man freaks—who in turn think uptight Hal is a performance artist satirizing the square suburban dad—Malcolm realizes he needs to open his mind. He goes through the rebirthing, but the hippie woman decides this means he’s too malleable, which is even worse than cynical. Malcolm is left shattered and defeated again.

Meanwhile, Reese has been selected to light the Burning Man to end the festival. But Reese doesn't want it to end, so he refuses to burn the Burning Man, and chucks the torch—setting the precious RV on fire instead. You knew it was going to get destroyed, right? The crowd switches from cheering “Burning Man!” to “Burning Van!”

It’s a pretty fun episode, shining a surprising mainstream spotlight on a countercultural event. And it’s nice to see that the show is still in command of one of the show’s core elements—Malcolm’s indefatigable pessimism and capacity for self-defeat—while still surprising. It’s not clear whether this incident is supposed to represent Malcolm losing his virginity. Malcolm has had girlfriends before, one in particular for a big chunk of season four, but this is the first time sex has been overtly suggested. Either way, it’s awfully weird yet entirely fitting.

Unfortunately, the episode really short-changes Hal. If anyone would embrace Burning Man, you’d think it would be the guy who took time off work to pour paint on his naked body and throw himself at a giant canvas. The guy who broadcasted an underground pirate radio show in college. The guy who is constantly choosing fun, bizarre obsessions over adult responsibilities. For Hal to suddenly turn into the uptight, closed-minded square is totally out-of-character given practically everything we know about him. It’s nice to see Lois have some fun for a change, but it would have made far more sense for her to be the no-fun one here.

Perhaps we’re meant to believe that Hal’s fear of harming his boss’s RV corrupts him and turns him into this straight-laced tool, but it doesn’t work. His clueless, excessively conservative attitude, even in matters unrelated to the RV, just doesn’t ring true for him.

Dewey, too, is wasted as the unhappy one Hal forces into labor. Usually Dewey is an expert at turning situations to his advantage, but not here, and the lazy treatment of his story thread yields few laughs.


Steve said...

I haven't watched Malcolm since... I don't remember which season. It was the one that ended with Francis and his wife leaving Alaska. Has it been good since then? Do they still have the hamster in the ball filled with cheetohs show up every so often? It would have been amusing to see it rolling through Burning Man.

How old is Dewey supposed to be at this point? Is he older than Malcolm was when the show first started? It's always interesting to see how a show handles it when a characters whose main function is to be the little kid grows up. I thought Buffy handled this very poorly, with people still babysitting Dawn when she was 17. The Harry Potter books handled this well, with Ginny taking Harry to task when he tried to treat her like a little kid in the 5th book, and her becoming a love interest in the 6th.

Kenny said...

The show is still quite good, although the first three years (after which you stopped) remain the strongest.

They've done a really good job aging Dewey. With the exception of certain episodes like this one, Dewey is often a highlight. Currently he's a little bit older than Malcolm was at the beginning of the show.

After secretly renting a piano in season four, Dewey has gradually developed into a budding musician. Dewey also had a chance to test into the Krelboyne class that Malcolm was in, but Malcolm claimed that would ruin his life and forced him to throw the test using Reese's answers. But Reese's answers got Dewey placed in the "special" class for emotionally disturbed children (called the Buseys). Dewey's become a leader and an idol for these freakish kids and they don't want Dewey to leave. Episodes with the Buseys have been some of the best in the last year.

Kenny said...

The hamster is gone. That running joke was just within season three.

Occasionally the show still hits a false note and plays Dewey as too young--there was one tooth fairy joke last season that was completely out of keeping with Dewey's maturity level otherwise. But for the most part they've done a good job.

C said...

I'm glad you posted, because I doubted my sanity when Malcom woke up next to the shaman. He suffers the same fate as Alex P. Keaton who sleeps with an older girl because he likes her mind, and then she dumps him.

Also, Hal as performance art was really good.