Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Middle Kingdom

Note: Here is a piece about Malcolm in the Middle that I wrote a couple of months ago to submit to Salon (UPDATE: Now minus the first two boring paragraphs telling you what the show is about). They didn't use it, which is fine, since I'm not terribly happy with it myself. Trying to be unequivocally supportive, not to mention concise, forced me to gloss over some of the problems I've been having with the show lately, which I'll explore in another post soon. But what I wrote here still stands, although it's more applicable to the series as a whole than this season's episodes (with the exception of "Burning Man").

It’s easy to dismiss Malcolm in the Middle as a tame family show, just because it spawned the star of Agent Cody Banks. Yet beneath its cartoonishness, Malcolm is surprisingly bold and edgy. Even its tender moments are goosed with subversive twists, creating genuine emotional payoffs without setting foot near Full House territory. Its consistently ambitious and inventive set pieces and sight gags are second to none, not even single-camera descendants Scrubs and Arrested Development. Over the show’s six seasons, the characters have not only aged but grown. Malcolm, Reese, Dewey and Francis are all different people than they were six years ago, and their changes feel organic and totally believable. Malcolm is also daring enough to break out of its insular sitcom reality. Last year’s season-ending cliffhanger found Hal framed for embezzling from his Enron-like employer as Reese joined the army and shipped out to Afghanistan. As if that weren’t enough, the show has even added a baby to the family without aging it five years between seasons (see Growing Pains) or completely forgetting it exists (see Friends).

But even if you put all that aside, Malcolm in the Middle is a great show, and here’s why: No other show has the balls to purposely and unapologetically turn its lead character into such a complete jerk (at least, no show not created by Larry David)*. For all its broad laughs, Malcolm in the Middle is, at heart, about a bleak, tortured adolescence.

That’s right: The show is brilliant because Malcolm is unpleasant and miserable.

Even in its first season, Malcolm in the Middle was never really about a boy genius. It was about a very insecure boy who was horrified to learn that he was a genius. It branded him as freakish and nerdy, part of the class of gifted pariahs called “Krelboynes,” when all he wanted was to fit in. Meanwhile, Malcolm's awareness of his intelligence only heightened his neurotic self-consciousness, turning him into a bitter, defensive know-it-all.

By the fourth season, Frankie Muniz had transformed from a cute, likable kid into an awkward, gangly teen. The complaints and wisecracks that seemed so cute and funny coming from the pre-pubescent Muniz were now delivered in an oddly deep voice that made Malcolm sound as whiny and obnoxious as an actual teenager.

The show had by this time evolved into an ensemble piece, spreading its stories equally among the cast, which helped to offset the problem of Malcolm’s waning appeal. But downplaying Malcolm had another benefit: it left the writers free to honestly explore the worst impulses of the character. And it works because they don’t ask us to like him.

As Malcolm entered high school, darker undercurrents emerged. Malcolm’s complaining turned out to be a major character flaw. In the episode “Malcolm Holds His Tongue,” Malcolm suppresses his urge to nitpick, correct, complain and crack wise—but it only bottles up his hostility and gives him an ulcer. Malcolm may be a genius, but he’s his own worst enemy. Admittedly, if Malcolm had continued to anchor every episode, this approach could have been disastrous. But as one member of an ensemble, Malcolm is not only tolerable but also funny.

One painfully direct moment comes in last season’s episode, “Chad’s Sleepover,” in which Malcolm and Reese learn they are so unpopular that no one told them about the school’s unofficial Ditch Day. Despondent and contemplative, Malcolm and Reese manage to pinpoint their problems perfectly: Malcolm bullies people intellectually and Reese bullies them physically, because both are afraid of not being liked. But the moment of clarity is exactly that—a moment. The brothers quickly retreat into comfortable, counterproductive denial, devising a childish and inappropriate prank on their schoolmates that only cements their unpopularity.

One of the show’s greatest pleasures has been watching Dewey evolve. Even as he’s gotten older and his lines have increased, Dewey still operates according to his own unpredictable system of logic. In the fifth season, Malcolm attempts to save Dewey from the fate that ruined his own life—the Krelboyne class—but ends up getting Dewey put in a special needs class instead. Surrounded by emotionally disturbed children, Dewey uses his leadership and guidance to inspire the misfits around him. Thus Dewey serves as a perfect counterpoint to Malcolm—Whereas Malcolm took an opportunity and made the worst of it, Dewey has taken a setback and made the best of it.

The new season will take us all the way to Malcolm’s high school graduation. Time will tell whether Malcolm will turn his life around or whether he will continue to be a model of how not to live. Now it’s up to the writers to craft a satisfying finale that doesn’t cheapen the show’s hard-edged worldview.

*Now that I think about it, The Office does, too. I'm really starting to like these footnotes.

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