Monday, November 14, 2005

Problem Child

Malcolm in the Middle continues to stubbornly resist my attempts to write about it. Last spring, in the middle of Malcolm's sixth season, the show was going strong, evolving in satisfying ways while still taking risks. I was so impressed with it that I started entertaining the notion of writing about how good it was. Then the show hit a streak of episodes which were bad in a way I will elaborate on momentarily. Eventually, I wrote the piece anyway, but my heart wasn't in it, and it shows.

So now I was all set to write about what I see going wrong with the show, and the past two weeks have brought episodes which seem to indicate that the show is back on track. It is trying to thwart me again. But despite these happy exceptions, I'm not convinced it's over yet. While Malcolm has always been a show with dark and subversive undertones, which I've always liked, there have been several episodes in the second half of last season, and early this season, which feel like they cross the line from funny into sadistic, gruesome, uncomfortably violent, and mean-spirited.

The best episodes of Malcolm is are the ones that mange to be mean and subversive while somehow feeling innocent and heartwarming. We see this in episodes like “Halloween Approximately” in which the boys attack unsuspecting people with pranks on the week after Halloween, or “Mini-Bike,” in which the boys try to hide the fact that Reese has broken his leg. These episodes are mean and gruesome, respectively, but they are also funny--the real subversion is that you enjoy it anyway. But that balance doesn’t work in recent episodes, which often just feel ugly.

"Ugly" and "mean-spirited" are words I'm about to overuse. Here we go.

The evidence:

Season Six

Ida Loses a Leg

At the time I liked this episode, but in retrospect it feels like a tipping point. It came on the heels of an episode of Arrested Development in which a character loses a limb to surprisingly hilarious effect, and I was impressed by the fact that Malcolm, not to be outdone, had an equally edgy episode in its arsenal. In this episode, the cruel Grandma Ida (Cloris Leachman) saves Dewey from a truck but her own leg gets run over and has to be amputated. While Lois and Francis help Ida adjust to her new prosthetic leg, Dewey feels guilty and wants to give the leg a decent burial. To get the leg, he impersonates a doctor on the phone and has all of the hospital's recently amputated legs sent to the house. He identifies the leg by trying on shoes, Cinderella-style.

Unfortunately, before Dewey can bury the leg, Hal arrives home with a new dog to cheer Dewey up, and the dog takes the leg under the house and eats it. Pretty gross, but ballsy and still pretty funny.

No Motorcycles
Hal must make good on a long-ago promise to take Francis on a motorcycle trip for his 21st birthday, against Lois’ wishes. Meanwhile, Malcolm, Reese, and Dewey are trapped in the house by a bully waiting outside to get payback. This episode didn’t have a particularly morbid premise, but there was an accumulation of distressing elements that bothered me:

- In a flashback, Hal not only promises young Francis that he will take him on a motorcycle trip, he slashes his hand with a dagger to seal his promise in blood.

- Dewey is the first of the brothers to go out and accept his fate and take a beating so he won’t have to worry about it any more. The bully, who is eventually revealed to be taller than their bedroom doorway, beats Dewey as savagely as he will later beat Reese, even though Dewey is a tiny little kid. Dewey returns with a fistful of teeth and optimistically proclaims that he’s got a lot of tooth fairy money coming, yet Dewey, despite being small, is way too old for the tooth fairy and the joke is out of character.

- Hal sees that Dewey’s been beaten but shrugs it off because he’s preoccupied with sneaking off on the motorcycle trip.

- When it’s Malcolm’s turn to be beaten, the bully realizes he had the wrong house entirely. Malcolm thinks he’s escaped a beating, but Reese and Dewey beat him up instead.

- While Hal and Francis are away on their forbidden motorcycle trip, their wives comfort themselves by smashing expensive gifts. This isn’t violent, but it’s mean without being funny.

- Hal and Francis purposely injure each other, hoping to mitigate their wives’ wrath when they return. Hal punches Francis in the face, breaking his nose, then instructs Francis on breaking his finger between the second and third knuckle. Even though Francis is grown, I felt uncomfortable with Hal punching his son in the face.

- The episode culminates in Francis’ birthday dinner, at which every male in the family is badly injured. It’s all just too much for one episode, and it’s mean-spirited and ugly.

Ida’s Dance
Possibly the worst Malcolm episode, by any standard. Huge portions of the episode are taken up with the incredibly dull story of Lois attempting to bake a complicated tart for a made-up eastern European holiday while Ida tediously berates her.

But the worst part is back at home:

- Hal wants to watch scary movies with Reese, but discovers that Reese prefers extremely gory movies bordering on snuff films. Commenting on one movie, Reese says, “I’m glad they stuffed that guy’s skin down his throat. I thought he’d never stop screaming.” For another, Reese excitedly explains that the director was arrested for using real corpses.

- Malcolm, jealous of Dewey’s ability to appreciate music, turns up Dewey’s headphones and accidentally deafens him. Dewey pulls the headphones off and we see his ears are bleeding and he can’t hear anything. This story was incredibly disturbing and bordering on tragic, since season six saw Dewey turning out to be a music prodigy. Granted, it’s unlikely they would make Dewey’s deafness a permanent development, but when Ida lost her leg just a few episodes ago, who knows? They just might go there.

- Dewey retaliates by tricking Malcolm into sitting in front of loudspeakers rigged up to an air horn. To their credit, the writers realized that for Dewey to intentionally deafen Malcolm is irredeemably cruel. So Dewey changes his mind at the last second, but the baby Jamie presses the air horn anyway and Malcolm goes deaf too. The trouble with this story is that the hearing damage can’t be permanent—that’s too sad. But for it to be as temporary as it is here (their hearing comes back in a couple of days with no lasting harm) trivializes the issue—the fact is that either of them could have been permanently deaf from what happened here, and if their hearing did come back, it would take longer and probably still sustain some damage.

- Hal is on edge from watching Reese’s gory movies, but doesn’t want to hurt Reese’s feelings. He tries to hide the TV, but ends up breaking it and falling on his back holding the broken screen right over his face. Broken glass dangles inches from his eyes and his wobbly arm can barely hold the TV up. He calls for help but Malcolm and Dewey are deaf so they don’t notice him. He yells “Save your father’s eyes!” and then we cut to commercial just as the TV seems to lower just far enough to stab him and he screams horribly. When we come back, it turns out he’s fine. But it looked like he might have been stabbed. And who knows, with the leg losing and the bloody eardrums and the episodes ending with everybody injured, you start to think, maybe this episode will end with everybody being either blind or deaf. Maybe that is the joke that they think is funny but is actually just creepy. The visual of Hal trapped under the broken glass of the TV was not funny at all—it was genuinely scary and haunted me for days afterward.

This was the most disturbing episode yet. Granted, a lot of it was that I was reading into it, fearing that the writers were willing to cross lines that they didn’t ultimately cross. But they’d pushed the boundaries so far in the recent past that I didn’t trust them anymore. Compare this to Arrested Development, where Lucille blew Tobias’ eardrum with an airhorn sometime in season two. This was part of a running gag where Tobias ended up in the hospital in every episode, which I didn’t particularly like, but it played funny and didn’t bother me the way the same subject did here.

There’s more, but this post is getting long. I’ll be brief.

Motivational Speaker
Hal, power-tripping as a motivational speaker, forces a man to be part of a human pyramid despite the man’s protests that he has a back problem. Later we hear some uncomfortable back-cracking noises. A crazed Hal also forbids his class from going to the bathroom.

In a battle on stilts (don’t ask), Malcolm attempts to use shopping carts as skates, but the carts roll apart and Malcolm is trapped in a painful splits position.

Malcolm’s adversary is about to finish the job and stomp on him (presumably intending to break his legs by bending them even further) but Reese luckily interrupts the fight before this can happen. This violence actually does befit the sillier, cartoonish tone of the show, but it bothered me in the context of the episodes above: Does every episode now have to involve serious injury?

[Unknown episode]
In a cold open, the brothers are fighting over something trivial like the color of an animal’s tongue. Malcolm reveals they’re fighting because they have nothing better to do. But their fight consists of Malcolm sitting on Reese, repeatedly slamming a kitchen cabinet on Reese’s head as hard as he can. It’s like that scene from Kill Bill; it’s just too brutal to be funny. When kids this old are this savage, it’s dangerous.

Season Seven

Health Insurance
Hal realizes he’s let the family’s health insurance lapse, and immediately we realize someone is going to get seriously injured in this episode. Sure enough, the patio cover collapses on Hal, and Reese tells Hal that his foot is facing the wrong way.

Of course, it’s not enough for Hal to get hurt, we’ve got to watch him suffer through the pain and stand on his injured leg to hide the accident from Lois.

Hal’s leg is repaired by a teenage friend of the boys, who they testify has set Dewey’s broken nose and given Reese a tracheoctomy.

Reese Vs. Stevie
Reese secretly challenges the wheelchair-bound Stevie to a fight.

- Stevie’s dread increases when Malcolm tells him about one of Reese’s recent victims, who spurted blood like a sprinkler. “And when he went down, then Reese really went to work. Did you know he had dental tools?” Dental tools? It’s a throwaway joke, but torturing someone with dental tools is seriously creepy. It goes too far.

- To make it a fair fight, Reese handicaps himself by numbing his legs in ice water. To prove to Malcolm that it’s worked, he stabs his own leg with an ice pick. “The first three times I did that, it hurt like hell.”

Oh, and Stevie eventually shows up in an experimental robo-suit to kick Reese's ass.

The boys learn that their house was actually the site of a grisly multiple-murder/suicide twenty years ago. Of course, it’s not just a murder, but the most gruesome murder you can imagine. Malcolm looks up the facts: “He kept the tongues in a pile over there… that must have been ‘skin wall’… and over here were… ‘finger puppets’? Ohhh…finger puppets. …[and] that’s where they begged for mercy.” Seriously, at least one of the writers for this show has a very sick sense of humor.

Malcolm's dark humor works best when we don’t realize how sick it is. The upfront ickiness of these jokes is wrong. It might work in small doses but after a while it starts to feel like it’s taking over the show. Consider: the nine episodes I’m discussing all fell within a span of just thirteen episodes.

However, the last two episodes have been good and free of the unsettling elements I’m complaining about here. I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while because I knew I had a lot to say. Now that I’ve done it, I realize I was right to put it off. To anyone who made it this far, sorry for the egregious length.

Screenshots from Malcolm in the Middle Voting Community


Sarah said...

Egads. Now I'm glad I gave up on that show.

Zack said...

To anyone who made it this far, sorry for the egregious length.

Apology noted.