Malcolm in the Middle has a weird vibe this season, despite the fact that it's actually been pretty good since I wrote that long post about the show's disturbing violent side.
The only violators since then have been a couple of cold opens--in one, Hal accidentally traps himself in a plastic bag while trying to show toddler Jamie why plastic bags are dangerous, leading to the rather nightmarish image of Hal screaming for help with his hands caught behind his back.
In the other, Malcolm and Dewey tie a sleeping Reese's ankle to a rope that's wrapped around everything in the house, with the other end attached to a neighbor's car. We don't see the results, but jokes about dragging someone behind a car (in any semi-realistic context) just remind me of deadly hate crimes. I didn't like when Seinfeld did it, either. Besides which, I know we are meant to imagine cartoon physics, but I couldn't help thinking that doing this would destroy everything in the house and break off the car's bumper before it would ever drag Reese out of the bed.
But the episodes, overall, have been better. A pretty decent episode called "Blackout," told in the Go style with parallel stories and a repeating timeline, was well-executed, but the fans online seem to be overly impressed with its gimmickry.
Larisa Olenik of Alex Mack and 10 Things fame popped up as Reese's former army buddy. Their friendship is threatened when Reese fears sexual tension between them, but she turns out to have a lesbian crush on Lois instead.
This episode, probably due to the lesbian stuff but also possibly related to Reese's offering himself to Olenik wearing only a gift ribbon, earned Malcolm its first "Viewer Discretion Advised" warning.
I also really liked the use of Jessica in a pair of recent episodes. Jessica is a shamelessly manipulative girl with fright-wig hair, and a recurring character who has tended to pop up once a season since season four, until this year, when she suddenly appeared in two episodes in a row. She and Malcolm have a surprisingly effective platonic friend vibe, but with an undercurrent of romantic tension that made me suspect that the writers kept her around to eventually become Malcolm's girlfriend. It seemed as though that was the route the show was about to take, as Jessica finally revealed her feelings for Malcolm, only to later reveal that it was yet another manipulation.
But despite the upturn in quality and the dropoff in creepiness, the episodes still have a different feel. They're somehow less manic, lacking the madcap energy that used to propel the show. Even in bizarre, impressive plotlines like Hal's feud with the only surviving bee of a hive he destroyed, culminating in a spectacular car chase, the show comes off as surreal, but without the delicate cartoonish-yet-realistic tone that characterized the show's best years.
As the characters age and the show grows less innocent, it's harder to accept a lot of the cartoonish silliness--especially when the show purposely weaves in darker or more complex issues. Or it could be that the show is just not quite as funny.
This week's episode featured an uncharacteristically philosophical Malcolm summing up a life lesson as sweet music played--granted, it was played in ironic counterpoint to Reese exacting revenge on a tormentor behind him, but even that sort of winking, parodic riff on the show's own conceits felt strange.
This is not really related to what I'm saying, but here is a Google Video clip of one of last season's high points, from the episode "Hal's Christmas Gift."