Monday, May 15, 2006

Malcolm At The Finish Line

Malcolm in the Middle aired its final episode last night. Despite being generally uneven and sometimes underwhelming, Malcolm’s last season has produced some worthwhile episodes, and the finale, despite some quibbles, made for a satisfying farewell.

Malcolm, sadly, is one of those shows that most people pretty much forgot was still on the air. Partially it’s due to Fox’s time-slot shuffling, which bumped Malcolm to an often-pre-empted 7:00 Sunday spot, then a death-knell Friday spot. The other factor was that once Frankie Muniz grew out of his cuteness and past his prime, people instinctively felt the show was past its prime too. While it's true that the first three years were the best, the show stayed great until about halfway through last season (its sixth) and since then has held steady at pretty good.

Malcolm in the Middle has really been two shows. The first was seasons 1 to 3, when the show was centered on Malcolm in middle school, dealing with being a genius in the ostracized Krelboyne class. In season 4, Malcolm entered high school, the Krelboynes effectively disappeared, and Frankie Muniz went from cute kid to gawky teenager. The show shifted to much more of an ensemble emphasis, and Malcolm as a character developed a chip on his shoulder and turned into an obliviously unpleasant person. I don’t think the show went on too long, though—once it crossed into season 4, it carried an implicit promise to last through Malcolm’s high school graduation, and now it has, even if much of the last season has felt a little like senioritis.

The last season of any show often starts to feel perfunctory, like going through the motions. When, as viewers, we’re aware a show is in its last season, we expect more. When Malcolm spends not one but two episodes lying in bed (one, because he catches mono from Lois, the other because he and Dewey bring home a comfortable new mattress after it literally falls out of the sky), the wasted opportunity feels more egregious because there are so few episodes left. I felt the same way during Seinfeld’s last season. In the last season, you start wanting to see growth, change, a build toward the finale. Certain shows, like Friends and Will & Grace, do this, but too much makes the show sappy. More often than not, shows continue producing the usual stand-alone episodes right up to the end, leaving one episode for everything to completely change.

Given the character growth that’s subtly developed over the course of the series, I would have like to see the last season finally chart Malcolm’s growth into a more well-adjusted person. That didn’t really happen. The episode “Stevie in the Hospital,” in which Malcolm was uncomfortable visiting Stevie after an operation, was a well-done examination of Malcolm’s friendship with Stevie and how they have an unspoken agreement to ignore Stevie’s handicaps and health issues. But it could have been so much more—a health crisis for Stevie could have been a major catalyst for Malcolm to re-examine his life and grow out of his self-absorption. The prom episode, “Morp,” finds Malcolm as his same old self—successfully organizing an anti-prom for the school’s freaks and geeks, but unable to enjoy it unless he can rub it in the popular kids’ faces.

So, the finale, “Graduation.” Spoilers follow.

Malcolm struggles to write his valedictorian speech, while Hal frets over how he will pay the remaining $8,000 in Malcolm’s Harvard tuition not covered by scholarships, grants or Malcolm’s part-time work. Hal even goes to a loan shark and tries to make a deal—he won’t pay back the money, but the loan shark can go straight to the leg-breaking. Hal backs out when the loan shark points out he could just break Hal’s legs without lending him the money.

Meanwhile, Reese, loving his new job as the high school’s assistant janitor, hopes to make the position permanent by creating a mess so big, they’ll have no choice but to keep him on. He fills a huge drum with the most disgusting substances possible and schemes with Grandma Ida to sneak it into the school, but of course, it explodes prematurely inside the family minivan.

A friend of Stevie’s father is a successful software mogul. He sees potential in Malcolm and Stevie's work and offers them both six-figure jobs straight out of high school. But before Malcolm can answer, Lois turns the offer down. Malcolm is furious, and Lois reveals her plans for Malcolm: He will go to Harvard, then go into public service and politics, and eventually become the first President of the United States to care about “people like us.” He has to do things the hard way, or he won’t grow up to be a good President.

Francis and Piama return for the graduation ceremony. Francis continues fighting with Lois over his future prospects, but Hal discovers that Francis secretly already has a job at a big corporation and loves it. Even so, Francis refuses to tell Lois because it would give her too much satisfaction.

As Malcolm delivers his valedictorian speech, he seems to have accepted Lois’ message—and his family.

Three months later, we find that Dewey has assumed his role as big brother to Jamie and lead household troublemaker. Francis is still working and still fighting with Lois. Reese has gotten the janitor job and moved in with Craig, who relishes the friendship and enjoys Reese’s cooking. Lois and Hal are celebrating that two more boys have left the nest—until they discover that Lois is pregnant again. Malcolm is mopping the floors between classes at Harvard, but is okay with it. It’s nice. The flash-forward makes for a very satisfying ending.

Questions remain, like, how did Francis manage to get a white-collar job when he’s essentially a high-school dropout? But most of all, how can Lois expect Malcolm to be President?

Putting aside the fact that Malcolm is too short to be elected, the show has never shown us that Malcolm would be a good president. Sure, he’s a genius—but mostly in math and science. He would probably find a way to do good for society in those fields. But President? Malcolm is selfish, petty, spiteful, impulsive, and shows poor judgment in practically every situation. Not only that, he’s unpopular—not just because he’s a geek, but because he’s terrible at relating to other people. That the opening lines of his valedictory speech are received well are the only hint that he could pull it off, but that’s not really enough. If we’d seen more growth this season, maybe we could buy that this Presidential ambition is a good idea, but at best, the finale suggests that most of Malcolm’s growth is yet to come.

Maybe one last address to the camera at the end would have helped. In any case, I was surprised Malcolm didn't talk to us one last time.

Perhaps it’s asking too much that the run of a series satisfy on the level of a unified work. Perhaps with a limited series like The Office or anime you can find it, but over seven years it’s tough. Still, Malcolm comes close.


lyan! said...

You really like that show.

I liked it, but never enough to go, "oh, damn, what time is it? It's Malcom-time!"

or something.

lydia said...

The "Rollerskates" episode will live on forever in my heart.

Simon said...

I hadn't watched the show for the past 3 years but I was glad to get a chance to see the finale.

Malcolm was one of those special shows only Fox ever seems to make that has a certain special subversive tone. Unfortunately Fox is run by whores and rather than cancel something they know is still good, they just bury it in that god-awful Sunday at 7 PM spot. I don't think other networks even pretend to run original programming at that time, but the Sunday at 7 slot is a firm entry in the Fox line-up. It apparently means that you're a good show but some executive somewhere hates you.

I thought the Lois wanting Malcolm to be president thing came on a little forced. It was an okay idea, but I agree, it needed more build-up. I was happy with everyone being covered with shit. I'm glad the show didn't go on any longer because it'd be painful to watch the once adorable Dewie go through puberty.

I'm glad that the show never gave up on its craziness. Hal as a character has had some of the best and most endearingly goofy moments of any TV character ever. The adorable touches like the rolling hamster ball in the first few years really won me over. I guess I'm just rambling now, but I thought it was a pretty special show. Not one of the greatest ever, not something I'd necessarily want to watch reruns of over and over, but in a time when television was particularly stale, it always set itself apart as unique and quirky.