Remembering Malcolm in the Middle
Editors’ Note: This article was originally published on January 8, 2020.
It’s hard to believe two decades have passed since Fox premiered a series that would help shape how Hollywood approached the making of American sitcoms. Malcolm in the Middle premiered on January 9, 2000, on Fox and introduced the world to a then-unknown Frankie Muniz with a supporting cast that included a pre-Walter White Bryan Cranston. Every studio, every producer, and every network was convinced the series would be a flop— everyone but former Fox president Doug Herzog who loved the script so much he took a chance and did everything in his power to ensure its success, including spending a boatload of money on marketing the series for months before the premiere. The aggressive marketing campaign paid off as twenty-three million people tuned in to watch the first episode. Of course, it probably helps that Herzog also decided to debut the new sitcom on Sunday nights sandwiched between the network’s two biggest shows: The Simpsons and The X-Files. Regardless, if it wasn’t for Herzog, arguably one of the greatest sitcoms of this century may have never had a chance to find the audience it deserved.
Doug Herzog may have been the man who greenlit the project but Malcolm in the Middle was the brainchild of Linwood Boomer, formerly an actor on the hit NBC series Little House on the Prairie before moving behind the scenes to work on shows like Night Court and 3rd Rock From the Sun. Boomer never imagined that his semi-autographical family comedy would ever make it onto the screen but after friends and family encouraged him to pursue the project, he wrote the show’s first episode purely on spec, hoping that a network would pick it up. With the help of Regency Television, his script landed it the hands of the right producer and the rest, as they say, is history.
Why Malcolm in the Middle was Revolutionary
It’s no secret why Malcolm in the Middle was such a huge success. The revolutionary series broke just about every rule in the half-hour comedy handbook and went on to create a formula that would pave the way for future sitcoms such as Modern Family, The Goldbergs and Parenthood. Malcolm in the Middle was blessed with innovative direction, superb sound design, and an offbeat visual look with a camera that almost never stops moving from one scene to the next. The series made great use of frequent wide-angle extreme close-up shots and slick, fast-paced editing with hundreds of edits per half hour. A simple dinner scene, for example, could be shot from a bird’s eye view while the camera would swirl around a conversation between two cast members with jaunty camera angles and swift cuts. And Unlike most sitcoms at the time, Malcolm in the Middle was filmed in the now-ubiquitous single-camera style—allowing for more dynamic cinematography which captures spontaneous funny moments.
These sorts of practices were extremely uncommon for traditional American sitcoms which were usually filmed from multiple angles at once and didn’t rely heavily on post-production. Malcolm in the Middle, however, was different— it would use every trick in the book from slow-motion to digital effects to underscore scenes in clever new ways. It was also shot on film instead of digital video— and while this did make it far more expensive and time-consuming to make, it also gave the filmmakers more freedom to play with lighting techniques and far more experimental editing styles. And since there was no need to entertain a live audience, the creators were able to leave the sound studio and film anywhere they pleased. This freedom allowed them to film in unusual places creating some of the best episodes of the series including “Traffic Jam,” the first episode of Season 2 which begins directly after the season one finale “Water Park” ends— and sees the family stuck in a traffic jam in the middle of the desert, while Dewey has a long adventure on the road after his babysitter is rushed to the hospital.
Of course, another reason why Malcolm in the Middle stood apart from other half-hour comedies at the time is that the creators chose not to use a proper laugh track like most sitcoms. This decision not only allows each scene to breathe but it is far more respectful to the audience— allowing viewers to decide when to laugh. Personally, I’ve always found laugh tracks irritating. In my eyes, if the writing on your show is good, the audience doesn’t need to be told when to laugh.
In place of the laugh track, the creators relied on setting the mood instead with sound effects, sometimes silence, and a soundtrack that included tracks by major stars such as ABBA, Kenny Rogers, Queen, Phil Collins, Tears for Fears, and Citizen King whose song “Better Days” is played at the end of both the pilot episode and the series finale. Even the show’s theme song, “Boss of Me“, which was written and recorded by the alternative rock group They Might Be Giants, won a Grammy. It seemed like the creators could do no wrong. In fact, there’s not a single bad episode to be found— at least not in those first four seasons, and some episodes were downright groundbreaking for the time.
Take for example “Bowling,” the twentieth episode of the second season written by Alex Reid and directed by TV veteran Todd Holland of Twin Peaks fame. In my eyes, “Bowling” is one of the five best episodes of the entire series and it’s easy to see why the episode garnered two Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Directing and Writing for a Comedy Series in 2001. The episode’s plot serves as a parody of Sliding Doors, in which we witness two different timelines unfold simultaneously. In one timeline, we see what it’s like when Malcolm and Reese are escorted to a bowling alley by their mother and in the other timeline, we see what it’s like when their father takes them instead. While the playful visual structure is what makes the episode stand out, the stylistic flourishes are complemented by a simple, but a well-written story about how different parenting styles can shape a child’s experience, sometimes in big dramatic ways and sometimes, not changing much at all.
Setting aside the production values and gifted team of filmmakers, it’s the talent of the then relatively unknown actors that gives the show its charm and energy. Frankie Muniz is perfectly cast as the titular character and if the wrong actor was cast in the role, Malcolm in the Middle would have never been a success. Muniz, only 14 at the time of filming season one, brought the right balance of smarts and naivety to his part with his big, expressive eyes and frequent asides to camera. Muniz played Malcolm to be smart enough to narrate his family’s idiosyncrasies on a level that appeals to both adult viewers and kids, and like any kid, Malcolm is needy, insecure and unsure about his life while coping with the horrors of adolescence.
Muniz is often credited for carrying the series on his tiny shoulders, but Christopher Kennedy Masterson (Francis), Justin Berfield (Reese) and Erik Per Sullivan (Dewey) deserve equal credit as Malcolm’s three brothers who play their roles as distinctive overblown but authentic kids who never feel like they’re acting. The chemistry between the four boys is something truly special; their jokes always hit the right notes and the comedic beats are always timed to perfection. Also, impressive is the supporting cast, with hilarious turns by actors like David Anthony Higgins as a Lucky Aide employee madly in love with Lois and Craig Lamar Traylor as the sharp but physically disabled Stevie.
Rounding up the main cast, of course, is Bryan Cranston and Jane Kaczmarek who were finally given a chance to flex their comic skills as Malcolm’s loving parents. Originally intended to have very small roles, the series creators were so impressed with their performances they opted to give them equal screen time to the children— which turned out to be a wise decision since, in retrospect, it is clear that Cranston and Kaczmarek are the true strength of the series and the glue that holds every joke, every gag, and every storyline together. Everybody loves Bryan Cranston for his role in Breaking Bad, but long before he played Walter White, Cranston showed why he’s a gifted comedian and the writers capitalized on his talent by placing Hal in unusual situations such as being covered in bees or befriending a bunch of bodybuilders or showing off his talent as a figure skater in one of my favourtie episodes titled, “Rollerskates”. Then there is Jane Kaczmarek as Lois, who is somewhat revolutionary in her portrayal of a sitcom mom. Kaczmarek plays Lois with complete control, all while rejecting the stereotypical female tropes in sitcoms. It’s funny how some viewers at the time criticized Lois saying she was a bad mother because, in my eyes, she was loving, caring and unquestionably devoted to her protecting her family. Sure Lois is a drill sergeant of a mother and the unequivocal leader of the household but despite often overreacting to her children’s extreme misbehavior, it was always clear she is fiercely proud of her sons. Kaczmarek was so good in the role, her operatic performance earned her seven consecutive Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series —one for every year Malcolm was on the air.
When Malcolm in the Middle premiered, critics were quick to compare it to The Simpsons thanks to its cartoonish sensibility, slapstick humour, wild set pieces, and over-the-top situations that the family of six (and later seven) would get themselves mixed up in. In fact, Malcolm is a bit of a hybrid of Bart and Lisa Simpson. Malcolm, like Bart, is a mischievous 10-year-old kid who is always getting into trouble but like Lisa, Malcolm is also incredibly smart. In the pilot, he discovers he’s a genius— his IQ is 165, and now he’s in an elite class full of gifted kids. Like Lisa, people suddenly treat him differently as he outwits his peers and confuses the adults around him with his own twisted logic. He’s exceptionally gifted but like Bart, he’d rather be skateboarding. While he rattles off the answers to complex mathematical problems without blinking, his mother just wants to know why he can’t remember to brush his teeth. And like Bart, Malcolm spends his days causing trouble, tormenting his siblings and protecting his nerdy friends.
I always loved how Malcolm would regularly turn to the camera, break the fourth wall and confide in the audience while expressing his feelings. The gimmick of breaking the fourth wall has since been used a little too often in mediocre shows but with Malcolm, it always worked— partly because of Freddie Muniz’s performance and mostly because of how it helps the audience understand his point of view. Malcolm is a mouthpiece. He has plenty of opinions and he has plenty to say about life, but he’s also the centerpiece of the entire series and it helps to know what he’s thinking. “The best part about childhood,” Malcolm says in the cold open of the pilot, “is it ends.” That one line of dialogue, which he delivers directly to the camera, sets up his worldview. As the series’ theme song states, “life is unfair” and in Malcolm’s eyes, nothing comes easy. Malcolm knows what it’s like to be young, lost and trying to figure things out but he’s also fully aware of what it’s like being a grownup, desperate for stability and constantly working hard (and sometimes struggling) to support your family. It’s not just childhood that’s rough, adulthood is just as bad.
The Lower-Middle Class Family
Malcolm in the Middle is many things. It’s the story of a child genius. It’s a coming of age story and a comedy about a dysfunctional family who just so happens to be struggling to make ends meet. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Malcolm’s family are poor given that they have a house, a car and can afford to buy their children fancy gadgets like a Nintendo 64— but there are plenty of times throughout the seven seasons in which Lois and Hal have difficult paying the bills. Unlike a lot of family sitcoms, Malcolm in the Middle is much more honest in the way it represents the financial burden that comes with having a family, especially a family with four and later, five kids. In season one, Malcolm gets a babysitting job which provides him relief from the trailer the family uses while their house is being fumigated. Enamored by their hospitality, Malcolm ends up spending more time at the home of the upper-middle-class family who has hired him. At first, Malcolm adores the family, constantly remarking on how better life is when he’s babysitting and not at home, but it doesn’t take long before he learns that the trust placed in him in his new position is strictly limited. I especially love this episode because it shows how much the family cares for one another and gives us an early glimpse into the struggles the Wilkerson family must deal with. Only five episodes into season one and it became quite clear that Wilkersons were not your typical sitcom family.
In any other sitcom, this would be a feel-good rags-to-riches story, with Malcolm growing up and using his intelligence to elevate the family to a better life. Instead, Malcolm in the Middle presents a brutally honest snapshot of a lower working-class family and the sacrifices they make in order to get by. Take for example the episode in which the Wilkerson’s have to cancel a summer holiday to pay for Malcolm’s hospital bills, or better yet, the episode in which Hal loses his job and in a bout of depression tries to pursue his childhood dream of being a painter. In the end, Malcolm’s gift doesn’t bring him and his family out of their financial struggles; in the show’s finale, he is accepted into Harvard but must take a job as the university’s janitor in order to afford the tuition fees. It was storylines like this that made Malcolm in the Middle a success because it created situations that most American families could relate to. And despite a few bad episodes towards the end, the series was able to end on a strong note by perfectly encapsulating the overall message and overarching theme of the entire series in one of its final scenes— a scene in which Malcolm and his family are literally covered in shit and Malcolm is forced to make a tough decision that will shape his entire future. In the end, creator Linwood Boomer finished his series with one of the stronger episodes, as the family — whose name, Wilkerson, was used only once – came together to prove that no matter how bad life got, nothing could tear this family apart.
The Legacy Left Behind
Over seven years, we watched Malcolm and his siblings grow up in front of our eyes and despite the child actors getting older, more introspective, and well, less cute— the show never lost its innocence or charm. Sure, the last three seasons paled in comparison to the first four seasons, but Malcolm in the Middle was still more original and far more ambitious than other sitcoms airing at the time. More importantly, Malcolm in the Middle stands the test of time. Twenty years later, and I found myself binge-watching the entire first season in just two days. I spent the rest of the week cycling through the best episodes of the following six seasons only to appreciate how the show managed to develop every member of the family into three-dimensional characters (well, except for, of course, baby Jamie). Even the side characters such as Grandma Ida were often brilliantly written creations.
Malcolm in the Middle ran for seven seasons and 151 episodes between 2000 and 2006. The series received critical acclaim and was nominated for seven Golden Globes and 33 Emmys. In total, Malcolm in the Middle won seven of those Emmy nominations, one Grammy and a Peabody Award. It was also one of the highest-rated sitcoms of the 2000s, averaging 15 million viewers per episode and over the years, Malcolm in the Middle gained a cult following with its own fan site and even a video game. And now twenty years later, anyone will be able to watch or rewatch the series when it lands on Disney Plus later this year!
- Ricky D