Fox’s madcap family romp Malcolm in the Middle surprised and delighted fans with its intelligent writing and wacky plots back in 2000. On its 20th anniversary, I take a look at the show’s tagline – life is unfair – and why it still resonates today.
Everyone has their favourite Malcolm in the Middle scene. Who can forget Hal’s skating lessons or his speed walking costume? Maybe you’ll remember when he commands the loyalty of an army of bodybuilders in the park, or when Malcolm and Reese force Dewey to drink the refrigerator water tray, causing him to contract a third-world disease. Or that time the boys’ grandpa hides a grenade in their new fridge, the Halloween catapult, or Dewey beating up bullies with a purse concealing a brick.
Whatever you remember the show for, I think we can agree that there’s not been anything quite like it since. Others, like The Middle, have tried to emulate it over the years with its own oddball cast – and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – but you can’t beat the Real Thing.
Celebrating the show’s 20-year-anniversary, Sky One and Channel 4 have re-run each of the seven seasons, and yours truly sat down to faithfully watch all 151 episodes. I have to laugh at the 16+ guidance now awarded to a show that we were quoting as 6-year-olds. Between 2000-2006, it joined the ranks of The Simpsons and Even Stevens as one of my all-time favourite (and not wholly innocuous) childhood shows. “You want to know the best thing about childhood?” a precocious, 13-year-old Malcolm tells the camera in the pilot. “At some point, it stops.” I’d beg to differ. Childhood is underrated.
A teenager with an IQ of 165, Malcolm (then teen-star Frankie Muniz) is a reluctant genius who has to deal with the universal pressures of growing up. He is the middle of five brothers: Francis (Christopher Masterson) – a sharp but rebellious 15-year-old. “I like him the best,” says Malcolm, “so he’s the one they shipped off to military school.” Next is Reese (Justin Berfield), a meathead and bully, and after Malcolm follows Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan), the free-spirited product of zero parental supervision.
Later, they’re joined by baby Jamie, while parents Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) and Hal (a role which shot the one and only Bryan Cranston to fame long before Breaking Bad) are thoroughly overwhelmed by their sons while still maintaining a marriage. Whichever way you look, Malcolm is stuck in the middle of this atypical lower-middle-class American family.
Linwood in the middle
You might describe the show as semi-autobiographical: creator Linwood Boomer, a former actor/producer, was the third of four siblings and was placed in the ‘gifted’ class at school. After starting his career acting, he went on to produce a range of TV shows via his production company Satin City, including a pilot for a US version of Red Dwarf – sadly it didn’t take off. But success came when Boomer and writer Steve Busch (now known for Wipeout, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) created Malcolm in the Middle.
There isn’t a huge amount of writing or analysis on the show, other than a handful of general features that have appeared over the years, which is why it’s been fun to delve into. Boomer was keen not to fall into the pattern of creating a standard 90s sitcom, but one that would veer away from the laugh track and would make more of the moments of uncomfortable silence and genuine laughter without an artificial audience. Instead, he produced something innovative: not a ‘show about nothing’ as many have dubbed Seinfeld nor an affable sitcom about the young and beautiful like Friends. Rather, with Malcolm, Boomer put a slightly unruly set of characters at its centre, switched on a camera, and let them outwit, outsmart and out-connive each other with no shame.
“That’s a good factor of being a child actor: children are fearless,” Muniz reflected on his role. It’s just as well, or we may not have the wild stunts to look back on now that would probably cause alarm today. Joyriding, hijacking a billboard for a feminist rally, building a killer robot with a laser-precision bee canon, fighting a wardrobe full of bats. (How about a nod to the Vanya/Five meme in this car scene?)
It’s not just the show’s interior that stands out, though. Its opening sequence, featuring an unforgettable track from They Might Be Giants, is a culmination of many 90s TV references, which if you look closely can be really fun to decode. A giant turtle from One Million Years BC, Shinri Shiogami from Jikū Tenshō Nasuka, the Kraken from Clash of the Titans, Thrillseekers, Canadian wrestlers Bret Hart and Chris Benoit at the WCW World Heavyweight Championship Match.
Designed by Wunderfilm and based on the Stüssy brand, the Funkyfresh typeface is the product of a photocopied alphabet with rough, bitmappy edges, paired with a theme tune that becomes increasingly heavier and rockier as the series progresses. If the show is off-kilter and features an atypical family, its opening sequence does a great job of conveying that from the outset and it’s instantly recognisable 20 years on.
Life is unfair
The tagline, life is unfair, also hints at more than teenage angst. It’s the show’s central philosophy, writes Matthew Crowley for AV Club, and it’s a claim I can get behind. Life certainly is unfair for the Wilkerson family (the surname is never spoken aloud.) They’re always hard-pressed for cash. They have to contend with prejudiced and wealthier families and friends. They even have such a discipline problem that local police and lawyers know them by name. From the pilot when Malcolm’s teachers measure his IQ and place him in the gifted Krelboyne class, he complains that it’s not fair. “You’re right, it isn’t fair,” says Lois at the dinner table. “This is the first time someone in this family is has been given an edge and you are not going to waste it!”
Though life might be unfair, they stick through it like family. They might be labelled dysfunctional but they’re actually a very high-functioning family who are loyal to each other no matter what life throws at them. Interviews with cast and crew reveal that each character had his or her own personality and each actor got as much out of them as possible. Bryan Cranston is outstanding in his performance of Hal, the absent-minded, cowardly, but good-intentioned father, completely out of his depth with his sons.
Cranston actually directed a number of episodes, and they allegedly took twice as long to shoot because the rest of the cast was laughing so hard. It certainly pays off: Series 7, Episode 9 (Malcolm Defends Reese) is a fantastic example of how slapstick comedy, double entendres, and witty dialogue all come together to create something brilliant.
The show deals with home life and how the boys treat each other and their family. They get into trouble but the show’s motto is that family comes first and they can always look out for each other. In Series 7 Episode 3, we see Reese go to take down Malcolm’s friend Stevie out of jealousy.
Reese: “I’m pissed. You and Steve get to be friends your whole life but once you go away to college and you’re not stuck with us, we’re never gonna see you again. But even so, you’re spending the rest of the time left with Stevie instead of…”
Malcolm: “Do I have to tell you I love you?”
Malcolm in the Middle was filmed during the boys’ teenage years, so Muniz spent the years between 13-20 enacting this character. For him, it was a really formative time for his own growth. Continuing the interview above, he said: “It was something we experienced together. Going through those years – 13 to literally 19 or 20 when the show ended – they’re the most important years of your life. You learn so much about yourself and who you want to be.”
Wilkerson family values
I think what I’ve most enjoyed about the series is its aspirational message despite the very obvious and realistic standards of a lower-middle-class family. Malcolm eventually graduates high school and wins a place at a prestigious Ivy League school, but he’s had to fight to get there, sharing everything he owns five ways, being picked on and taken advantage of for his intelligence: he openly states he does his parents’ tax returns, and when he asks Hal if the family have any savings, he’s told that savings don’t matter – he’s the hope for the family. No pressure! He’s pretty much faced obstacles every step of the way, but really just wants to be a normal kid. Perhaps he’s not destined to go through life easily, like his youngest brothers, but he will be a better person because of it.
Likewise, as a mother, Lois has a lot to contend with, but ultimately she commands respect. Working shifts at the Lucky Aid grocery store (’38 hours a week is still considered part-time’), she is the captain of this crazy ship and the boys (Hal included) have a lot to thank her for. Without her gritty view of the world mixed with her unfailing perseverance and determination, they wouldn’t be half the family they are.
Whether or not they realise it, Hal and Lois instil values of hard work, determination, and perseverance into their boys. While 15–year-old Francis is shipped off to military school in the first series, the rest of the boys have to learn to stand up for themselves or else outwit any bully or overcome any challenge they encounter. Reese and Malcolm get jobs in the final series, but it’s not purely cosmetic: the hours are tough, the tasks mundane and the company intolerable – far from usual sitcom material. So why do it? Because it teaches them that nothing in life comes easily to people like them – they have to earn everything they’ve got.
The other brothers – Francis, Reese, and Dewey – each have an important part to play when it comes to challenging their disciplinarian mother and absent-minded father. The reason Francis was sent to military school was because of his repeated rebellious acts: a montage in the pilot shows him at the door arrested by police, bringing home a girl without his parents’ knowledge, and setting fire to a car. By the fourth and fifth series, he’s channeled his destructive urges into excellent leadership skills and manages a ranch in Canada (though it’s somewhat curtailed by the end of series 7, which is a shame on the writers’ part.)
Reese, meanwhile, has a lot of growing up to do from the fourth season onwards. He butts heads with his academically-inclined brothers and even has to do a bit of soul searching to ask himself why he’s so irresponsible. Towards the end of series 5 and into 6, he even joins the army briefly, but he’s not the same person when he returns. Of every character, he was perhaps the most developed and well-rounded of the brothers.
And finally, Dewey. I think he’s the real star of the show. My favourite elements of his character are the occasional POV shots from his perspective – a character speaks to him from the TV, a newsreader from his point of view drones on about how ‘boring, boring, incredibly boring’ he is. While Dewey was always a bit of an enigma, going on mad adventures while his family was preoccupied with their own lives, he turns out to be a musician, as gifted as Malcolm, and a leader within his class.
They’re all distinct individuals, but together they make up a family. Malcolm might fantasize about joining another family for whom he babysits, and Dewey might photobomb another family’s photoshoot at the department store. But at the end of the day, label them neurotic, wild, reckless, destructive, the family knows how to stick together.
Representation and disability
The sitcom also did something unique with representation. While Malcolm’s best friend, Stevie Kenarban, is a person of colour who uses a wheelchair, he’s never sidelined. He’s often Malcolm’s voice of reason and despite the laboured cadence of his breathing, he makes the sharpest observations and wisecracks. “With my intelligence and tokenism,” he jokes, “the sky’s the limit!”
Looking back now, not everything is perfect with the show. Viewers are frequently warned by Channel 4’s editorial team that portrayals of disability are outdated and possibly offensive: Dewey’s class of special education needs pupils is an example, and though Stevie self-consciously jokes about being in a wheelchair, it’s not a topic that could be so easily made light of in TV today. (Though you could give credit to recent shows such as Modern Family for bringing in more representation and a varied family dynamic.)
The show feels ‘of its time’, but for all that, I do think it remains watchable. Critics have possibly shied away from commentary because disability and marginalisation are thorny issues, but I think a show that introduced non-mainstream characters and treated them as equals with the main characters is a show worth watching that has a lot of value for kids.
Honours and accolades
Malcolm in the Middle won the 2000 Peabody Award for Comedy, and in his acceptance speech, Boomer responds with characteristic sardonic humour: “When I think of unrivaled excellence in broadcasting, I, like all of you, immediately think of network sitcoms.” Other award nods include Jane Kaczmarek’s seven Golden Globe nominations for her performance as Lois – one for every season of the show – though she never came out tops (she’s criminally underrated.)
Malcolm in the Middle offers something different: kids who speak the way they think, not in a way that’s been artificially scripted by its writers. Boomer and his team have created three-dimensional characters who feel like a real family. They argue, fight, and scrabble: they spontaneously erupt into huge escapades. They may want to murder each other but they’re loyal to each other no matter what.
In the show’s finale, Lois finally reveals her ambitions for Malcolm. And though he achieves his monumental dream of getting accepted into college, Lois’s ambitions for her son aren’t just success, fame, or wealth. It’s to be a good person who looks out for others. Check out her final speech:
“You know what it’s like to be poor and you know what it’s like to work hard. Now you’re going to learn what it’s like to sweep floors and bust your ass and accomplish twice as much as all the kids around you. And it won’t mean anything because they will still look down on you, and you will want so much for them to like you, and they just won’t. And it’ll break your heart. And that will make your heart bigger and open your eyes and finally, you will realise that there’s more to life than proving you’re the smartest person in the world.”
There’s a definite difference between this show and others of the period: while they’re all aspirational, Malcolm shows the daily grind and the realities of a family (if not a slightly mad one.) Malcolm in the Middle may have been just a TV show, but its characters felt – and still feel – like a real family.
There’s so much about this show I love and admire, and if I had time and space I’d go into depth about each character, the growth they experience in each series, and I could even dedicate a whole piece to the utter brilliance of Hal’s misadventures. Alas, all good things come to an end. Suffice to say that Malcolm in the Middle is a show that’s had a lasting impact on me and, I’m sure, many other 90s babies. We were fortunate enough to grow up with characters who felt like family.
Malcolm in the Middle is currently streaming on All 4 in the UK and on Amazon Prime internationally.