Sunday, May 14, 2006

So long, farewell: Malcolm in the Middle


Life is unfair. So they say.

When I was in college, I tossed a job that could have made me immense amounts of money (selling textbooks in a well-to-do suburban neighborhood) to work in a summer theatre program for something like $2,000 (it hardly even bought me socks to last the summer).

But, somehow, that summer was some of the most sustained fun of my life (even if my acting credits amounted to 11 lines as a thankless character in The Sound of Music). I made friends there that are friends to this day, and some have become important business contacts.

And the parties! Nothing's more fun than a party where no one has any money!

All of this is a roundabout way of getting to the idea that when I first saw Malcolm in the Middle, I didn't think much of it. It was supposed to make me laugh out loud, but very few things ever do (even then). So when a friend of mine (who admitted he just started watching it because They Might Be Giants wrote the theme song) told me that he thought it was the best-written show on television (I was a Buffy patron at the time), picking up where The Simpsons had started to leave off, I thought he was a little nuts.

But then Malcolm plunged into its second season, which was, for me, one of the more finely sustained comedic seasons of recent years. This was the year with the famed bowling episode, which followed two different paths for the same night, and the episode where we flashed back to the births of all of the boys. Creator Linwood Boomer and his writers found a unique comic universe and expanded it easily, making it seem as though we would have years of fun to come.

And then the wheels went off the cart.

I don't know why the show couldn't ever find a season as good as that second one. It was never a perfect show. It was never the show I most wanted to watch. But when it was on, it was pretty darn funny. And its finest episodes stand easily with the finer episodes of some of the very most classic sitcoms.

I think, ultimately, Malcolm was pitched at a level that just couldn't be sustained. It was, in essence, a live-action cartoon. The humorous cutaways showed the heavy influence of The Simpsons on the scripts' structures. But the characters behaved at the level of cartoons as well. They tended to have a single, set objective (like how Bugs Bunny lived to make mischief, Reese lived to cause trouble), and that objective rarely varied. Because of this, the show never felt real, never felt lived in. It's hard to care about the emotional lives of such cartoon characters, ultimately.

Obviously (as evidenced by the flashback episode), Boomer and the writers were planning to deepen the characters on an emotional level, but Boomer got busy with other things, and that never happened. It's really too bad.

Still, the show was one of the most quietly innovative in the history of television. A growing majority of sitcoms on television are directly influenced by the surrealism and filming style of this show. Starting with Scrubs and continuing on to Arrested Development, the big, hip shows of today have family trees that have their roots in Malcolm in the Middle.

Even in its last episode, weak though it was, Malcolm was good for a few chuckles. It's just too bad that the show never made the fullest usage of its wonderful actors (particularly Frankie Muniz, Jane Kaczmarek and the criminally underused Bryan Cranston).

It's also too bad that the show, because of its slump, will never be remembered as being as influential as it ultimately was. It's STILL the most successful modern single-camera sitcom in the ratings. But its influence hasn't been recognized.

That's what a delayed sophomore slump will do to you.

1 comment:

Moses said...

The worst part about Malcolm in the Middle almost assuredly never getting its credit in helping change the landscape of the sitcom is that it was a genuinely great show for its first two seasons. While Todd claimed that its cartoony aesthetic kept the characters from being that complex, I always thought that Malcolm and Lois were very well-rounded characters.

But maybe that's because I related a bit more to Malcolm than most.