Malcolm in the Middle

Sunday, September 16, 2001 by

After a long wait, the second family of American dysfunctionalism finally returned to our screens, albeit on Sky One. Whilst comparisons to Homer, Marge and their brood are inevitable only in the minds of lazy slag writers, the hearts of viewers have long regarded Malcolm in the Middle as something considerably more than a live action version of The Simpsons. Fundamentally underlining the fact that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – as all truly great television shows do – MITM continues to set a standard which similar British shows fail miserably to come even remotely close to.

Given that this is a Fox show, and considering that the Fox canon also includes Married With Children and the aforementioned The Simpsons, you could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Rupert Murdoch must have had a miserable childhood with this continual televisual assault on the nuclear family. The archetypal image of the close-knit loving family is almost embedded in the collective national psyche of the average American thanks to shows such as Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet yet now it’s the antics of Bart and Dewey that hold audiences rapt; the white picket fence is no longer being painted – it’s been torn down for firewood and the plume of non-conformist smoke is ruining Mrs Cleavers’ washing.

And so, picking up precisely where they left off, the Wilkersons ambled back onto our television sets and spent their time as we expected them to; scheming, plotting, whining, misbehaving and generally being boorish. Just like most normal families in fact. That’s the basic core of the show – the frayed, fraying and tattered relationship dynamics that exist between family members. This is a family where brothers try and inflict real pain on each other with unbridled glee and the parents try to maintain control by using a combination of mind control and physical punishment. It’s just the normal, everyday guerilla warfare of family life – and that’s why we so readily and easily identify with the Wilkersons.

This opening episode saw the family stuck in a traffic jam. However, despite being stationary we had Hal having an existential crisis, Lois – the ultimate control freak – losing control, Malcolm falling for a girl and Reece engaged in a battle of wills with a recalcitrant ice cream vendor. Oh and back at the ranch, Dewey continued his surreal road journey and Francis, still ensconced at Military School, engaged in a candy eating scenario that would have made Cool Hand Luke wince. This was a joyous 25 or so minutes of top-notch entertainment, a welcome continuation of the run of form with which season one closed, and augurs well for the extended season ahead.

With nine Emmy nominations, it’s clear that there is more to MITM than a handful of good actors and a decent script. Every role is played to near perfection by the cast. Whether it’s the man-child of a father, the control freak mother or the bullying, thick as pigshit elder brother, the performances are beautifully weighted and judged. The comedic timing of all is a joy to behold. Even the children display a superior and effortless ability to time it just right.

For too long we have endured a sickening procession of shiny haired, unfeasibly photogenic and unbearably precocious child actors from America. Thankfully, none of these caricatures inhabit Malcolm’s world.

But it’s the script that seals it. The subtle nuances of family life are lovingly captured by the writers and are held up like a mirror for us all to see. The ultimate pleasure of this atavistic, anomalous lunacy is that it is so firmly and deeply rooted in real life. There is an inherent element of realism that exists within the show that is rarely seen in other programmes. It is almost a living, breathing beast that permeates every aspect of Malcolm in the Middle and brings a wonderfully raucous sense of joie de vivre to the proceedings.

Families are, by their very nature, a constant struggle for recognition within the hierarchical structure. Families are a group of people who, sometimes, if they weren’t related, probably wouldn’t have anything to do with each other. Families are, by turns, war zones and safe havens. This is captured brilliantly by the writers and portrayed equally so by the cast. This is art imitating life imitating art. And a magnificent reproduction it is.

We all remember George Bush Senior publicly demanding that he wished a lot more American families resembled The Waltons rather than The Simpsons. The irony of this pronouncement was that America had long been trying to live up to the idyll of TV family life and, in roots of the failure to do so, the seeds had been sown for shows such as MITM, Married With Children et al. This is why the Wilkersons, the Connors, the Bundys and the Simpsons work so well and are so beloved – when the mirror is held up, we see ourselves as we know ourselves to be. Truth is stranger and – more importantly – funnier, than fiction.


Comments are closed.