Stuck in the Middle

What me worry? Frankie Muniz as Malcolm

Many of the rapturous early reviews for Malcolm in the Middle have labeled the show's family "dysfunctional." If anything, though, this happy group is all too functional--like the 20 million or so other nuclear families still out there in the nation that have yet to yield to divorce or gun violence. What the reviewers perhaps mean is this: Malcolm's frightfully cluttered household is by far the messiest ever to appear on television outside the junk-house warrens of cable access.

Identifying dysfunction, however, is the first critical step toward lionization: How many raves have you read lately for 7th Heaven? And, in some sense, Malcolm in the Middle (WFTC, Channel 29; 7:30 p.m. Sundays) deserves such praise. When compared with much of what else lurks out there, Malcolm can be whimsical, quirky, and original in ways that comedies on other networks rarely imagine. Malcolm sketches a recognizable struggle for supremacy between parents and children with humanity and perception. Rather than offering the one-directional mockery--kids of parents--that we are spoon-fed elsewhere, this family is contentious but loving, waging a genial but dead-serious war for dominance. Add another element to the list of Fox Cognitive Dissonances: Both the most lurid network and the most adult, it titillates with explosions and nudity one night and depicts the state of being married with children realistically the next.

At the same time, this program hardly redefines the televised medium for the new millennium. In fact, many of Malcolm's admirable traits barely inch beyond what we've seen before. While the show traffics in some very contemporary sexual disgust (Mom shaves Dad's back while he's nude, which repulses his sons) and finds the humor value in corporal punishment (a staple of black standup comedy for decades), this could be one of those new suburban families that crowded sociological studies and humor in the 1950s. Mom is a harpy, Dad a fuddled dreamer, the four sons various gradations of appealing. (Indeed, Jane Kaczmarek, who plays Mom here, also mothered the kids in Pleasantville--a bit too meta- a family resemblance for me.) Hoary sitcom traditions all, and despite its Fox-y edginess (it's rated TV-L for language), Malcolm doesn't significantly tweak any of these tropes.

Malcolm, the central persona, is a preternaturally wise 11-year-old--which may somewhat recall that Eighties cliché, the preternaturally wise teenager, who infested every single TV family. (Jason Bateman, where art thou?) As in many other sitcoms, role reversal drives much of the humor. Mom, with her rubber-faced expressions of wrath and her Klaxon howl, is really the ultimate big brother, happiest when guilt-tripping or tormenting her boys into submission. Whereas Dad tends to wander off into small-boy mischief when left unsupervised: On a recent episode he became wild-eyed while building a killer robot armed with laser-guided bees. Malcolm's actual brothers, teenage Francis (Christopher Masterson), who has been shipped off to military school to keep him away from his girlfriend, ape-in-training big bro Reese (Justin Berfield), and jug-eared tyke Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan), offer useful narrative differentiation and even engage in a recognizable facsimile of the mutually irritating teasing and marginal aggression that passes for male affection in the preteen years. Which is to say, they're credible siblings by televised standards.

But the show rises and falls on the slight shoulders of 14-year-old, four-foot-eleven Frankie Muniz, who specializes in thoughtful but grounded kids. He's the kind of actor quasi-manly writers like Shelby Foote or Charles Frazier would select to play themselves as boys--sweet but not smarmy, warm without being cloying, fresh-faced but not unbearably cute. Often cutting the other actors out to speak directly to the camera, Muniz serves ably as narrator, family moral center, and source of viewer identification. As yet he has pulled off this difficult balancing act, maintaining a plausible resemblance to childhood while being asked to mouth overmany quips from adult scriptwriters.

Though he remains appealingly unaffected, Muniz is liable to incur Hallie Eisenberg-style winsome overload if he doesn't watch out: Currently appearing as young Willie Morris in My Dog Skip, Muniz is also slated to appear in the gangster film Deuces Wild and star in a Disney TV special, Miracle in Lane 2. (Apparently Harry Potter will remain British, so no spell-casting for him.) For anyone who has managed to evade her, Hallie Eisenberg is the annoying curly-haired twit who has channeled Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin and is currently chucking Einstein upside the head for failing to solve the Pepsi challenge. (So ravenous is this Shirley Temple for the age of global marketing that she can swallow any history on the planet--of the cosmos, even--without a burp.) At present, however, Muniz avoids the mugging that seems to take over whenever child stars start spending more time with their publicists than their parents.

Like John Cusack in High Fidelity, another well-meaning schmo who looks us in the eye, Malcolm embodies regularity under duress--and as such, seduces us into accepting all sorts of self-delusions we really should see through. Parents here are grotesque, teachers dolts, neighbors buffoons, girls more or less icky: It's an uncritically endorsed preteen boy's vision of the universe. Where it should undercut that worldview, though, Malcolm instead has it both ways. Despite allegedly being a nerd (his parents discover in the first episode that his IQ is 165), Malcolm, we're given to understand, really isn't one. He disdains his classmates, misfits and weirdos all, save for friend Stevie, whose Oprah-age collection of symptoms (asthmatic and paraplegic?) makes him more charity case than real friend.

Clearly, the lesson of the painfully awkward--and, ergo, prematurely canceled--Freaks and Geeks was that nobody actually wants to experience ninth grade again. In comparison, Malcolm is fundamentally adolescent in its power fantasies. Both the most childlike and the most adult figure here, Malcolm strikes an impossible equilibrium that is going to wreck this show if it's held too long. Why not let him attain full geekiness and see if he can still maintain rapport with the audience? The real problem of Malcolm right now, in sum, may be that it tends too avidly toward the middle.

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