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Malcolm in the Middle turns 22: Frankie Muniz’s family sit-com was a laugh-a-thon filled with nostalgia

On Malcolm in the Middle’s 22nd anniversary, here’s a revisit to the popular sitcom and its timeless appeal.

  • Shreya Paul

  • OTTplay

Last Updated: 03.33 PM, Jan 05, 2022

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More than two decades ago Doug Herzog, the then-President of Fox, decided to back Linwood Boomer’s semi-autobiographical story of a dysfunctional American family and its adventures. 

While most others shunned Malcolm in the Middle as a failure (even before it launched) Herzog took the bold decision to aggressively publicise the show months before its release on 9 January, 2000.

Not only did the PR strategies pay good dividends, but the fact that Herzog placed the show smack in between two of Fox’s tentpole projects The Simpsons and The X-Files, did wonders for the debut’s viewership numbers. 

With 23 million tuning in for the show’s premiere, Malcolm in the Middle became an instant hit. But Herzog could have only provided the sitcom with a grand stage, the rest would depend on the show’s merit. And Malcolm in the Middle did more than live up to the hype around it.

Paving the way for other biggies in the genre like Modern Family, The Goldbergs and Parenthood, Malcolm in the Middle had all the elements of a true-blue American fun saga. The show’s appeal was mainly due to its unconventional setup. 

Breaking all the rules of half-hour television comedies of the time, Malcolm in the Middle was conversational, bizarre, and wacky. To bring about this madcap family’s eccentricity to the fore, the crew worked extra hard behind the scenes. 

The show’s dynamic cinematography created an environment where the characters felt they were conversing live in front of you. 

From multiple angular shots to wide-angle sequences; swirl shots to bird’s eye-views – Malcolm in the Middle was a visual treat for its audience. To extract the essence of chaos and mania in the ever-struggling house of Hal (a pre-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston) and Lois (an inimitable Jane Kaczmarek), swift cuts and jaunty camera angles.

The cinematography even included generous slow-motion scenes with the single-camera style of shooting. Since the crew decided to shoot on film, it gave the series a more real, lived-in feel, despite it making the process of filming longer.

Malcolm in the Middle was also not shot before a live audience, and thus the creators could play around with the sets and backgrounds, enabling the narrative to be situated in multiple locations. 

The best example of this is evident in the show’s episode titled Traffic Jam which launches the second season, after it left off in the Water Park episode, season one finale. Both were arguably two of the best nuggets in the series.

Frankie Muniz debuted as the eponymous protagonist, a mischievous pre-teen with an IQ of 165. Malcolm’s seamless brilliance stands in stark contrast to his delinquent eldest brother Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson) and supremely thick-headed elder sibling Reese (Justin Berfield). But oddball Dewey (an adorable Erik Per Sullivan), the youngest of the lot, stands as the only ray of hope for the family, who may follow in Malcolm’s footsteps with regards to intelligence. 

But where Boomer scored brownie points was in his impartial treatment of each character. Brains or otherwise, the four siblings successfully raise hell for their parents. Breaking window panes and car shields, forging school complaint letters, bunking classes, stealing money, incessantly lying, getting bullied, acting as bullies, rampant fighting – everything was part of the itinerary in this household.

Lois’ ‘demonic mother’ trope is aptly played on by Kaczmarek, who is both endearing and deliciously frightening as the proverbial anchor of the family. Cranston’s Hal is way more indulgent, always trying to strike the delicate balance between his bunch of scoundrels and their ever-hyper mother.

Malcolm in the Middle was one of the very first shows to celebrate imperfections. It equated all these characters and judged them on the same pedestal, no matter their intellectual merit of brazen street smarts.

The four brothers forge a bond that is otherworldly in its overtness but is just oh-so-wonderful. Their eccentricities are never an impediment for viewers to invest in these characters and root for each of them. 

While Francis and his notoriety are inspirational for his younger brothers, Reese and Malcolm’s constant bickering only adds another layer of humour to the lot. Even Dewey’s silent acceptance of the constant group bullying is lovably hilarious.

The series was also completely in tandem with the then-pop culture. One of the major ways in which Malcolm in the Middle stood apart was its lack of laugh tracks going off in the background, egging viewers to force a laugh. The makers allowed each scene to patiently create its effect, respecting the audience’s space. With such myriad silences and some effective sound effects, the series sought to become one of the most profit-bearing properties for Fox. 

The show also included tracks from noted artists like ABBA, Kenny Rogers, Queen, Phil Collins, Tears for Fears, and Citizen King whose song Better Days plays at the conclusion of both the pilot episode and the series finale. In fact, the show’s theme song Boss of Me was composed and produced by alternative rock band They Might Be Giants, who also bagged a Grammy for the track.

Malcolm in the Middle was all about family and how it stands as the sole support system even in the face of troubling challenges. Despite their constant tussles, the close-knit unit was fiercely protective of one another, always willing to go up in arms for each member.

Watch the show here


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