Only last year pundits were pronouncing the sitcom on its last legs. After all, "Seinfeld" and "Home Improvement" were gone, and even popular shows like "Frasier" seemed increasingly tired. (How often can you watch Niles pursue Daphne, Frasier avoid Lilith and Eddie act cute?) And the comedy offerings that viewers were left with were wholly unsatisfying ("Veronica’s Closet," "Jesse," "Caroline in the City"). Even more ominously, almost every new sitcom, no matter how ballyhooed or well intentioned, proved first uninspired and second unable to garner the ratings needed to survive ("It’s Like...You Know"). As the fall 1999 season began, some even predicted that the sitcom would be replaced by...ugh...game shows.
But as any TV aficionado knows, it is precisely when a particular type of show is given up for dead that a new example will come rushing on the scene, turning the genre on its ear and breathing some new life into television. The police drama is passé? Bring on "N.Y.P.D. Blue." The hospital drama is tired? Bring on "E.R." The game show is outdated? Bring on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." The sitcom is dead? Bring on...
Malcolm in the Middle (Fox, Sundays, 8:30 p.m. ET), the clever new program on whose narrow little shoulders supposedly rests the future of the sitcom. Quite by surprise, the series, focusing on a precocious boy in the midst of a lovingbut deliriously oddfamily, has won both critical and popular acclaim, landing it solidly among the top 10 shows during its first week.
How are we to account for the success of "Malcolm"? In the best tradition of Jesuit preaching, I will offer three reasons:
1. Malcolm himself. As played by the gifted Frankie Muniz (also starring in a current movie, "My Dog Skip"), Malcolm is a delight to spend time with. As family life whirls crazily around him (brothers gleefully beating one another up, mother screaming at brothers, father lusting after mother), Malcolm turns frequently to the camera to lament his situation and comment on the passing scene. In the hands of a less talented actor, this device could wear quickly, but Mr. Muniz is up to the task and makes the protagonist a winningif sometimes whiningpresence. (His high-pitched, plaintive voice puts one in mind of the old Charlie Brown cartoons, in which the characters’ raspy voices sounded at once childlike and knowing.)
And our hero has much to lament. Despite Malcolm’s status as a "gifted" student, he finds life as a 10-year-old not always easy. Besides his bizarre Simpson-like family, Malcolm worried aloud in the first episode over being transferred into the "gifted" class. Everyone is going to think I’m different, he grumbles. His mother (in an over-the-top role that the actress Jane Kaczmarek tucks into with relish) counsels her son not to worry. No one will think you’re different, she confidently assures him. Quick cut to the classroom the next day: Teacher stands in front of the students with her hands on Malcolm’s shoulders. "Boys and girls, Malcolm is leaving us because he’s different."
2. The writing. Here is a sitcom about family life that dares to show family life in all its live-action messiness. The last show that attempted this was, I think, "Roseanne." But "Malcolm" goes much further. When the three younger boys fight, they really fight, with two of them rolling over and over and on top of one another across the (triumphantly messy) living room floor, as the youngest sibling, Dewey, beats them with an oversized plastic bat. When Malcolm’s mom and dad fight, they really fight. After an insect exterminator forces the family into a Winnebago, tempers flare and the boys are asked to step outsidein order that their parents might settle their differences "in private." Needless to say, their hysterical screaming is even more easily heard outside the trailer’s window. And I laughed out loud watching Malcolm’s mom, in a throwaway scene, grunting and groaning as she futilely tried to cram, stuff and jam dozens of towels into an overflowing linen closet. Ah, life. The characters can often be cartoonish (especially Malcolm’s out-to-lunch dad), but there are many other welcomeand surprisingcharacters. One of the most winning is Malcolm’s new best friend, Stevie, an asthmatic African-American boy in a wheelchair, a clever young man whose disabilities lend him a rounded, realistic feel instead of making him simply an object of pity.
3. The occasional lesson. While the characters are outlandish, and the humor is more often than not of the gross-out variety (you’ve been warned), "Malcolm" introduces us to family members who love one another. The youngest three boys conspire to free their older brother, Francis, from military reform school simply because they miss him. Malcolm’s mom wants him to join the gifted class because she recognizes in Malcolm a real capacity for academic success. And so far, when a moral is presented, it’s done quietly, almost in passing. In a particularly affecting moment, our hero confesses to his mother that he beat up someone younger than he. (In Malcolm’s defense, the kid was a head taller.) When Malcolm laments that he feels lousy, his mother reminds him that sometimes it’s good to feel bad. "That’s called your conscience," she says. "So how long will I feel bad?" asked a confused Malcolm as his mother bandages a bruised knee. "As long as your supposed to," she said. Not bad.
So while you may be a bit turned off by some of the broader "Something About Mary"-style humor (like I said, you’ve been warned), try it on for size. You’ll be in for some creative directing, some terrific acting and some crackerjack writing. And, at the very least, it should convince you that your house is a lot neater than you thought it was.