We never really get over childhood, which is what keeps psychoanalysts in business, and perhaps helps explain why Malcolm in the Middle, a new TV show about a precociously cynical 10-year-old, was in its second week the most-watched comedy or drama among viewers ages 18 to 49. Fox has duly ordered an additional 16 episodes, taking the series well into the next fall season, while a weekly audience of around 20 million spurred Newsweek to observe, ”Suddenly people are talking about a sitcom revival“ — it’s all I hear anymore — and The New York Times to hazard, ”New Sitcom‘s Early Success May Spawn Host of Imitators.“ There is much to celebrate in Malcolm, from the perfection of its cast and the cleverness of its scripts, to its catchy They Might Be Giants–penned theme and fizzy visual grammar, though the intensity of the press buzz, exceeded recently only by that surrounding The Sopranos, certainly derives in part from the overpowering feeling of gratitude TV critics experience in the face of any show that’s the least bit intelligent or original.
For all its Foxy limit testing and fresh scent of difference, however, Malcolm in the Middle isn‘t exactly new, being in form and spirit a sort of grossed-out, Simpsons-ized variant on such Nickelodeon series as Clarissa Explains It All, the pre-Sabrina digs of Melissa Joan Hart, and the suburban-surrealist The Adventures of Pete and Pete, a whimsico-poetic half-hour that by itself justified the invention of television. (Once again, cable points the way.) All these shows, which uniformly endorse the unconventional, are built around a child-narrator, the least-strange member of a strange family — Malcolm’s first episode commenced notoriously with Mom shaving Dad‘s back, arms and legs, in the kitchen, at breakfast — who steps out of the action to speak to the camera, commenting on the proceedings and waxing more widely philosophical in a way not especially childlike, and yet not unbelievable. (Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield are the major literary antecedents.) The young people of television are, after all, created by grown-ups, who cannot help but project their own youthful aspirations and road-not-taken regrets, as well as their fonder memories and collected wisdom, into the characters they write. Grown-up viewers bring similar baggage, kid viewers are flattered and challenged, and both sides go home happy. (The adult behind Malcolm is creator Linwood Boomer, 43, who played Adam Kendall on Little House on the Prairie before getting mixed up in the ”creative“ side of television.) It’s the same transplantation of mature tsuris into the world and bodies of small fry that made Peanuts so massively popular for so many years among folks big and little alike. That and the dog.
Malcolm, played by talented Frankie Muniz (My Dog Skip), is less Charlie Brown, however, than he is Bart Simpson — though he is as much Lisa Simpson as he is Bart. He‘s both a ”genius“ — a diagnosis that does not sit entirely well with him, since ”around here being smart is exactly like being radioactive“ — and the wary product of his raucous environment. Good-bad but not evil (though occasionally concerned that he might be), he is at the same time preoccupied with normality, or at least anonymity, while being congenitally unable to achieve it. Muniz, whose triangular face and wide-set eyes, screwed frequently into an expression of impatient pique, remind me unfailingly of the kid who played Oscar in Volker Schlondorff’s film of The Tin Drum, has an appropriately atypical mien, though apparently the little girls understand him in the usual way: ”Uh my god i think frankie is a total hottie he is just so hot“ is a representative extract from the show‘s online message board.
At 14, the small-for-his-age Muniz is actually a year older than Justin Berfield, who plays pugnacious older brother Reese; 7-year-old Erik Per Sullivan, who was ”Fuzzy“ in The Cider House Rules, plays confused little brother Dewey. Biggest brother Francis, played by Christopher Kennedy Masterson, has been packed off to military school; his scenes there feel strained and irrelevant. Dad Hal is Bryan Cranston, who played evil dentist Tim Whatley on Seinfeld — a show with which Malcolm shares a derisive appreciation of the grotesque — and the main point of his character is that, for all his fatherly posturing, he’s only slightly more mature than his children. As mother Lois, Jane Kaczmarek exhibits the good sense and brood-protecting ferocity of a Marge Simpson, without any of the repression or doubt (in one show she answers the door topless). Mention need also be made of Catherine Lloyd Burns as an overly earnest teacher, and Craig Lamar Traylor as Malcolm‘s wheelchair-bound, breathless, myopic friend Stevie, who are as funny as everyone else. None are any less real for resembling cartoons.
”I like it that he never has to learn a lesson or anything — he just gets to pound on everyone,“ says Malcolm of a favorite comic-book hero, though Malcolm in the Middle is less morally detached. He is, for instance, distressed when the large, obnoxious kid he beat up at lunch turns out to be only 7 years old, and because his family’s reaction to this is to laugh. (”It was an honest beating mistake,“ says his father. ”Besides,“ adds brother Reese, ”it sends a good message to our enemies.“) In the end, Malcolm learns something about ”conscience.“ Such palliative moments are disappointing, in a way, because they seem not insincere, but expedient, pre-emptive; still, they are not fatal.
”The best thing about childhood,“ says Muniz as Malcolm, ”is at some point it stops.“ No one really gets over childhood, or adolescence, because no one really gets it right. And the only remedy for that, apart from therapy or religious discipline, is to live it again vicariously — which is what children are for, be they your living, breathing own or the invented young of television, movies and books. Meanwhile, for kids who are actually living through childhood and not getting it right, a show like Malcolm offers the satisfying examples of a family bizarre yet highly functional and fortress-secure, and a scrawny outsider hero.
The WB‘s new Brutally Normal — starring Eddie Kaye Thomas (American Pie), Mike Damus (ABC’s Teen Angel, a couple of seasons back) and Lea Moreno as three inseparable friends — offers similar satisfactions. (Tangie Ambrose gets her name in the opening credits, but she has so far served only as an African-American accessory.) As usual, the cast is introduced as ”sophomores,“ which gives the producers a good three years before graduation day. And if you feel that the traffic can‘t bear any more high school series, think of Brutally Normal as just moving into the space vacated by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose fearless vampire killers have gone collegiate, and Zoe . . . (formerly Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane), which has suddenly moved forward three years in time in order to bring its characters closer to the age of the people who play them.
I am more fond of Brutally Normal than I think I have reason to be, but I don’t know why I think that. Like Malcolm in the Middle, it‘s a one-camera show, visually exuberant and aired without a laugh track, thank you, and as in Malcolm its heroes are socially marginal. Where once the literature of teendom extolled football heroes and student-body presidents, the jock and politician in contemporary high school mythology are more often than not the bad guys, the bane of the hero-geek, the cool misfit, the ugly duckling that does not necessarily bloom into a swan but is finally esteemed for its ducklingness — though it remains a law of show business that swans are cast as ugly ducklings, then dressed down. (Alyson Hannigan, Buffy’s Willow, for shining example.) Of course, more of us were geeks than were jocks, series creators Tommy Swerdlow and Michael Goldberg (Cool Runnings) perhaps included, and thus the appeal of series like Brutally Normal and Freaks & Geeks — made more appealing, of course, by the physical grace of the actors who stand in for us. Brutally Normal‘s bunch gets into the usual comical scrapes involving bullies and crushes and money-raising schemes, but the real subject of the show is the dynamics of friendship and the hormonal distentions of adolescence as realized by the careening camera work and by the bodily rhythms of the principals, and the contracting and expanding space and tension between them; it’s the sitcom as modern dance, and an inviting one.