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Film

Why 'Malcolm in the Middle' was a seminal comedy

Malcolm in the Middle is the definitive sitcom of the 2000s. Created by Linwood Boomer for Fox, it premiered on January 9th 2000 and concluded after seven seasons and 151 episodes on May 14th, 2006. By the time it had finished, the show had changed the world of sitcoms forever — and for the better. 

A riotous take on modern family life, the series follows the dysfunctional lower-middle-class family, the Wilkersons. Frankie Muniz starred in the lead role as Malcolm, an adolescent with a genius IQ. Different to all the other intelligent kids in school, Muniz hates having to take the special lessons for the ‘gifted children’, who are relentlessly hounded by their fellow students. 

Labelled ‘Krelboynes’ by their peers, a reference to the nerdy protagonist Seymour Krelboyne from Little Shop of Horrors, this first introduction to Malcolm in the Middle is a fascinating one. The one scene that always springs to mind involving Malcolm is the moment that he bursts the ‘Bounce House’, causing utter pandemonium. I’d go as far as to say that the close up of his face in mid-air is nothing short of iconic. 

Although the show centred on Malcolm, and his name gives the show its title, the sitcom is not all about him. His mother, Lois, played by Jane Kaczmarek, is an angry and stubborn role, driven insane by her five sons and their manic father, Hal, who is played by Bryan Cranston — the first taste of his talent.

Cranston and Kaczmarek work brilliantly together, and you’d be forgiven for thinking they were married in real life, as the mess of emotions that their wild relationship brings are almost tangible. In many ways, Hal set the scene for other iconic onscreen dads such as Jim in Friday Night Dinner, and Phil Dunphy in Modern Family

The eldest of the brothers is Francis, played by Christopher Kennedy Masterson. A troublemaker in the early series’, we rarely see Francis in the family home, and he briefly joins military school before leaving to join a logging camp in Alaska. Eventually, he becomes the mature foil to his younger brothers after marrying and settling down, and his personal ark is one of the most memorable in modern comedy. 

Justin Berfield shines as the second brother, Reese, a classic American bully, who is cruel to everyone he comes across. He defends Malcolm at school to save face, but at home subjects his younger brother to some horrific treatment. A real dynamo, one of his best moments comes in season three when he blackmails their neighbour Ed after discovering he’s been cheating on his wife. Even the thought of being blackmailed by a runty, gel-haired teenager is hilarious, and this episode does not disappoint. Reese is one of the most iconic characters in the series, and for a good reason.

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Then we have the youngest of the four brothers, Dewey, who is the most well-rounded of the family. We watch his development across the series into a smart, musically talented and caring individual who gets constantly overlooked by the family. He becomes a more prominent character as the series progress and by the end overshadows Malcolm as the fan favourite. There’s also the fifth brother, Jamie, but he rarely appears. 

Another iconic facet of the show is its anthemic theme song, ‘Boss of Me’, by alt-rock heroes They Might Be Giants. It was such a success that it won ‘Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media’ at the 2002 Grammys, cementing the song and show in pop culture history. In fact, They Might Be Giants are also inextricably linked to Malcolm in the Middle given that they wrote the majority of the incidental music for the first two seasons. 

Music comprises a significant part of the series, and instead of audience laughter, which even by that point in time was overdone, the showrunners opted to use mood-setting music, a much more progressive and interesting stylistic choice, making it resemble a feature film at points. The sheer volume of classic acts Malcolm in the Middle utilised is mind-blowing, using music by everyone from ABBA to Basement Jaxx, Sum 41, Tears for Fears and Claude Debussy. 

Memorably, Citizen King’s ‘Better Days’ is played at the end of the pilot and the finale, giving the series a level of continuity that shows likes Friends could only have dreamt of having. The use of the hit captured the essence of the turn of the millennium perfectly and the sentiment of the show. Whenever you listen to it now, the song still delivers a hefty dose of nostalgia. 

Stylistically, Malcolm in the Middle is a significantly influential sitcom. It wasn’t filmed before a live studio audience and nor did it feature canned laughter, and this, added to its single-camera filming style, set a precedent for many hit comedies of the 21st century. These include The Office (US), Everybody Hates ChrisCommunity30 Rock and Arrested Development. You see even see the influence of Malcolm in the Middle on more niche programmes such as People Just Do Nothing and This Country

A hugely iconic series, I think it’s high time that Malcolm in the Middle returned for at least a one-off special. It changed the face of sitcoms, and without it, we wouldn’t have the same flourishing genre that we know and love today.

Through brilliant writing, acting and brave stylistic choices that dared to step away from the norm set by shows such as Friends and Frasier, it re-wrote the handbook for modern sitcoms, and we should be thankful for it. I don’t think anybody wants canned laughter to make a return anytime soon. 

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