malcolm-in-the-middle-malcolm-in-the-middle-14593011-1024-768Is this show available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Every season of Malcolm in the Middle is available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant and Amazon Prime.

Starring: Frankie Muniz, Jane Kaczmarek, Bryan Cranston, Christopher Masterson, Justin Berfield, Erik Per Sullivan

Sometime in the late 1980’s, television decided that it was far more funnier to show dysfunctional families (Married With Children, The Simpsons) than to portray well-balanced ones (Growing Pains, The Cosby Show). I do not know the impetus behind this move, but it should be worth noting that both Married With Children and The Simpsons (and later, Malcolm in the Middle and Arrested Development) were ALL made by Fox, the company with the conservative news network. There is a never-ending debate between those who view such shows as a negative influence on children and the rest of society and those who regard these shows as a more realistic portrayal of the American family. I fall somewhere in the middle – shows like The Simpsons and Married With Children certainly show the frictions and tensions that every family experiences, but these shows do not exist because they want to accurately portray families. At some point, network executives felt that nastier, negative humor was simply funnier and it would get bigger ratings.

Malcolm in the Middle is a cross between Married With Children and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The Wilkersons are Lois (Jane Kaczmarek), the take-no-shit mom who rules the family with fear; Hal (pre-Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston), the severely lax father who acts more like a kid than an adult; Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson), the eldest son who attends a military school; Reese (Justin Berfield), a bully who likes to hit people; Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan), the youngest son; and the star of the show, Malcolm (Frankie Muniz), who is the show’s Ferris Bueller.

Muniz doesn’t quite have the same appeal as Matthew Broderick, but he does well enough in an ensemble cast of six characters. Like Ferris Bueller, Malcolm frequently breaks the fourth wall to speak directly with the audience and he uses his intelligence to either get into trouble or get out of trouble. The character is also egotistical – he blames his family for everything that is wrong in his life. He is in a constant state of frustration by not being able to do whatever he wants, having parents who are unable and/or unwilling to understand him, by not being as cool as his brother Francis, and, ultimately, not having anyone share his global point of view. The character is in this constant state of anxiety and conflict that he ceaselessly whines about. In a way, Malcolm marks pop culture’s first portrayal of the Me Generation.

Malcolm in the Middle is sort of like a live-action version of a cartoon – every character and situation operates on a heightened level of zaniness and exaggeration. The scenarios are not as far-fetched as what you would find on The Simpsons, but that’s the beauty of animation – you can come up with situations that are not possible in a live-action setting. In a way, Malcolm in the Middle could be something imagined by the director Terry Gilliam if he set out to portray the American nuclear family. Whatever characteristic defines a character is pushed to its extreme limit. For example, Lois, the mom, is the disciplinarian of the household, but she wields that power in a tyrannical and maniacal way in which she is frequently seen screaming at and chasing her children for something they have done. Hal, the immature man-child father, is always trying to get away from his parental and spousal (unless it involves sex) duties. For a half-hour show, the show’s zany bombardment to the senses is an entertaining and often very funny escape. However, I can’t imagine my attention and patience being able to handle anything longer than that.

One of the show’s more fascinating aspects is despite the Wilkerson’s suburban lifestyle, they are not financially well off and their penny-pinching lifestyle looms over every situation. In one episode, Lois gets fired from her grocery store job and the family is forced to accept food donations from people. Its ironic that the family depends on Lois’ low-skilled and low hourly wages instead of Hal’s white-collar, presumably higher paying and presumably salaried position. The show never deals with the family’s near poverty in a serious way and it doesn’t portray it realistically either (when you can’t put food on the table for your family, you’re probably not going to keep one of your son’s in an expensive military academy) like you would find in a show like Roseanne. Instead, the family’s financial status is used as a comedic device to create hilarious setups.

I have never seen the show Breaking Bad (I know, sue me) so it is difficult for me to appreciate the drastic turn of character that Bryan Cranston pulled off from switching from the affable, lazy, immature Hal to the some sort of badass person that he is on Breaking Bad. Here, Cranston is just like one of his boys. Imagine having Peter Pan as your father and that is Hal Wilkerson. I don’t believe the show ever established what in hell he does for a living, but its obvious that whatever he does, he hates it and it pays him nothing. In this show, Cranston pretty much plays second fiddle to the children and to Jane Kaczmarek, who is excellent as the mom and who is the most interesting character in the show.

Malcolm in the Middle didn’t really break any new ground in television. Sure, it had no laugh track and it was shot on film, giving the show a higher quality look. However, what made this show memorable was its excellent writing. Whether it’s the situations or the lines of dialogue, I rarely found myself not laughing during any given episode. I think this is especially rare for a first season of a show when the writers are still getting warmed up to the show and its characters. Malcolm in the Middle came swinging right out of the gate and it is no surprise it managed to earn so many accolades and awards during its run.

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