2012-02-28

In praise of Malcolm in the Middle

I first got into this show a couple of years ago, more or less by accident - a spare half hour, flicking through the channels in search of something less than dreadful, and I found myself watching Lois, Hal, Dewey and Reese - and I was hooked. Over time I've come to regard it as one of the great under-rated sitcoms.

The genius of the writing is in the interplay between the extremely flawed and dysfunctional characters: loving but hopelessly downtrodden Hal, hardworking and driven-to-insanity Lois, genius nerd Malcolm, sociopathic Reese, runaway lout Francis and underestimated Machiavellian Dewey. When Dewey (about 6 years old) decided to get his mother's name tattooed on his chest, Lois (played by Jane Kaczmarek, who would have won a Grammy if there were any justice in the world) repeatedly spasms between horror and dewey-eyed appreciation of the deed. Lois works herself to near-death for the family, and woe betide any son (or husband) who fails to appreciate this or do as he is told. Francis went away to a military academy and then ran away to Alaska, but can't escape his mother's influence. Malcolm is so repressed that when he tries not saying what he thinks, he ruptures an internal organ. It's a regular working-class American family cranked up to 11.

The sheer cheek of the writers has to be admired. They needed to cast an Alaskan Inuit girl for Francis to fall in love with, and they pick Emy Coligado who's an ethnic Filipina from Texas. The scene between Piama and Lois when they first meet is one to treasure, with Hal trying his best to prevent World War 3 from breaking out between the two politely-speaking but acid-tongued women.

Season 4's "Baby" is a classic example of the writers turning conventions on their head. Heavily pregnant Lois's obnoxious mother Ida is staying, and Lois wants to get her out of the house before labour starts. Because Ida is so racist, Lois hits on the plan of getting Hal's poker buddy Abe (a high-earning, polite, well-spoken African-American chap) to come over with his other African-American poker buddies to say hello to Ida and make her feel surrounded. The comedy as she tries to explain this to Abe and it becomes clear that he doesn't actually think of himself as black...

Francis and a buddy find a totem pole and try to discern its meaning. This is explained to them by its Native American owner:

Well, if I hit it it means I'm five inches away from the back of my carport... You white boys are all the same. I have dark skin therefore I dance with bears and speak with the wind. Well I work for a living, and I'm Baptist and proud of it! Oh...and I have only one word for snow: SNOW!

Go look for it in the TV guide next time you've a free half hour - it's almost bound to be somewhere on cable or satellite. You'll thank me.

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