The Daily Stream: Malcolm In The Middle Puts The Fun In Dysfunctional Family Comedy

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The series: "Malcolm in the Middle"

Where you can stream it: Hulu

The pitch: Middle child Malcolm Wilkerson (Frankie Muniz) has a genius IQ of 165, but that doesn't help too much when it comes to dealing with his chaotic family, being in the advanced class in school, or surviving puberty. His dad, Hal (Bryan Cranston), is a sweet but easily befuddled mess of a pencil pusher, and his mom, Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) is a hard-nosed drugstore employee whose short temper is frequently tested by taking care of her sons and husband. 

The Wilkersons are lower-middle-class Americans circa the turn of the 21st century, in a random suburb that feels like it could be anywhere. Lois has to cut coupons and make leftover parfait to make ends meet and keep her family of growing boys fed, but they never appreciate it and see their mother as a tyrant. She can be, but it's also frequently hard to blame her. After all, the eldest son, Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson) ends up in military school, drops out, and moves to Alaska, while the next eldest, Reese (Justin Berfield), is a not-so-bright bully without much of a future ahead of him. They don't worry much about the geeky and sardonic Malcolm and seem to have lowered their expectations for their youngest son, Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan). By the time another baby brother comes along in season 4, it's a wonder that Lois and Hal haven't run away to another country and changed their names.

The Wilkersons fight, bicker, and squabble at every turn, but they also all love one another as best they can. The humor is a bit darker than many other family comedies from the era, but there's also a whole lotta love at its core.

Why It's Essential Viewing

Most TV families are chaotic, but the Wilkersons take it to another level. Both parents work full-time in order to pay the bills (and barely, at that), and in the meantime their sons wreak havoc. Their mischievous exploits are legendary, though crashing a golf cart through their family reunion's catered lunch and then into a swimming pool because people were mean to their mom might be my personal favorite. The kids get up to a lot of trouble, but most of the time it's good-natured (or at least understandable). They're chaos creatures, each in their own way, and they're all incredibly lovable (even Reese). I was a kid when "Malcolm in the Middle" first aired, which made me really appreciate the fact that the kids on "Malcolm in the Middle" feel real. Sometimes their exploits go above and beyond what my childhood neighbors might have been able to get away with, but that's the magic of TV, right? The kids themselves are just as selfish, single-minded, and immature as real kids, and the child actors playing them are all excellent. 

Everyone in the weird world of "Malcolm in the Middle" seems like a slightly heightened version of someone plucked from our own mundane one, and it's refreshingly real while still being fiercely funny. It's a rare series that's just as fun and watchable for kids as well as adults, and watching it again now that I'm in my 30s is funny in entirely new ways that I never could have anticipated. Sure, Malcolm talks to the screen and is our viewpoint character, but it's hard not to feel for Hal and Lois. 

The Most Brutally Real TV Parents

As a kid, I mostly identified with smart-mouthed gifted kid Malcolm, but as an adult, I love Lois and Hal like never before. They love one another deeply and have a very healthy sex life, which isn't something you see much of in family comedies. They also have a surprisingly healthy marriage with mutual respect for one another even when they want to wring each other's necks. They are a partnership, a team, a duo who have faced incredibly challenging odds and are still somehow hanging on and madly in love. They're not always a united front against the boys, of course, because Hal is basically a child in a grown man's body and they know how to appeal to his inner kid, but they try to raise them to be decent people and fully-realized human beings. 

Lois often has to be the one who enforces punishment and forces the boys to behave according to societal standards, but Hal imparts his own unique wisdom to them as well. For example, he encourages Dewey when he uses Lois' purse as a backpack because he figures that maybe it will change gender rules and he's always wanted to be able to carry a purse, and he helps Francis when he finds out that his "disobedience" at military school was mostly to help his fellow cadets. 

Lois and Hal were the villains of "Malcolm in the Middle" when I watched as a child, but as an adult, I've realized that they're the heroes just as much as their kids. Sure, Lois can be angry and severe, and Hal is kind of a bumbling idiot, but they are doing their best ... even if Hal's best sometimes makes things worse.

Bryan Cranston's Greatest Performance

In the pantheon of TV dads, Hal is the God of Sweet Buffoons. He's not particularly skilled at anything, he's not all that successful in his career, and he's wildly childish, but he's also loving and creative and freaking hilarious. Cranston has been praised (and won Emmys) for his portrayal of Walter White on "Breaking Bad," but it's his completely earnest portrayal of Hal that is truly the feather in the cap of his career. On paper, Hal shouldn't work as a character, but Cranston puts so much unbridled joy into his performance that he's one of the greatest characters in TV history. You believe that he would perform only his part of a six-man ensemble in front of a live audience and completely humiliate himself in order to apologize to a friend, because Cranston's puppy-eyed, hapless face sells it. 

Whether Hal is trying to teach Malcolm how to roller-skate and having flashbacks to his days doing roller disco or grilling out at Burning Man and convincing everyone he's doing performance art as a spoof of a suburban dad, Cranston is absolutely brilliant. His dramatic chops are incredible on "Breaking Bad," of course, but many of us knew him first for his comedic genius. The actor has always been attached to the character even after the series' end — and he's reportedly writing a reboot, which would rule.

A Veritable Galaxy Of Guest Stars

"Malcolm in the Middle" became a pretty huge hit for Fox, and that meant that they were able to get lots of incredible guest stars to cameo on the series. One episode that aired after the Super Bowl starred Susan Sarandon, Bradley Whitford, Heidi Klum, Christina Ricci, and Tom Green all in guest roles! "Back to the Future" star Christopher Lloyd played Hal's (unsurprisingly) childish father, "Golden Girl" Bea Arthur babysat Dewey, and Patrick Warburton had a case of mistaken identities with Hal. (Other cameos include George Takei, Betty White, and Jason Alexander.) 

On top of the incredible cameos, the series also featured a number of stars early in their careers who went on to blow up in a major way. A kindergarten-age Dakota Fanning appears as a neighbor who loves to bite, and young Emma Stone, Hayden Panettiere, Ashley Tisdale, Jeanette McCurdy, and Ashlee Simpson all appear as girls forced to put up with Reese, Malcolm, and Dewey. Other early-career appearances include Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, "Community" star Yvette Nicole Brown, "The Office" stars Leslie David Baker and Oscar Nuñez, and "Parks and Recreation" star Jim O'Heir. That's, uh, a lot of star power. It's a veritable who's-who of both '90s celebrity and comedy TV, and it's a real blast from the past to sit and see how many stars you can recognize.

A Nice Nostalgia Hit

"Malcolm in the Middle" takes place right when I was a kid, and it's the kind of nostalgic throwback that feels like being a kid again. The theme song, "Boss of Me" by They Might Be Giants is a comforting anti-authoritarian anthem and the show's soundtrack is mostly comprised of alt-rock and pop-punk hits from the late '90s and early 2000s. If at some point I ever want to show someone much younger what things were like in my day, I'll probably show them "Malcolm in the Middle." It takes place before cell phones, in the infancy of the internet, and it's wild to think that it's more than 20 years ago. 

There are a handful of moments in "Malcolm in the Middle" that haven't aged well, though they're few and far between. As far as sarcastic comedies from the time period go, it's refreshingly free of slurs or gay panic. It's heartfelt and warm and deliriously, darkly funny, like "Married with Children" if Al and Peg actually loved one another or "Pete and Pete" if it wasn't on a kids' network. Check out "Malcolm in the Middle" for a peek into late '90s suburbia and lots and lots of laughs.

Read this next: 12 Underrated Sitcoms That You Should Check Out

The post The Daily Stream: Malcolm in the Middle Puts the Fun in Dysfunctional Family Comedy appeared first on /Film.

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