(*Using the phrase “Top Television Shows Of The 00s Part [x]” each time really messed up the look of our RSS feed, you know.)
Welcome back to the rundown. From this point on, we’ll be posting updates to the list one by one. This means you won’t have to wait so long for each update, what with our uncannily inability to use 1,200 words where a couple of dozen would do, and that you won’t have so much dross to read through each time we do post an update to the list. Plus, it should also mean we can squeeze out a couple of updates per day, with any luck. And so, as Oskar Schindler once said, let’s have a look at the next bit of this list, then.
Malcolm in the Middle was pretty much a tale of how hard it is being the second youngest child in a large working-class dual-income family, with the titular Malcolm being the middle child of three sons still living at home. So, it’s a family sitcom with three child actors in the lead roles. Look, there’s no point in running away now, it was actually marvellously plotted, cleverly scripted and impeccably acted landmark television comedy YES REALLY.
Hard as it might seem coming from heartless bastards who don’t even like Outnumbered (you heard us, send us to comedy prison, we don’t care), but Malcolm In The Middle was far, far better than it really ought to have been. After all, the notoriously riskophobic US networks rarely allowed ‘clever’ comedy shows – even latecomers to the network party Fox, and even when they did, it almost had to be done by proxy. The Simpsons only made it to air after proving the most popular part of The Tracey Ullman show, and had to grow from a relatively sedate sapling into the magnificent beast of season three onwards, Married With Children had to evolve from similarly watered-down beginnings, and the nod was only given to Family Guy and Futurama once The Simpsons had grown large enough to merit a 51st star on the US flag.
From the get-go, ‘Malcolm…’ started off as slightly smarter than the rest of the pack, what with the main character being indentified as a reluctant child genius, introducing non-schmaltzy disabled character Stevie, and being soundtracked by kings of geek rock They Might Be Giants. By episode eight, the programme had really got going, with a large scale episode featuring over a hundred extras, based at a school picnic, with sub-plots spiralling off in all directions. As the series progressed, it was able to take more and more risks, such as the marvellous (and dual Emmy-winning) Sliding Doors-style episode where the boys spend an evening at a local bowling alley – one reality in the company of control-freak mom Lois, one reality in the company of easy-going pop Hal.
With each new season, the boys took new steps on the road to maturity, providing fresh scope for more involved plots, often taking in the family as a whole. One episode saw the family cancel vacation plans at the last moment, leading to their discovery that the entire neighbourhood happened to hold a “Hoorah, That Lot Have Buggered Off For A Fortnight” festival each time they went away. Another, late-period episode saw the family end up at the Burning Man festival, and Malcolm end up in bed with fortysomething shaman Anita (played by Rosanna Arquette) largely because he’d preferred The Go-Gos to the B-52s. The programme wasn’t afraid to take subtly disturbing turns, too. Once youngest brother Dewey starts to show signs of his own genius, Malcolm earnestly advises him to flunk an IQ test, as him being placed in a class for gifted children had led to him feeling socially outcast. Dewey subsequently takes Malcolm’s advice, only for his low IQ test score leading to him spending the remainder of the entire series placed in a remedial class, thereby becoming even more of a social pariah.
As might be expected, the writing was of the highest quality, with witty lines delivered frequently from the mouths of the marvellously rounded characters, even from lesser-spotted residents of the neighbourhood, and plots would interweave with sub-plots before crashing into each other explosively at the end of the third act. Even the sub-plots could be controversial (given the timeslot), such as Francis trying to get close to a girl at his theatre group by pretending to be gay, only for her to be revealed as a fundamentalist Christian determined to help him “pray out the gay”, or wonderfully daft – Hal wins a sizable sum on an instant lottery ticket, only for him to secretly spend his windfall on hiring a steamroller, and buying several deliciously squashable consumer goods. There was also a metric ton of cracking turns from experienced comedy actors, such as Jason “George Isn’t At Home… Where Could I Be?” Alexander, Bea “Lazy Transsexual Reference” Arthur, Susan “Tim Robbins’ Mom” Sarandon, Patrick “Brock” Warburton, Heidi “4% Of Our My Documents Folder” Klum, Julie “A hospital? What is it?” Hagerty, and some brilliant performances from Cloris Leachman as the boys’ hard-bitten Slavic grandmother.
Even aside from Malcolm In The Middle’s ranking on a notional humour scale (which, for the record, we’d rank at Milligan Force Eight), it’s a pretty damn interesting programme in its own right. For starters, as far as we can remember (and we fully expect to be corrected here), it was the first network US sitcom to use the single-camera, no-studio-audience format in at least fifteen years. At the time, a number of more adult-themed cable sitcoms like Dream On and The Larry Sanders Show had taken the same approach, and while other network shows like M*A*S*H, Sledge Hammer! or The Wonder Years did use a single-camera setup, the producers felt the US home audience needed the reassuring sound of audience laughter (even if, of course, M*A*S*H and Sledge Hammer! originally arrived in the UK without the sound of an audience). The only example of this previous to MITM was 1982’s Police Squad!, and that was cancelled by ABC after four episodes.
Since then, the single-camera no-audience approach has been used by pretty much every single US network sitcom of note – such as Everybody Hates Chris, Samantha Who?, Scrubs, The (US) Office, Parks and Recreation, The Knights Of Prosperity or The Job (Denis Leary? As a corrupt cop? Lasted one season between 2001 and 2002 on ABC? Cropped up on BBC Three over here? Just us? It was good, you know), alongside many several others.
Not only that, but show creator Linwood Boomer took the intriguing and wonderful decision never to reveal the name of the town where the MITM live (going one further than The Simpsons, which famously has never revealed the state in which the show takes place), or to even have the family’s surname ever fully revealed, ever, throughout the entire seven-season run. The only clue to the family name was when eldest brother Francis was seen wearing a name tag “Wilkerson” on this school uniform on the pilot episode – though, brilliantly, in the final episode of the entire series Francis is seen to drop his workplace name tag, on which the name “Francis Nolastname” is printed. Aside from those two references, the family surname is never mentioned at any time, throughout the entire run – the one time someone tried to mention it, again in the final episode, it was drowned out by microphone feedback. You’ve got to admire a programme willing to do something like that for no real reason. In fact, there’s a similar policy here at BrokenTV HQ, where we’ve always carefully avoided letting the readers know that our favourite Monkee is Peter Tork.
It doesn’t stop there – the programme saw a welcome return for the theatrical tradition of the lead actor breaking the forth wall to speak to the audience directly (it’s tricky to do this without seemly smugly self-referential, but luckily for all concerned, it worked perfectly), plus the programme was directly responsible for They Might Be Giants returning to the UK Top 30 singles chart after an eleven year break. Really, it’s almost as if Malcolm In The Middle is some kind of magical television elixir, formulated specifically to impress us. Bit of a shame BBC Two decided to clumsily trim lots of not-even-remotely-contentious moments from the show over here, really.
Next update: The programme that is at number 25 on our list.