'Malcolm' flourishes and proves this reviewer wrong

by John Teti | 11/2/00 6:00am

Last January, I gave a harsh review to an upstart sitcom on Fox, boldly declaring that it's simply "not funny." That sitcom went on to become the biggest hit that Fox has seen since "The Simpsons."

This isn't to say that popularity is a reliable indicator of quality, but "Malcolm in the Middle" had nothing else going for it -- no gimmick, no big stars, just a little wiseass and his "dysfunctional" family. If such a show was popular, I figured it had to have some redeeming qualities. So I kept tuning in. And that little wiseass actually figured out how to make me laugh.

Yes, "Malcolm in the Middle" is funny.

I wasn't wrong when I gave a thumbs-down to the first three episodes of the series. Despite a few angry e-mails I got in response to my negative assessment -- one of which sharply criticized me for going after a poor, innocent child star in Frankie Muniz (who plays Malcolm) -- I still think the beginnings of "Malcolm" showed me nothing to laugh at.

But they did show promise, and that's what I didn't see. As the show enters its second season, it's time to admit that I unwittingly made some incorrect assumptions.

The first was that the producers weren't interested in making this an ensemble show. The title of the series is "Malcolm in the Middle," after all. But the character development achieved in "Malcolm's" short first season (it premiered late in January) was extraordinary.

Of course, every episode has Malcolm relating to his fellow geniuses at school and to his siblings at home. But we also watch father Hal comically deteriorate into a killer-robot-wielding maniac when his wife Lois leaves town for a week to visit Francis at military school. In the same episode (and others), a bit more of Francis' faintly Freudian neuroses regarding his mother come to the surface.

What has surprised me the most, though, is the attention paid to the seemingly flat characters, Malcolm's older brother Reese and younger brother Dewey. Take one episode in which the B-plot follows tough-guy Reese's bullheaded attempts to tell a classmate that he likes her. He joins the cheerleading squad to be at her side and forcibly enlists Malcolm's help in learning the moves at home.

After all his work, Reese finally gets the guts to approach the object of his desire after practice -- and instantly reverts to his tried-and-true method of pulling hair and teasing. In 30 minutes, Reese has gone from bully to softie and back, gaining some complexity without diminishing his obnoxious big-brother role in the family. And this was just a B-plot. The writers at "Malcolm" are refreshingly efficient.

Another of the criticisms I leveled at the quirky show was just that -- it was quirky, and nothing more. I even objected to the lack of a laugh track, not because it wasn't a nice change, but because the show generated no rhythm on its own to replace the artificial pace that canned laughs provide. The show quickly found its stride, though, after I assumed that it would never cease stumbling about.

A great deal of credit has to go to the American public for the improvement of "Malcolm." If they hadn't seen the potential that I missed, the show likely wouldn't have survivied through Valentine's Day. Look at "Freaks and Geeks," a show at least as good as "Malcolm" that was unceremoniously cancelled by NBC amid large viewer protest because the ratings just weren't impressive enough.

NBC is particularly notorious for not giving its shows a chance to find their audience, but it is a behavior common to all the networks, to some degree. You can bet that Fox wouldn't have let "Malcolm" languish for long if it had pulled down mediocre ratings that corresponded to the mediocre quality of those first few episodes.

"Malcolm" isn't perfect. I still take issue with Muniz's frequent asides to the camera, which I think are condescending to the audience and just too damn cute.

And I still think that the "dysfunctional" label is inappropriately applied in other media coverage on the show. It's clear at the end of every episode that this is a very close and loving family. That's why we can sit back and laugh at the jokes without worrying. Truly dysfunctional families aren't funny; they're depressing.

So I'm sorry, Frankie, for so unfairly victimizing you way back in January. I didn't give you the chance to prove yourself, and perhaps I stooped to the level of those overzealous network executives in doing so. I was mistaken. I hope you can forgive me, because I've enjoyed being entertained by you and your co-stars in the months since.

But you're still a little wiseass.

"Malcolm in the Middle" airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on Fox.

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