'Malcolm' success could rewrite rules

Who said the sitcom was dead?

Countering conventional wisdom that had declared half-hour comedy all but extinct on network television, Fox’s just-debuted laffer “Malcolm in the Middle” is emerging as a genuine hit after only two weeks. If its success continues, the Regency Television-produced skein could end up the unlikely savior of an entire form.

Sunday’s second seg of “Malcolm” managed the amazing feat of improving upon its already-boffo Jan. 9 bow, soaring to Fox’s best adults 18-49 tally since the 1992 time period debut of what was arguably the net’s last true live-action half-hour hit, “In Living Color.” More than 23 million viewers tuned in, boosting the entire Fox Sunday sked.

Even with critical acclaim and a strong marketing campaign, the early success of “Malcolm” was far from a sure thing.

A single-camera, live-action family comedy on Fox in a season in which all of those elements pretty much collapsed at the starting gate?

Ya gotta be kidding.

The role of Regency, controlled by Arnon Milchan, is itself an anomaly. Regency is a relatively new arrival at Fox; at Warners, its previous home, Milchan was a big player in film, but had no TV presence. Under its new Fox deal, Regency has become a big player in TV, but has been at odds with Fox on several film projects.

If “Malcolm” succeeds, TV execs may be forced to stand back and tear up their tattered playbooks.

Consider some of those so-called rules of the industry: Viewers reject single-camera comedies or shows without a laugh track; Fox can’t launch a live-action comedy behind “The Simpsons.” (Malcolm, in fact, scored Fox’s best post-“Simpsons” numbers ever.)

And how about that oft-repeated notion that comedies — especially family comedies — are increasingly irrelevant?

“I never thought those were good rules anyway,” said “Malcolm” creator Linwood Boomer. “It’s a crutch. It gives people some kind of framework to feel like they won’t be made fun of at the next executive breakfast they go to,” he explained. “If this becomes a big success, there will be new rules that also won’t be true.”

Of course, the verdict’s still out on the show’s long-term performance. The TV graveyard overflows with series that popped big and then quickly plunged into oblivion.

But the show’s strong stats in its first two weeks could be a good indicator of stellar perfs to come.

“Malcolm” has another key element going for it: wild critical acclaim. Even Fox’s competitors admit they covet the skein.

‘Totally relatable’

“It was one of the few comedies that I really laughed at out loud,” said CBS Entertainment prexy Nancy Tellem. “As the mother of three kids, I think it’s totally relatable.”

Tellem agrees that the reaction to “Malcolm” is even more notable, given viewers’ general malaise toward half-hour comedies and the virtual absence of sitcoms featuring families this season.

“If it’s done in an innovative way, I think it can work,” she said. “I think everyone’s striving to break all the rules.”

Even the story of how “Malcolm” ended up on Fox is pretty unconventional.

UPN was developing the script when Regency TV first became attached to the project.

“Even though UPN liked the material, at a certain point in time it became clear their direction had changed and they weren’t going to make the show,” said Regency prexy Gail Berman.

At this point, “Malcolm” could have become an orphan, a victim of network politics. But Berman, sensing UPN was no longer the right place for her show, decided to give Doug Herzog a call.

The Fox Entertainment prexy had been on the job for only a few weeks when Berman rang him up. She asked him to read the script for “Malcolm”; a short time later, the show was a go for production.

Fresh eyes

Herzog’s virginal status as a network programmer — he came to Fox from cabler Comedy Central — played a key role in how quickly “Malcolm” got its greenlight.

“My naivete was a real plus here. Some people here were like, ‘It’s Linwood Boomer,’ ” said Herzog of the off-beat producer. “But I didn’t look at the cover of the script. I didn’t know who most writers were anyway. … I said, ‘I don’t give a fuck if it’s Linwood Boomer. It’s a great script.’ “

What Herzog admired about the pilot script was that “it rang true. There was an authenticity to it. You read (a scene) with the kids in their underwear watching cartoons, and you think, ‘That’s my house. I know these people.’ “

Fox stayed the course

Once Fox picked up “Malcolm,” the show could have fallen victim to network or studio interference. “Malcolm,” off-center half-hour that it is, was at particular risk of such meddling.

But, said Berman, “We stuck with the person who brought us to the prom. We tried our best to support (Boomer).”

Indeed, Herzog said he doesn’t “really remember giving any significant notes. When you find that special thing that’s coming from the right place … get out of the way. You’re not going to make it better.”

For his part, Boomer said he appreciates that Herzog never attempted to alter “Malcolm,” even when Fox began to falter in the fall.

“I think a lot of other execs would have been panicking and second-guessing themselves,” Boomer said.

Boomer notes that single camera half-hours like “Malcolm” aren’t exactly popular with the network bean counters. Given that most new series don’t work anyway, greenlighting a sitcom that eschews the traditional four-camera setting is quite a financial risk.

“The expense is just enormous,” he said. “That’s why they’re so much harder to get off the ground.”

Another factor that ended up working in “Malcolm’s” favor was Fox’s decision to delay the show’s launch until midseason, even though the skein was originally announced as a fall contender.

While some wags worried Fox was abandoning the show, both Berman and Herzog say the delay was actually a vote of confidence.

“It was always intended for midseason,” says Herzog. “We knew we were going to have to launch this show (out of the fall frenzy.) We needed to give it tender loving care.”

That was fine with Berman, who said she “was happy as a clam” about the January bow. “Much of our success in television has come midseason,” she explained, pointing to the studio’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which launched on the WB in the winter rather than the fall.

Fox finally ended up skedding “Malcolm” following “The Simpsons” — a plum spot, but not a good place for live action sitcoms historically.

Live-action ‘Simpsons’

In came Fox Television Entertainment Group prexy Sandy Grushow, who boasts a strong marketing background. He helped craft a promo campaign that pushed “Malcolm” as a live-action version of “The Simpsons.”

Despite all this talk about the show’s unconventional ways, even Boomer knows the networks will always subscribe to one tried-and-true rule in television: Imitate whatever works.

And if “Malcolm” hits, get ready for the inevitable slew of clones.

“I don’t know anyone who would take a show that’s really successful and say, ‘Let’s not do anything like this,’ ” Boomer said. “It’s a business, and people have got to try something.”

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