Imagine if “The Simpsons” were a live-action family, and their son had an I.Q. of 165. The result would be Fox Network’s wonderfully irreverent, fresh Valentine to dysfunctional clans everywhere, “Malcolm in the Middle.” Paired wisely with the veteran toon “Simpsons” on Sunday nights, Linwood Boomer’s creation can also make a suitable partner with the network’s other good-natured chronicler of youth angst, “That ’70s Show.”
The pilot episode plunges viewers straight into Malcolm’s world, a surreal place where Dad (Bryan Cranston) gets his back shaved naked in the middle of the living room, and Mom (Jane Kaczmarek) is so frazzled with juggling her duties that she answers the door topless. In the pilot, young Malcolm (Frankie Muniz) discovers that he’s smarter than the rest of the oddball characters in his class and is sent to a special school for gifted students.
Although Malcolm has the annoying habit of talking to the camera — there should be a ban on the most overused cliche of this TV season — his trials and tribulations, which include dodging bullies at school and avoiding the slings and arrows of his older brother, are a hoot to watch. Tyke thesp Muniz has an appealing quality and he’s able to project intelligence without looking like your stereotypical egghead.
Also very strong in the pilot and the two following episodes are Malcolm’s parents. Jane Kaczmarek and Bryan Cranston, familiar faces as guest spots in primetime shows, finally get a chance to exercise their comic skills. Kaczmarek, in particular, is able to bring a sweet poignancy in a scene where she explains to Malcolm that he should value his gifts because “life doesn’t give you a lot of chances to move up in the world.” Of course, this is the same politically incorrect woman who says, “You’re going to be friends with that cripple boy, and you’re gonna like it!”
As Dewey, the adorable youngest kid in the family, Erik Per Sullivan is another cast standout. Whether he’s asking naive questions like “Mom, is Malcolm a robot?” or just being tormented by his older brothers, his gentle presence is the perfect antidote to the household mayhem.
One reason that viewers may get attached to this family is the undercurrent of love and gentle support that runs through the show. Like its counterparts in “The Simpsons” and the tortured souls on NBC’s “Freaks and Geeks,” the show is not afraid to stop the madness every once in a while to show a sentimental side.
Also noteworthy is the sitcom’s offbeat visual look: the camera whiplashes from one scene to the next, and there are frequent wide-angle and extreme close-up shots, a throwback to the wacky days of “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.” Popular alternative band They Might Be Giants provides the show’s catchy theme song, which features the immortal lines, “You’re not the boss of me now,” and “You’re not so big … life is unfair” — a sentiment shared by Malcolm, and all the underdog heroes of the world, who never get the chance to talk to the camera.