Rupert Murdoch must have been beaten as a child, judging from the ways that his flagship Fox Network has taken potshots at the nuclear family since its inception. While the other television networks continue to cling to the idea of the loving, close-knit family unit in program after program, that which warms the heart elsewhere becomes a gastric attack on Fox. They give us 7th Heaven, Providence, and Everybody Loves Raymond—Fox gives us The Simpsons, Married with Children, and Malcolm in the Middle, shows that thrive on sheer dysfunction.
But if Fox’s message sounds negative, it’s actually not. Fox’s family sitcoms tend to be full of boorish characters who hamstring each other at every available opportunity, but how different, really, are they from the frictions and tensions that shoot through families in real life? I once read an op-ed letter from a dad who wrote that he encourages his kids to watch The Simpsons so they would learn that, in life, things don’t always go your way. It was easy to be the Cleavers (Leave It to Beaver) or the Seavers (Growing Pains), upper-middle-class suburban families with no real problems, but it takes serious fortitude to be the Simpsons or the even less fortunate Bundys (Married with Children). The strength of family ties is revealed only when they’re tested.
Malcolm in the Middle, now in its second season, features Fox’s strongest family to date, the Wilkersons: Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) is the family’s backbone, a takes-absolutely-no-shit mom who rules her roost through a brand of psychological warfare that would make Hannibal Lecter plotz himself; Hal (Bryan Cranston), a pure man-child of a dad who’s more comfortable as co-conspirator than as disciplinarian; eldest son Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson), for whom being sent to military school was but a minor obstacle to his career as a delinquent; Reese (Justin Berfield), who hits people; Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan), the youngest son and Lois’ favorite, who views the world with the unflappability of an alien pod-person; and Malcolm (Frankie Muniz), whose life was going along just fine until he tested as a genius and found himself caught between the raised expectations of adults and the derision of his peers, unable to simply be a kid. What’s more, Malcolm’s gifts give him a keen sense of self-awareness that the rest of his family seems to lack, which isolates him and often places him in the position of observer as well as participant (Malcolm frequently breaks the fourth wall and comments directly to the audience, the only other people who can see what he’s going through). It’s as if he feels forced to be Jane Goodall when he really wants to be one of the chimps.
As with any group of people forced to co-exist in close quarters, the Wilkersons’ domestic dynamic is a constant struggle for position and dominance. The three boys living at home (of whom Malcolm is the middle child, hence the show’s title) have the usual sibling rivalries but act out in the most extreme ways. It’s not unusual to find one or another of the boys wrapped head-to-toe in clothesline and hung from a coathook, or buried under a mountain of toys in a corner of a bedroom that resembles a DMZ. Each of the boys has his own particular weapon that he brings to bear in this perpetual civil war—Reese his aggressiveness, Malcolm his intelligence, and Dewey a sublime passivity that functions, like judo, to cause his brothers’ attacks to collapse under their own ineffectual weight. When the boys unite, it is usually in the cause of some kind of grotesque experiment, like holding a funeral for a dead frog then jamming a bottle rocket up its ass to watch it explode.
Often, Hal participates in these projects—in one episode he and the boys spend an entire afternoon finding things to feed into a wood-chipper just to see what kind of cool confetti comes out the other end—or he just takes over, transforming Malcolm’s science-project robot into a neighborhood death-machine with buzz-saws and exploding missiles. He’d rather join them than beat them. Hal is the antithesis of the traditional sitcom dad, bonding with his sons in wonderfully unwholesome ways and in effect becoming one of them instead of maintaining the paternal distance and the platitudes typical of the rest of TV’s patriarchs. Not that Hal has much in common with those stuffed shirts to begin with. For all intents and purposes, he is one of the kids, because all of them live under Lois’ implacable thumb. While the boys each possess their individual armaments and fighting styles, Lois is master of them all. More aggressive than Reese, savvier than Malcolm, and smarter than Hal by miles, Lois maintains control over her household through a crafty combination of feints and sucker-punches, guided by a strategic mind that works eight moves ahead of everyone else’s. More George Patton than Donna Reed, Lois’ mixture of shrewdness and aggression is unbeatable.
And yet, as entertaining as they are, Lois and Hal are hardly atypical parents or people. The most disconcerting thing about Malcolm in the Middle is that while the Wilkersons appear to be aberrant caricatures, upon consideration there’s nothing about any of them that is actually unfamiliar or even particularly odd. In fact, they strongly resemble my childhood best friend’s family in almost every way, right down to the bizarre hygiene rituals (Lois shaves Hal’s excessive body hair at the breakfast table—you don’t want to know what my friend’s parents did). And this makes them an aberrant TV family. It’s their reality that rends the web of signifiers that we have attached to the family as the result of fifty years of cathode-ray indoctrination. In much the same way that the Conners of Roseanne exploded the myth of the unified, dad-centered sitcom family, the Wilkersons are a unit in which the siblings really do try to kill each other and the parents maintain control through guerilla strategy rather than homespun aphorisms—just like real families. Radical notion, that.
Back when his star was ascendent, Newt Gingrich once called for the nation’s families to return to the values embodied by the Nelsons of Ozzie and Harriet, seemingly unaware that the family in question was actually quite dysfunctional in real life, unable to live up to its own fiction. The irony of Gingrich’s pronouncement was—and remains—that America has been trying to live up to the ideal of TV family life and it is, to a certain degree, our failure to meet those impossible standards that has led to the very disillusionment with the family that the then-Speaker of the House decried. If even the Nelsons couldn’t be “the Nelsons,” what chance have the rest of us got? Malcolm in the Middle is very much the product of this disillusionment—Art that imitates Life’s inability to imitate Art—a candid Polaroid of an only slightly exaggerated family rather than the usual Olan Mills glossy of the sitcom family in its perpetual Sunday best.