What do you think of when you hear the term “family sitcom”? Laugh tracks? Middle class problems like soccer practice? Every episode ending with a hug? Well, one family sitcom that came out in the year 2000 ruined all of these tropes. Malcolm in the Middle, created by Linwood Boomer, is a sitcom about a lower middle class family of misfits told from the perspective of Malcolm (Frankie Muniz), the middle child who is a mentally gifted prodigy. The family included unconventional characters like Lois (Jane Kaczmarek), the hot tempered mom, Hal (Bryan Cranston), the hypersensitive father, Francis (Christopher Masterson), the delinquent older brother, Resse (Justin Berfield), the bullying older brother, Dewey (Eric Per Sullivan), the quirky younger brother, and Malcom, the middle brother. The series is not only hilarious, it is also groundbreaking for it’s time.
Despite the series coming out twenty years ago (sorry if that makes you feel old), Malcolm in the Middle was ahead of all the other sitcoms with groundbreaking filming methods such as filming with a single camera. A vast majority of sitcoms at the time filmed with multi cameras, in which various cameras were set around a stage to get all the angles while the actors were filmed before a live studio audience. Malcolm, on the other hand, was filmed like a movie with a single camera and allowed for many shots to be more cinematic than the traditional sictom. This allowed for the show to use tracking shots, extreme close ups, overhead shots, less static locations and even experimental editing.
The experimentation with editing styles is best seen in the season two episode “Bowling,” which won the Emmy for Outstanding Directing and Writing in a Comedy Series. This episode revolves around the boys going to a party at a bowling alley but uses split screen to tell two different possible stories, one of Lois taking the boys to the party and the other with Hal taking the boys to the party. The episode explores the two different scenarios and uses a split screen similar to the 1970 film Woodstock, where they show two scenes happening at once with split screen. This would be impossible to film on a multi camera set and with the use of a single camera the director, Todd Holland, got to experiment with split screen editing. This episode also contains one of the series most iconic moments, where Malcolm can’t even bowl a strike in a fit of rage despite standing directly in front of the pins.
Malcolm in the Middle was also one of the first sitcoms to ditch the laugh track. While nowadays many of us groan when we do hear that laugh track in a series, back then you couldn’t escape it. Malcolm on the other hand, mainly thanks in part that it was not filmed in front of a live studio audience, does not have a laugh track. This laugh track leaves a lot more room for jokes since the actors don’t need to keep pausing to wait for the laughing to stop, but also leads to much more darker humor, especially with the many dramatic outbursts and crises of Hal.
In one scene during one of Hal’s many crises, he hears various versions of himself telling him how he should handle life and his newfound midlife crisis (one voice even tells him to pack up and go). This leads Hal to run into the living room, where the boys are quietly watching television, and dramatically scream “shut up” as the boys turn and look at him like he’s nuts. The audience laughs at this scene but in real life would be pretty terrified and confused. If a laugh track was here it wouldn’t fit with the tone, it would seem a bit like it was mocking the characters and would feel inauthentic with the tone of the show. It would also interrupt the awkward silence the family has afterwards which adds more to the joke.
Where the series really becomes part of the peak television wave is with the characters. While the series is very funny in terms of its dark and self deprecating humor, it never forgets the real drama that these characters face. In the episode “Lois Strikes Back,” we get a deeper look into the mother of the family, Lois. In this episode, Lois seeks revenge on a group of mean girls who pranked Reese, humiliating them during prom week, and the audience quickly sees that Lois can be just as reckless as her sons. This leads to an emotional scene of Lois explaining to Reese that she got her reckless and self destructive behavior from her mother (Cloris Leachman) and that she has now passed it down to him, even apologizing for this.
In this episode, Lois got to break away from the stereotypes of the mother character in a sicom (strict and perfect) and become a truly complicated human with her own deep rooted issues. This is a scene that resonates with many of the themes of the show such as dysfunction being hereditary and how the family supports one another in their constant times of misery since no one else truly understands. It is a theme that fits more with the half hour tragic comedies of today such as Better Things and less like the shows at the time like Full House, where life isn’t solved within a half hour and where the parents don’t have all the answers.
Despite Malcolm in the Middle coming out twenty years ago, it truly paved the way for many half hour comedies that came after, from single camera to experimental editing. From ditching the laugh track to exploring the deeper issues behind their characters. While this seems like a must for series nowadays, especially as half hour comedies are growing more respected, this was all still very uncommon twenty years ago. In a time where sitcoms showed picture perfect families and after-school messages, Malcolm in the Middle only had one message which truly resonates with our time right now: that life is unfair.
Malcolm in the Middle is available to watch on Amazon Prime.
By Brianna Benozich