The evolution of TV's family comedy shows
'Malcolm in the Mid-dle' appeals to family members of all ages
Single-parent households. Twenty-something friends and roommates. Gay relation ships. Unmarried adults whose lives revolve around the workplace. Check out the landscape of American network television today, and you'd be hard pressed to find much that resembles that old-fashioned cultural staple - the nuclear family unit of mom, dad, and the kids.
But as you click the remote on Sunday nights, you may want to slow down when you reach the Fox network. Because there, airing just after "The Simpsons," you'll find one of the most successful American family comedies to hit television in years.
Be prepared, however. The concept "family comedy" may not be the first thing to spring to mind when you tune in to "Malcolm in the Middle," which has its season première on Nov. 4 at 8:30 p.m. (check local listings).
There's a mild mayhem that reigns in this half-hour take on a middle-class family, created by Linwood Boomer.
Drawing partly from his own childhood, he has created a highly eccentric family made up of parents Lois and Hal (no last name has ever been revealed on the show), and their four sons, including 11-year-old Malcolm, played by Frankie Muniz, a misfit genius who often turns and speaks into the camera as a way to address the uproar around him.
"Father Knows Best," it's definitely not. But just 18 months after its première, "Malcolm in the Middle" has already taken its place in American family television history, both for the ingenuity of the show's production and for its wacky portrayal of the ties that bind - and define - family relations.
Earlier this year, it won a prestigious Peabody award for excellence in broadcasting. More recently it received eight Emmy nominations, including best comedy series, pitting it against such long-time favorites as "Frasier."
"There's a timelessness to this show," says TV Guide critic Matt Roush, a self-proclaimed "Malcolm" fan. "It will syndicate beautifully. It will be with us for a really long time.
"This is a true family comedy," he says. "It's about the solidity of family, despite everything. These aren't model kids. This isn't model funny. They're not model citizens. But it's a funny family, and it's a loving family. And I think that's the bottom line."
All this for a show that depicts a family in a state of near-constant chaos. It features a mother who's so blunt that she often leaves her adolescent sons mortified, a father who doesn't like his job, one son in constant trouble at military school, another who's a schoolyard bully, a genius who's trying to be normal, and a youngest child who has his own slightly surreal take on life.
But it's also all tempered with love and an occasional streak of inspired sweetness. These range from Lois's unconditional support for her husband when he takes an unpaid leave from his job to pursue his dream of being a painter, to the discovery that Reese, the bully, has a hidden talent for gourmet cooking (although he's still not beyond sabotaging a fellow cook's entry in a cook-off).
"What I love about this show is its acceptance of weirdness and the love of the idiosyncratic," says Richard Louv, a cultural observer and commentator for the San Diego Union-Tribune. "It's a show in which strangeness is indivisible from love. That's truly the way families are that love each other."
To be sure, the show is a far cry from the utopian families who populated television in the early 1960s in programs such as "The Donna Reed Show" and "Father Knows Best."
Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University, says those shows had a certain "user-friendly" quality to them, but "didn't allow for the full palette of family life, or anything even close to it.
"Even though the family is the basic grammatical unit of American television," he says, "it's amazing how poorly explored the American family has been through most of the history of television."
The 1980s brought television's first true departure from standardized family comedies, says Mr. Thompson. Even as shows such as "Family Ties," "The Cosby Show," and "Growing Pains" continued the family norm, shows such as "Roseanne," "Married With Children," and the animated series "The Simpsons" launched what he calls "a sort of family-TV culture war."
Suddenly, families were decidedly middle-class with imperfect parents and impertinent kids.
Also around that time, "The Wonder Years" debuted, taking comedy to a more sophisticated level, particularly in the show's refusal to use a laugh track and its exploration of unorthodox story lines.
"Malcolm," says Thompson, owes its heritage to this breakaway portrayal of American families (though he says he also thinks of "Leave It to Beaver," with its odd cast of characters including Lumpy and Eddie Haskell, as being a kind of "grandfather" to the show).
But at a time when television programming is more abundant and more fractured than it has ever been, the show has done something else: It is pulling in whole families of viewers.
Experts observe that the show appeals to all age groups in a family, from grandparents to grade-schoolers.
"What they've managed to do with this show," says Thompson, "is to reposition the nuclear family comedy, from this old-fashioned notion of something for everybody in an era where there was nothing else to watch, to something for everybody that can actually survive in a 90-channel cable environment.
"They've pulled off an extraordinary demographic sleight of hand."
Fans of the show also note that it has managed to do something else. As edgy as the writing is, "Malcolm in the Middle" sits squarely on a base of fairly traditional values.
Sure, the kids get in trouble. But it's a mild sort of trouble: rigging giant catapults on the roof and hurling used baby diapers at the neighbors, or sneaking out to the circus, where they get locked in at closing time.
They don't "do drugs," there's not a drop of alcohol on the show, and as wild as things get, both Lois and Hal lay down a firm line between right and wrong.
"It deals with wholesome family issues, without coming off as wholesome," says David Walsh, of the National Institute on Media and the Family. "It's got a nice blend of intelligent wackiness."
Adds Mr. Louv: "There's a solid spine there, but it's expressed in ways that are all over the map. That's what's so wonderful, because life is all over the map."