Unlike other comedies from the turn-of-the-millennium era of Fox programming, Malcolm in the Middle hasn’t endured well past its expiration date. It’s not as smart as Arrested Development, as ironically appreciable as That ‘70s Show, or as cult-ready as Greg the Bunny. It’s more likely to be recapped in a “Where are they now?” featurette than any ‘Best Of , especially now that Frankie Muniz is a professional racer. Hell, it didn’t even place in Splitsider’s list of the 25 best comedies in Fox’s history. But return to the first season, which won Emmys for directing and writing and averaged more than 15 million viewers per episode, and witness what was, a the time, a paragon of subtlety and originality. As the pilot begins, young Malcolm Wilkerson is identified as a boy genius and moved to his school’s gifted class, much to his protestations. He just wants to be normal, he tells his mother, and not one of the different kids.
Of course, he belongs to a family of high-strung eccentrics, which is where the show’s comedy of dysfunction comes from. You can imagine an executive at Fox clapping his hands and yelling, “Chaos reigns” when giving notes to the director. The mother, Lois, is the secret hero of the show, the only person capable of holding them together through sheer will, intimidation, and obviously, love. Father Hal is a neutered patriarch, unwilling to say or do anything at odds with his wife’s authority not out of fear, but out of completely powerless apathy (you can see where Bryan Cranston fermented the neuroses for his career-defining role as Breaking Bad’s Walter White). Oldest brother Francis is a rain slick con man in the making; second oldest Reese is anarchically street smart and phenomenally book dumb; youngest brother Dewey is more of an animated, autistic teddy bear than a person with agency—in other words, a pure kid. Their lack of ambition and ability is why Malcolm’s ascent to the genius group is, in his mother’s words, “the only edge anyone’s in this family has ever been given.”
That family is recognizably middle class, in a sense: barely rich enough for the things they need, and way too poor for the things they want. Malcolm was hardly the first comedy to explore class-driven tragicomedy. Most notably, network sibling The Simpsons has navigated the politics of poverty for 20 years. But real life brings a level of detail that animation doesn’t: the torn up front yard, the ratty hand-me-down clothes the boys must wear to a funeral, the pitchers of by-the-can iced tea, the sickeningly monochrome macaroni and cheese dinners that the family eats when forced to pinch pennies after Lois is fired from her job.
In that episode, “Lois Vs. Evil,” Malcolm is forced to break off schoolyard flirtation with a girl in his class when he realizes he can’t share lunches with her because all he has is leftover scrambled eggs in a tupperware. Creating some excuse to get away, he walks over to his best friend and delivers a frustrated rant. “I can’t take this anymore!” he begins. “Everything I want, I can’t have. Anything that’s nice, I can’t do. Everyone in the world gets to do everything except me. Yeah yeah yeah, I know there’s other people worse off than me. You know what? I don’t care. I’m sick of going to school every day smelling like feet. I hate being poor, okay? I mean, is that so bad? Is that some big character flaw? It’s not my fault we’re poor!” You’re meant to laugh, maybe, when it turns out that in the oldest of TV tropes, his crush has been standing behind him the whole time.
But the reality of that daily dreariness, which Malcolm doesn’t even realize he has the chance to escape, is a more honest portrayal of modern American life than any episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s a whole lot funnier, too, in an exasperated, “everything is shit” type of way. Which may not be your thing, but Malcolm‘s darker humor isn’t born out of meanness; instead, it comes from the casual callousness of ignoring the bigger picture because you’re simply trying to make it through the week without falling apart.
Reading into things, there’s some kind of greater ideological identification with Malcolm’s Randian bootstrapping or the way his family manages to hold it all together at the extremely stretched seams, but all of this is not to make a mountain out of a molehill. Even at its best, Malcolm is just a very funny television show, not some generation-defining epoch that changed the way we all watch and think about modern comedy. Hilarious as hell is still pretty good, at least at the start. As the seasons go on, the narratives branch out: Francis legally emancipates himself and stakes a life out West; Reese fails high school, becomes a janitor and eventually joining the military; above all financial odds, a fifth child is born to the family. The supporting cast expands and expands, and eventually the show becomes yet another unrealistically sustained network comedy, driven by the comedy of error and happenstance rather than relatable conflict.
All of that is yet to come. Back in the pilot episode, Malcolm is set up on a playdate with Stevie Kernarban, a wheelchair-bound boy whose severe asthma forces him to speak every sentence in slow, wheezing breaths. Stevie goes on to be one of the series’ longer lasting characters, but right now, they’re just two kids awkwardly feeling out each other’s parentally-mandated presence. Eventually, the topic of conversation turns to comic books, and upon seeing Stevie’s collection, Malcolm exclaims, “You’ve got Youngblood #1!?” as though this is a really impressive accomplishment. Even in 2000, I’m fairly certain that this particular issue was worth less than a roll of toilet paper. But that’s the thing about a kid: small things seem big, big things seem small, and figuring out your place in the world doesn’t matter as much as getting along without any trouble.
Malcolm’s feeling of being an outsider is a lot easier to empathize with when he’s still that young. At some point during the second season, he and his brothers show up on screen having obviously gone through puberty in between filming, and all of a sudden, they’re just a bunch of annoying, deep-voiced teenagers griping about the things they want and don’t have. The show becomes a lot less endearing then, and while it remained hysterical in places, you can sort of understand why the ratings declined every year until almost no one was watching at all. That first season is still there, though, perfect for the rewatching. Give the first episode a shot; I’m certain you’ll find it funnier than you remember.