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Glorified child abuse and other family sitcom cliches
on 27 December 2003
I have tried to like Malcolm in the Middle since its inception. There are certainly funny moments, and the cast is talented and occasionally extremely charming, but I just can't stomach the overall premise. It's a tired rehash of the mamma knows best theme that has been visited in Rosanne, Momma's Family, Married with Children, and even Friends. The underlying message is that the control-freak mother's behavior is justified because her sons and husband are so incredibly clueless. Without her hawk-eye and abusive tirades, they would be in deeper trouble than they're in (of course, the idea that the mother may've programmed them to be ineffectual because she needs to be a rescuer, nah, that's too existential for a primetime sitcom). If the father on Malcolm in the Middle yelled and ridiculed the children and his spouse the way the mother does, the producers and writers would be up to their necks in complaints for glorifying abusive fathers. But since it's the mother who behaves this way it is seen as some skewed form of "liberation" and assertiveness on her part. I could probably write an entire book on why this theme appeals to the American public.
Okay, okay, Malcolm in the Middle is just a show and I shouldn't take it too serious. I don't. I just don't understand why this show has been hailed by so many as groundbreaking. There is hardly anything original here at all! Every sitcom cliche is present in Malcolm in the Middle: over-protective annoying mother (Rosanne), dumb father (father on Married with Children; Homer on Simpsons), genius but unappreciated child (Lisa on Simpsons), trouble-making boy with testosterone pouring out his ears (take your pick: Bud from Married with Children; Bart from Simpsons; Dennis from Dennis the Menace), invisible younger child (Maggie from Simpsons, Tina Yother's character from Family Ties). And the corrupting older brother is so pervasive a concept that I won't even enter into a recounting of where we've seen it. I think that perhaps the only new concept in Malcolm in the Middle is its focus: it allows the story to be told from the perspective of the genius child, who is usually a background characters in most shows (but even this element is being lost as the series progresses). Maybe another innovation is the absence of the live studio audience laugh track.
I think Malcolm in the Middle would have been really groundbreaking had it visited the concepts of boys developing later in life than girls, having more difficulty in school because of their more unstable nervous system, and depicted parents who approach their sons' sensitivity with some compassion. Of course, if it did all these things then America would not watch. We are far more attracted to the concept of boys not really having any sensitivity, and to laughing at them when they get hurt, scared, confused, etc. Heck, having their sensitivity degraded and ridiculed to the point of almost complete suppression is how boys learn to be MEN! (Please note my sarcasm.)