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Dewey is proof that little to no parental supervision can lead to great things. He is a freewheeling enigma, whose adventures can leave the reality of the series, or ground it to a complete halt. Dewey expects nothing, and is still let down, so he endlessly amuses himself, photobombing strangers’ photoshoots or conversing with a cartoon character who can only speak to him. Dewey is also a musical prodigy, not only composing a complete classical work, “Dewey’s Opera,” from the thematic strands of his parents’ arguments, but concocting his very first keyboard, complete with kitchen utensils, golf clubs, and car horns. The pride in his parents’ eyes, as they are dragged away by the police, is a testament to dysfunctional family unity.
Hal is the dad every kid fantasizes about having until they realize they’ve awoken from a fever dream. Bryan Cranston brings more to Hal than an actor’s regular dossier, whether figure skating or covered in bees. We completely understand how Vince Gilligan saw Cranston in the back seat of The X-Files and made him drive Breaking Bad as the antihero Walter White. Hal’s own brand of genius, evil as it may have been, can be used for good, like when he taught a bunch of bodybuilders a balanced checkbook is as important as a balanced exercise regimen. From his appearances on Seinfeld, it was evident Cranston excels so much in comedy it is almost a shame to straitjacket him in drama. Cranston is the most animated actor working. He could be a cartoon character and wouldn’t need digital effects. His face is that elastic. His voice that versatile. Of course Hal loves Lois far more than she loves him, all his interpretations make sense in the quantum physics that holds the family universe together.
Jane Kaczmarek’s Lois is revolutionary as a sitcom mom. She nonchalantly rejects stereotypes, and maintains a maniacal devotion to her family. Lois may train her kids like the toughest war-time drill sergeant with a metal plate in the head, but when Reese actually joins the military, she is his most trusted reconnaissance. Lois is unquestionably the head of the household, commands the utmost respect not only from her own boys but every child, and many adults, in an eight-block radius.
Lois is also the most subversive protagonist on TV. She exemplifies an unshakeable sense of justice. After learning Reese got a failing grade on a paper that was actually written by Malcolm, Lois realizes the bigger crime is that the teacher failed her son for spite. The proof? Nothing Malcolm writes, even at his worst, would merit a failing grade. The scene shows off Lois’ righteousness mixed with excruciating timing, it is impossible not to laugh or agree with her, especially as Francis makes a surprising appearance. Lois digs to the bottom of truth and yanks it like a root canal. Kaczmarek was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award every year the show ran, as well as nominated for three Golden Globes. She never won. Life is unfair. Cloris Leachman, who played Lois’ mother, Grandma Ida, won two Emmys.
From manipulative babysitters, to egotistical teachers, and all manner of extended family whose only joy is the occasional tickle, like Christopher Lloyd as Hal’s father, the supporting cast, and guest players were also perfectly suited for their parts in the family’s universe. Malcolm’s best friend, Stevie, is an asthmatic African-American genius confined to a wheelchair, but uses it as a weapon of wit and social commentary. “With my intelligence and tokenism, the sky’s the limit,” Stevie tells Malcolm. It is a spirited blow to marginalization, and a lesson in true human nature. Every character on Malcolm in the Middle is defined by some unfair misjudgment of character flaw or idiosyncrasy. The marvel of it is the show remained almost completely stigma-free, even at its most caustic.
Like the characters, Malcolm in the Middle throws off all conventional formulaic wisdom, and burns the rulebook. The first thing Boomer twisted was plots. Episodes weave separate but equally compelling stories into the action, all running concurrently, often in different locations. Each concludes by closing credits, but never how it is expected. Because so many sequences were filmed on location, there was little need for a studio audience providing laughs. Malcolm in the Middle then did away with the laugh track entirely, braving moments of uncomfortable silence for genuine laughter.