He's not actually the middle child, but Malcolm is always in the middle of the action in this fractious family comedy.
Its slightly warped sense of humor won't appeal to some viewers, but "Malcolm in the Middle" qualifies as unique. Imagine the tone of the old Nickelodeon series "The Adventures of Pete and Pete," add a higher level of crudity (this is Fox after all) and a dysfunctional family and you've got "Malcolm."
Impressive newcomer Frankie Muniz stars as Malcolm, a typical kid who's embarrassed to be put in a class for gifted and talented students when he scores 165 on an IQ test.
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"Malcolm in the Middle"
When: 8:30 Jan. 9 on Fox.
Starring: Frankie Muniz, Jane Kaczmarek, Bryan Cranston
In tonight's pilot, written by series creator Linwood Boomer, Malcolm is equally mortified when his mom arranges a play date for him with another smart kid, Stevie (Craig Lamar Traylor), who speaks haltingly and is confined to a wheelchair.
"You are going to be friends with that crippled boy and you're going to like it!" Malcolm's harried mom (Jane Kaczmarek) says.
Boomer walks an edge with the handicapped jokes, but he never goes over the line. Boomer depicts Malcolm's reaction to Stevie realistically, but also shows the two becoming friends once Malcolm gets over his fear and the pair bond over a shared love of comic books. It helps that Stevie comes off as a winner in a climactic lunch hour scene.
Not everything in tonight's "Malcolm" is handled with the same tact. Early in the half-hour Malcolm's mom shaves body hair off his father (Bryan Cranston), who stands nude in the family kitchen with a newspaper obscuring his privates.
"It seems like such a shame to throw this all away," she says of his body hair as it drifts to the floor. "Birds might want to make nests with it."
Later mom runs around the house without a top, laundry basket held in front of her chest.
There's a fine line between gross and funny ("South Park" walks the same line every week), but in these scenes "Malcolm" succeeds at the former and fails at the latter.
In other subtler ways "Malcolm" delights.
It's not something spoken of, but notice the "for sale" signs in front of the homes on either side of the house where Malcolm and his crazy family live. In next week's episode, Malcolm's oldest brother, horny troublemaker Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson), returns home from boarding school and accompanies the family to Malcolm's class picnic. There he meets a girl and goes through every stage of a relationship in one afternoon. This is the kind of knowing humor children - who are likely to identify with the show's protagonist - won't get, but adults will.
In addition to Francis, Malcolm has an older brother, Reese (Justin Berfield), a ruffian, and a younger brother Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan), a cute kid who just wants attention, even if it means being tied up by his brothers.
One of the scenes in tonight's premiere features Malcolm and Dewey walking to school and encountering a bully along the way. It's an echo of a similar scene in the holiday perennial "A Christmas Story," but there's a modern twist: The bully offers his victims a value deal beating, like the hamburger-fries-soda combo at a fast food restaurant.
Unlike most sitcoms, "Malcolm" is filmed like a television drama with a single camera, no studio audience and no laugh track. Malcolm also breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to viewers at times. This gimmick received wide exposure this fall (most notably on the Baby Boomer drama "Once & Again"), but it's not as intrusive here, in part because it comes from a child.
Kaczmarek is recognizable from dozens of guest shots over the years (including "Felicity" and "Party of Five"), Cranston played Buzz Aldrin in HBO's "From the Earth to the Moon" and Masterson is the younger brother of Danny Masterson, who stars as Hyde on Fox's "That '70s Show."
But the unknown Muniz is clearly the star. Whether or not "Malcolm" proves too offbeat for mainstream audiences, he will be remembered. Muniz is not an overly precocious child actor, the kind who is too cute to be believed. Rather, his Malcolm comes off as absolutely normal, just as he should.
Though the series is titled "Malcolm in the Middle," Muniz is listed last in the opening credits. But his performance is the No. 1 reason to tune in.