Cockpit of Conflict

By Billen, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), May 7, 2001 | Go to article overview

Cockpit of Conflict


Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


ANDREW BILLEN on a painfully funny sitcom that shows the family as war zone

The wonderfully funny new American sitcom Malcolm in the Middle presents the world from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy. It is not a pleasant vision. The squabbles of everyday family life and the pressures of school loom terrifyingly large. In the opening moments of the first episode, the familiar from-space image of Earth zooms up the left nostril of Malcolm's brother Reese, where it -- or something -- causes an obstruction that makes him squeak as he sleeps. This world, on the other hand, gets up Malcolm's nose all the time.

This is a programme about the American home as a cockpit of conflict, of the dispute between individual rights and group responsibilities, of enforced familial alliances and the brutalising that one generation does to the next even as it attempts to tame it. It is, in other words, about being a child and, as Malcolm says, the best thing about childhood is that at some point it stops. It is pretty much all said in the show's theme tune by They Must Be Giants, which expresses the dream of one day turning round and declaring: "You're not the boss of me any more."

Malcolm has been described as a live-action Simpsons but, while that is a lofty claim, it does not do justice to its originality.

Linwood Boomer has invented a more enclosed and claustrophobic family than the Simpsons. Homer and co participate all too fully with the Springfield community -- the "cast" stretches into the hundreds. Malcolm's family is hermetic and dreads a neighbourly knock at the door. His mother has traded so many of her social skills for hands-on childrearing that she unashamedly greets Malcolm's special needs teacher topless. At one point, Malcolm perceives his folk as a family of chimps defending their territory from a neighbouring tribe.

In Simpsons terms, Malcolm, gracefully played by Frankie Muniz, is a mix of Bart and Lisa, a brilliant anarchist, a pest with higher moral sensibilities. His great desire is to be ordinary, but fate does not make this easy for him. On the one hand, there is his abnormally "colourful" home life (as his teacher euphemises); on the other, his intellect. Malcolm has an IQ of 165, so he is "different in his brain". His only real schoolfriend is the wheelchair-bound, asthmatic Stevie, and all they have in common is their status as outsiders and a shared love of escapist comic books.

At the head of Malcolm's family stands his mother, Lois, known to her in-laws as "Loist Common Denominator". There is a blue-collar coarseness about her, demonstrated when she shaves her legs in the car on the way to a wedding (and it is wet shave, too), but her background is not what's wrong with her. …

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