`Malcolm' doesn't quite fit in at Fox

Review: Show seems more suited for a channel such as Comedy Central, where network's president last worked.

January 08, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

One thing you have to say about Fox: It sticks to its guns.

Thanks to a series of flops such as "Action," which were supposed to redefine "the edge" in terms of sitcom humor and taste but were rejected by viewers, no network has suffered a worse first half of the season.

It got so bad in October that Fox canceled two-thirds of its Friday night lineup before the two new series that comprised it had even aired twice.

But tomorrow night, Fox starts its second season right back out there with "Malcolm in the Middle," a sitcom described by its own creator as follows: "It's about a kid who complains sun-up to sundown. His family is a bunch of idiots, and we also knock over a kid in a wheelchair."

Linwood Boomer, the executive producer of "Malcolm," isn't kidding about the wheelchair. The big moment of tomorrow night's pilot involves the boy taking a punch on a school playground and going down. It's played for laughs.

While it might sound a little shocking to you now, believe me, by the time it arrives it will seem pretty tame based on what's gone before. "Malcolm," is, um, different. You also have to give it that.

The sitcom about a family of six -- mom, dad and four sons -- opens in the kitchen with three of the boys eating breakfast while mom shaves dad's hairy back. Dad (Bryan Cranston) is his typically distracted self, reading the morning newspaper while standing over other newspapers placed on the floor to catch the hair. Mom (Jane Kaczmarek) is in her usual mode of trying to do 10 things at once.

One of the three kids at the table is Malcolm (Frankie Muniz), the second youngest, a middle-school kid in a middle-class family whose life is turned into what he sees as a living hell when tests shows he has an I.Q. of 165 and he is forced into a program for "gifted" kids at his public school.

Malcolm's only real friend is the camera to which he often speaks, sharing his take on his family and telling us over and over and over how unhappy he is to be in with the "gifted" kids. The nearest thing he has to a human friend is the kid in the wheelchair, Stevie (Craig Lamar Traylor). In addition to being wheelchair-bound and kind of cranky in his own way, Stevie wheezes a lot and loves being in the "gifted" program, which also makes Malcolm crazy.

The series is clearly an attempt to find a live-action partner for the "The Simpsons" in Fox's Sunday night lineup, which it follows. And there is a Simpson-esque tone to each of the three episodes I saw. Like Homer and Marge, Hal and Lois, the parents in "Malcolm," seem barely competent. One of the running jokes is that Lois never has enough of one kind of food to feed all the kids.

"There's two pieces of pizza in the fridge. Two of you can have that. The other, well, there's something that looks like peas. You have that," she yells to the kids, who are watching TV as she's getting dressed to go to work.

Lois is always late for something. In the pilot, she's only half dressed when a teacher comes knocking on the door to discuss Malcolm's phenomenal test results. Lois calmly stands in the front doorway discussing Malcolm with the teacher, while the woman stares at Lois' breasts. Like I said, "Malcolm" is different.

The question is whether enough viewers will think such difference is a good thing.

What's happening at Fox this year is that Doug Herzog, its new entertainment president, is trying to create the same brand identity for the network that he did in his last gig at Comedy Central with shows like "South Park." That's the reason for all the attitude, edge, nudity, profanity, crudity and single-camera stylings on Fox these days.

But the difference between successful programming for a small, niche cable channel like Comedy Central and one of the Big Four broadcast networks is huge. Half a million viewers is a great audience for a series on the former, while 10 million viewers gets a show canceled on the latter.

"Malcolm in the Middle" isn't nearly as funny or wickedly wise as "The Simpsons." But, despite its many moments of overkill, it does have a big heart and some smarts. There is love in this weird family. I just think they're living on the wrong side of the tracks that divides cable and network TV. Cable is where they ought to be.

Weekend TV

What: "Malcolm in the Middle"

When: Tomorrow 8: 30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Where: WBFF (Channel 45)

In a nutshell: A family sitcom with a frantic mom, hairy dad and brainiac kid.

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