Series: Advent Calendar 2016: Holiday TV Episodes
Malcolm in the Middle
Season 3 Episode 7
Originally broadcast December 16, 2001
Okay, so the whole Linwood Boomer connection is a bit of a stretch, considering he wasn't even in the episode I was talking about yesterday. I have always found it an interesting factoid, though, that the love interest from Little House on the Prairie went on to create Malcolm in the Middle. Comparing these two shows is actually kind of an interesting juxtaposition. From a nice family of mostly girls we come to this rather awful family of mostly boys.
What is the show?
American teen Malcolm [last name withheld] navigates the trials of modern adolescence while dealing with his extremely dysfunctional family and status as a legitimate genius and social outcast. The show is named after him, but really it's about his whole family. His mother, Lois, leads the family with a notoriously heavy hand, while his father Hal is a lovable goofball. Malcolm shares a room (and even a bed) with two of his brothers, the miscreant bully Reese and the strange but creative Dewey. The oldest brother, Francis, was shipped off to Military School, which has done little to soften his rebellious tendencies.
I'll just be blunt: I love this show. The characters are all nuanced and interesting, the writing is absolutely top-notch, and the stories - especially as the show goes on - are original and creative. Not a day goes by in which I don't find a parallel between everyday life and something that happens on Malcolm in the Middle. It has been ten years since the show was aired, and it still feels just as relevant and modern as it ever has.
Perhaps more incredible than the fact that the show still stands up extremely well is just how universal it is. When it first aired, I identified strongly with the boys, being an outcast myself, and connected with their struggle against society and overbearing adults who wanted to control their lives. Now that I'm an adult, I find that the tables have turned, and I see the show now as a sad but painfully relevant tale of a father struggling to maintain his fragile sanity and powerless in the face of the endless march of societal obligations. It's as much about Malcolm as it is about Hal, Lois, Dewey, Reese, or Francis, and each character fits neatly into a different but equally poignant niche. Ultimately the show isn't just about one kid or even one family - it's about everyone. It's about all of us.
Well, as long as you're a middle-class white suburban family, I guess.
Come for Bryan Cranston at his absolute best (sorry Breaking Bad fans), stay for the ensemble cast of people who are so great that Cranston doesn't even stand out.
What is the episode?
The Gift of the Magi is a pretty popular Christmas Trope, but the "True Meaning of Christmas" is the far more common tale. That's what we get in this third season episode of Malcolm. Being this far into the series, the characters are all very firmly established, so we can see how the classic family Christmas bends to them, instead of the other way around. It isn't the quintessential episode of the show, but it isn't the worst, and it's definitely a unique gem on this list.
The boys make a mess of the Christmas decorations (as they are wont to do), and Lois does more than threaten to take the entire holiday away (she in fact locks everything away in the garage). She vows to only return the festivities if the boys behave. They respond in their usual way, at first trying to acquiesce but eventually falling back on the rebellion that obviously comes more naturally to them all. Meanwhile Francis is in Canada visiting Lois' evil mother (played by the always brilliant Cloris Leachman), and a battle of wills ensues as they compete to make each other more miserable.
The story's conclusion is pretty heartwarming, especially for Malcolm in the Middle. It's one of a few episodes of this show where we get to see how deep these characters go. They aren't simply nasty hooligans, they're a real family trying to enjoy the holiday just like the rest of us.
One downside to this episode is that Hal is uncharacteristically flat, forced into the "dad" role in the family Christmas, so you'll miss out on Bryan Cranston going full Bryan Cranston. You can hardly blame him, though, having to compete with the unstoppable forces of Jane Kaczmarek and Cloris Leachman
Where can you watch it?
The whole series is just waiting for you to binge watch the entire thing on Netflix.
What do you need to know?
The character with the biggest arc of the entire show is the oldest brother Francis. When the show starts, he is in Military School, but the second season ended with him emancipating himself and running off to work on a logging camp in Alaska (which is where he is in this episode). You have to respect a show that is willing to just completely re-write an entire character's setting every couple seasons. Oh, also, each episode starts with a cold open that has nothing to do with the rest of the episode, another thing that I wish more shows would do.
Consider that this episode came out in 2001, which I think we can all agree was a rather bad year. People probably felt like throwing everything away and giving up, tossing whatever joy and excitement was left into the garage. I don't know if the producers of MitM were trying to create anything more than just a funny half hour of TV escapism, but I think it's especially poignant (and relevant today) when viewed in that context. Sometimes when everything sucks we just have to take a deep breath, let go of the fury and the frustration, and just have a good time anyway.
And, actually, while we're on the subject of Cloris Leechman. . .