on the set - malcolm to the max
with gross-out humor and a genius kid actor, malcolm in the middle breathes new life into tv family sitcoms
by nancy griffin
it's morning in the san fernando valley, and three of the young stars of fox's malcolm in the middle rocket out of a classroom into the spring sunshine. frankie muniz, the preternaturally charming 14-year-old who plays malcolm, starts a kickball game with crew members between soundstage 20 and the makeup trailer. justin berfield, also 14, who plays malcolm's tough older brother reese, heads for the computer in his dressing room to answer e-mails from teenage girls ("hey cutie! love always, annah"). eight-year-old erik per sullivan, who plays frequently victimized little brother dewey, sidles up to bryan cranston, his screen father, hal, who has been getting us on his trailer steps.
"hello, bubba!" says cranston, bear-hugging sullivan, then wiggling his hips in a goofy dance. "are you going to dance with me?"
cranston's mood is exultant because he has just received approval to wear jockey shorts - that is, only jockey shorts - for a dance scene in the episode now shooting; the script had called for boxers. he's going for "a big, tighty-whitey kind of look," he says, chuckling. "not a flattering kind of cut, but funnier. that white underwear just says boy to me." the big boy and the small one rehearse scene funky moves, singing "i just want to celebrate another day of living..."
the set of malcolm in the middle is a high-testosterone zone with prankish male energy that infuses the show. a domestic comedy centering around a boy genius and his eccentric, troubled family, malcolm is a surprise midseason hit, with a weekly viewership hovering around 18 million.
its success stunned the television industry, where some see it as no less than the salvation of the sitcom. not since the simpsons, which precedes it on sunday nights, has a comedy captured such a broad demographic. deftly blending kid-friendly gags with adult satire, malcolm has even won over female viewers who tune in to catch jane kaczmarek's bellowing portrayal of multi-tasking mom lois. "we're doing very well with all age groups," says the show's creator and executive producer, linwood boomer, 43. "the simpsons was a show that i always enjoyed and my kids enjoyed. sunday is one of the few nights where families actually do watch tv together. we wanted to be part of that."
it may seem unlikely at first glance that a public whose cultural heritage includes ozzie and harriet and the brady bunch would have embraced malcolm's depiction of american family life. malcolm (the family has no last name) and his bratty brothers tilt dangerously toward delinquency; tyrannical lois barely keeps the mayhem in check while hal shrinks behind his newspaper. the jokes are often politically incorrect (in malcolm's schoolyard, malcolm's best friend, a disabled black kid, is tipped over in his wheelchair by bullies). but the key to malcolm's success may be that for all its wackiness and dark colorations, it also manages to score on emotional authenticity. at the end of the day the family is glued together by love and loyalty.
the pilot opened with a body-hair sight gag, with hal standing buck naked in the kitchen as lois, for aesthetic reasons, shaved his excessively hirsute body (cranston, 44, ever game, wore glued-on yak hair). such deadpan humor springs whole from boomer's memory. he grew up in northern california, a gifted student in a family of four boys. (he was, like malcolm, son number three). his mother, a strong disciplinirian, gave his electrical/mechanical-engineer father full-body/shaves. before boomer decided to write his autobiographical script, he had earned writer and producer credits on several shows, including 3rd rock from the sun, but his career was in a lull. in translating his personal reality into tv art, boomer has enjoyed almost complete creative freedom, a rare luxury for an unproven talent.
"this didn't go through the standard development process," he says of the show. "most of the time it's 'can we do this, can we change that, can we make it more friendly to our advertisers?' and by the time you're done, you have a show that looks like everything else that gets started in the fall season. this didn't go through that mill."
in the episode being filmed this week, "the bots and the bees," malcolm watches his father unravel after lois leaves for a few days to visit her first-born, francis (christopher masterson, 20), who just had an emergency appendectomy at the military academy he attends. in 18 years of marriage, hal and lois had never spent a night apart. hal can't take it: he plays hooky from work and starts smoking, drinking and frolicking in his underwear. unnerved, malcolm tries to arrest his father's downward spiral. but malcolm and his genius pals, the krelboynes, also take advantage of lois's absence by deciding to build a killer robot in the house. in his deteriorating state, hal commandeers their work and turns it into a machine that spews out bees. "the robot project is a cool thing until my father kind of goes a ilttle loopy on it," says malcolm.
a new jersey native, frankie muniz is a boy who loves his job. polite and articulate, he has been home-schooled by his mother, denise, and is remarkably at ease around adults. denise has to keep after him to study his scripts; he says he needs only to glance at his lines to prepare for shooting and finds malcolm easy to play. muniz's biggest problem at the moment is a high-end one: adjusting to sudden celebrity. thanks to malcolm and the hit movie my dog skip, in which he starred last winter, it's no longer safe for him to hang at the malls. "it is sometimes weird, having the girls follow me and stuff," he says. "i don't like that." he has stopped trying to answer the 1,000 e-mails he gets a day, and he doesn't get to play golf as much as he would like, although with scores in the low 90s he does enjoy thrashing producers and executives who invite him to the links. with malcolm picked up for another season, muniz, his mother and his older sister will relocate semipermanently to los angeles.
like other child actors before him, from ricky nelson to fred savage on the wonder years, muniz may grow up on television. in fact, although his character is around age 12, he has sprouted seven inches since malcolm's pilot was shot last year. "he's in in full-fledged puberty right now," says his mother. the show wants to keep him playing a kid rather than an adolescent for as long as possible. both he and berfield have the down on their upper lips bleached and, to keep their voices from cracking, drink hot lemon juice and water before going on-camera.
all week, shooting alternates between house interiors, with the kids running wild and gorging on junk food while dad falls apart (cranston cracks up the crew with his dance in skivvies), and lois's visit with francis at the military academy. as she has her flip haircut ("my homage to marlo thomas") styled in the makeup trailer, kaczmarek, 44, says, "every day bryan and i look at each other and say 'we're so lucky.'" the yale drama-school graduate with the big voice and persona like a young carol burnett has toiled in supporting roles on television for 20 years. now she and her husband, bradley whitford, a costar of the west wing, enjoy dueling hit series. she also gave birth to their second child last december, a month after malcolm wrapped shooting, lois carried pots and pans in front of her belly and spent one episode in bed to hide her expansion.
"jane just has this sense of gravitiy, almost like the sun, where everybody is pulled toward her and feeds off her and has to dodge her," explains boomer. although lois rules the roost, boomer and cranston are careful to ensure that the more sensitive and retiring hal retains his manliness, if not his dignity. here are a rare tv husband and wife who hav ethe hots for each other and are always pawing affectionately. in one episode they became amorous while watching in animal show with two lions mating, boomer says "the bots and the bees," which he cowrote, gave him a way to show how tenderly intertwined hal and lois are. "the real concept here is that there a are a lot of people whose marriages are based on that other person's completing them. i think these two characters have a really vital kind of functioning relationship."
with the required emotional resonance covered, "the bots and the bees" is gearing toward its spectacular climax. here comes the cool boy-boy stuff, the reason the episode was originally conceived: boomer thought it would be fun to cover cranston in bees. malcolm's writers delight in concocting outlandish torments for cranston, who has yet to refuse to do anything they ask of him. the day before the bee scene is filmed, the mood on the set has built to a state of jittery excitement. a code of secrecy previals, making it difficult to extract such particulars as the location of the shoot from tight-lipped producers and crew. the only details that emerge are that a bee wrangler will somehow get more than 1,000 bees collectively weighing some 25 pounds to light on cranston, who will be liberally swabbled with pheromones to attract the insects. boomer reveals that the bee-spewing robot has been test-driven and judged ready for action. "it's operative, and the saws are working," he says. "at this point it's spitting out puffed rice."
two days later boomer is back on the soundstage, chuckling over a photograph as he prepares for the first shot of the day. the photo shows hal wearing a living, swarming blanket of bees, with only his eyes and mouth visible. "it looks like a suit of armor, doesn't it?" says boomer. "it was alarming." he is relieved that the scene came off smoothly. cranston received only one little nip at the finish from a bee that got pinched as it was being vacuumed off the actor.
as the hero of the hour, cranston is happy to chat about what the stunt felt like. "my whole body was vibrating because the bees were producing such energy," he says, still in a slightly mesmerized state. "i couldn't drop my chin because i would get stung. i couldn't drop my arms or move my legs. you know, any time that a bee has pressure on top of him he'll sting. and so i just kind of stood there and breathed, and actually the buzzing the thousand-bee buzz, was kind of like white light. it was rather soothing, because a bee buzz is not a discomforting feeling to me. bzzzz. i just started to zen out and meditate." meanwhile, his brave leader was standing in front of him, maintaining eye contact.
"i felt like since we're having our actor covered with bees, i had to at least be there," says boomer. "i tried to always stay within seven or eight feet of bryan and in his eye line so that he could see me being calm." still, boomer felt anything but. on that particular day on malcolm in the middle, it was boomer who had the toughest acting job, even if he was the only one who knew it. "bryan is not hysterical," he says. "i am. i have an almost crippling fear of bees."