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malcolm in the middle
tv guide, march 18-24

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fun house - by anita gates

let's start with the mother. played in a take-no-prisoners style by jane kaczmarek, lois is a little crazy and fierce at all times. she doesn't have time for niceties. she's been known to shave her legs in a moving car (with her seat belt fastenced, by the way). and to lecture total strangers, like the teenage couple she came across necking in the park. "don't you know how this is all gonna end?" she demands. and when lois thinks her kids are lying, she aims a blunt instrument at the television and says, "say good-bye to a cherished family member..." whenever anything goes wrong, the children hold their breath like a dictator's trembling subjects, waiting to see whether she'll explode in fury or-they pray-just laugh.

lois has reason to be so tyrannical. she has four sons whose playtime often results in head injuries or permanent scarring, so she's well aware that calamity begins at home. that's why she can never lower her guard or, more important, show fear. if she could hear the title song of the series she's in, including the kid-sung lyric "you're not the boss of me now," she'd laugh hysterically for about one second and tell the song to shut up. and it would.

it's no wonder fox's malcolm in the middle (sundays, 8:30 p.m./et) is the killer hit of the season. in january, just as the press and the television industry were pronouncing the form dead, malcolm appeared and single-handedly jolted prime-time network comedy back to life. fox is happy. (ratings are so good that malcolm has actually gained on its lead-in, animated eternahit the simpsons.) the cast is happy, moving into new houses in california for what looks to be a long run. and sunday-evening viewers no longer know when to turn off the set and go walk the dog.

the family on malcolm (they have no last name) is grabbing viewers of both sexes and all ages, while other shows are still narrowly trying to appeal to young males (advertisers' favorites) with friends clones or derivative sitcoms about dumb bachelors. malcolm is also what some tv-industry types thought they'd never see again: a comedy that the whole family can watch and enjoy together.

why is this series about a grammar-school genius with a high-decibel home life so funny - and so right for normally fickle viewers in the year 2000?

the show's hook may be its characters, who have millennially high stress levels. multitasking lois rules the noisy roost; her husband, hal (bryan cranston), blanks out, reads the paper and lets her. their oldest son, francis (christopher kennedy masterson), has been in trouble so often that they've shipped him off to military school somewhere in alabama. still, he visits and calls constantly. the next oldest, reese (justin berfield), is happily assuming the role of tough guy. the youngest, dewey (erik per sullivan), is usually the victim of sibling torture. ("did you see the one where they hung me up on the door?" sullivan asks.) and, of course, there's malcolm (frankie muniz), the middle child and the emotional center of the show, horrified that he's just been declared supersmart (iq: 165) and transferred to the gifted-kids class. malcolm often speaks directly to the camera about his woes and his family perspective; he knows we'll understand.

people have offered linwood boomer, the show's 43-year-old creator, many opinions about its appeal. "everybody tells me something different," he says, before suggesting a theory of his own: "we try to make the shows very dense." meaning that the scripts are tightly packed with verbal and visual jokes that are hard to get all at once - and a few are sure to strike home. his model for that, he says, is the simpsons, which has been successfully pulling off a trick for a decade.

malcolm in the middle's other strength is its honesty. "they're more real than most tv families," says muniz, 14, of his tv relatives.

doug herzog, president of entertainment at fox, expands on that. "it's honest about how families really communicate with each other," he says. herzog first read the script on a plane between new york and los angeles and committed to it immediately. "that's how people live. i walk around in my underwear."

like roseanne, malcolm celebrates the chaos of american family life. moms do go into the living room in their slips if they're in a hurry. lots of kids sit down to breakfast in their boxers. if a wife had to shave her husband's body hair and the bathroom was occupied, she might do it in the kitchen. and there can be a lot of yelling, even in a happy home.

boomer happily acknowledges that malcolm is based on his own childhood, but, he says, "only in the most ludicrously exaggerated way." really? boomer's mother, eileen, reveals that lois's incident with the burned dress actually happened. "my second son, brian, was altering it with a blowtorch," mrs. boomer says. "and he put it in the freezer to put out the fire."

most of the malcolm cast claim their lives are more transquil. masterson, 20, lives with his girlfriend in los angeles. sullivan, who'll be 9 in july, is an only child living in massachusetts most of the time with his restaurateur parents, ann and fred. cranston, 43, lives with his wife, actress robin dearden, and their young daughter in an l.a. suburb. berfield, 14, who lives with his parents, gail and rick, and an older brother, lorne, in a los angeles suburb, does acknowledge that he and his brother sometimes fight over who takes a shower first.

only kaczmarek, 44 and the married mother of two, confesses that sometimes her household can seem a little like the one on malcolm. the day of her tv guide interview, she had been up since 2 a.m. because of a crying infant, her breast-feeding schedule and a laundry-room plumbing emergerncy. muniz admits that his mother, denise, drives him crazy whenever it's time for an appointment because she's always running late. "she takes like two hours to get ready, but she leaves herself 30 minutes; then she gets on the phone for another 30 minutes," he explains, in his mother's presence. "when i get my license, i'm always going to be on time."

but if malcolm were just about scheduling snafus and terror, the show wouldn't be the full-bodied success that it is. "on the outside it's zany and it's crazy," says cranston. "but i think once you peel off that veneer, you have a real family, heartfelt togetherness," for one thing, middle-aged lois and hal can't seem to keep their hands off each other, and, as cranston points out, "that's celebrated, not made fun of."

the cast likes to point out that this may be one of the most functional families seen on-screen in a long time. eldest brother francis is a delinquent, but he'd do anything for his little brothers. and they look up to him as a god. every day this family sits down to meals together. "nothing is swept under the carpet. and that's my definition of healthy," kaczmarek says.

but one wonders why, if malcolm is so great, fox didn't put it on the air last fall, when the network could have used a new hit. especially after its much-hyped hollywood series action bit the dust?

"that was never, ever the plan," says herzog. "we knew we had something really special - the show is just plain brilliantly funny - and it needed some tlc. we wanted to be very careful to position it as a family show."

whatever fox did, it worked. now people connected to the series are thinking ahead to what they'll do in a few seasons when muniz gets a growth spurt and sullivan is too mature to be baby-cute anymore. but they figure that if shows like my three sons carried on for 12 seasons by marrying off the older boys and adopting, so can they. kaczmarek smiles and suggests a simple strategy: "we'll bring in naughty foster children."