The Mixed (Yet Uplifting) Message Of “Malcolm In The Middle”

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Not every TV show gets to have a series finale. In fact, it’s fairly rare for any show, be it a sitcom, a drama, or a Saturday morning cartoon, to get to that point. More shows tend to get canceled before a finale can ever make it to the drawing board.

When a show does get to that point, though, it’s still no guarantee that the finale will be satisfying. Ideally, the end of a long-running show should tie up loose ends, create a sense of closure, and reward the audience for sticking with the story since it began. That’s the best case scenario. More often than not, finales tend to be mixed.

Truly satisfying finales like that of “M*A*S*H” are a rarity. More often than not, a series finale is going to leave some fans elated and others upset. To this day, there are still people who argue about the finale of “Lost” and I imagine there will be just as many arguments about the finale to “How I Met Your Mother.”

It’s next to impossible to create a finale that satisfies everybody. The most anyone could hope for is a show that at least creates a complete story, even if it remains open-ended to some extent. That’s how the finale to “Breaking Bad” handled things and while not perfect, I think it worked in the context of the show.

There is another show, however, that didn’t try that hard to make the perfect finale. In fact, the show did something unique in that it embraced the idea that there’s no perfect ending, but there is a path forward. There’s no final triumph or ultimate reward for the characters. There’s only the understanding that life goes on, there’s no easy way to do things, and sometimes the things you don’t like will always guide you.

That show is “Malcolm In The Middle,” a quirky, but entertaining sitcom full of juvenile humor and questionable messages. For some, the show just took family dysfunction to an absurd extreme. Even so, it was pretty funny. Between lovable charisma of Frankie Muniz, the physical comedy of Bryan Cranston before he was Walter White, and the overly dramatic presence of Jane Kaczmarek, this show had a lot to offer.

Like “Married With Children” before it, this show went the opposite direction of the typical feel-good sitcom. Malcolm’s family aren’t the upstanding, upbeat models of society in the mold of “Father Knows Best.” They’re a collection of low-class, ill-mannered, under-privileged brutes who always find themselves in bad situations that inspire bad decisions.

They’re the kind of dysfunctional family that give other dysfunctional families a bad name. Part of their appeal was how they navigated that dysfunction. They rarely learned their lessons, they rarely underwent meaningful growth, and they often screw themselves over with their bad decisions. That’s what made it funny.

For seven seasons, the antics of Malcolm and his family followed a fairly successful formula. Malcolm, his brothers, and his parents find themselves in trouble or in over their heads. They struggle to rectify the situation, but often end up making things worse and incurring plenty of memorable comedy along the way.

In the series finale, however, the show takes that formula and injects something unique into the mix. After seven seasons of wild antics, spectacular failures, and memorable monologues, “Malcolm In The Middle” sent a message that went beyond the forces behind family dysfunction. I would even go so far as to say that message is more relevant now than it was when the episode aired in 2006.

The main premise of the episode revolves around Malcolm graduating valedictorian from high school. Being a certified genius, as revealed in the first episode, his life is the only one within his dysfunctional family that has the potential to be something. There are other assorted side-plots to the episode, one of which involves a giant bag of shit that Reese created, but this is the main catalyst for the ultimate conclusion of the show.

Shortly before graduation, Malcolm is given the kind of opportunity that most people can only dream of. Instead of college, he’s offered a lucrative job at a tech company that would’ve given him a six-figure salary, stock options, and a far less hectic life compared to the one his working class family afforded him.

Malcolm makes clear that he wants that job. He wants that life because, unlike his brothers, he has a chance to escape it. Like so many other times throughout the show, though, his control-freak mother steps in and stops it. She makes the decision for him. He’s going to college. On top of that, he’s going to have to work his way through, drudging along as a janitor instead of using his genius to make things easier.

Naturally, he’s not happy about this. It’s not the first time his mother has made choices that affected his entire life. In fact, that’s one of the most prevailing tropes of the show. No matter what Malcolm or his brothers do, they can never escape their mother’s neurotic control.

She doesn’t just want to control what he does after he graduates, either. She wants to put him and/or shove him down a path towards becoming President of the United States. Both she and Hal, played by Bryan Cranston, reveal that they’ve had this in mind for Malcolm since they found out he was a genius. It leaves him baffled, frustrated, and pretty upset.

Among other things.

However, this time his mother gives meaning to her decision that go beyond the usual “I’m your mother so do as I say” excuse. Instead, she does something that nobody on the show ever attempted to do to that point. She imparts upon Malcolm, and the audience by default, a series of harsh truths within the context of the bigger picture.

Those truths all hit hard as they come pouring out in a memorable exchange that helps encapsulate so much of the dysfunction Malcolm’s family endures. At the same time, it also makes a compelling case for why Malcolm should become President.

Lois: That doesn’t matter. What does matter is you’ll be the only person in that position who will ever give a crap about people like us. We’ve been getting the short end of the stick for thousands of years, and I, for one, am sick of it. Now, you are going to be president, mister, and that’s the end of it.

Malcolm: Did it ever occur to you that I could have taken this job, gotten really rich and then bought my way into being President?

Lois: Off course it did. We decided against it.

Malcolm: What?!

Lois: Because then you wouldn’t be a good President. You wouldn’t have suffered enough.

Malcolm: I’ve been suffering all my life!

Lois: I’m sorry. It’s not enough. You know what it’s like to be poor, and you know what it’s like to work hard. Now you’re going to learn what it’s like to sweep floors and bust your ass and accomplish twice as much as all the kids around you. And it won’t mean anything because they will still look down on you. And you will want so much for them to like you and they just won’t. And it’ll break your heart, and that’ll make your heart bigger and open your eyes and finally you will realize that there’s more to life than proving you’re the smartest person in the world. I’m sorry, Malcolm, but you don’t get the easy path. You don’t get to just have fun and be rich and live the life of luxury.

Beyond simply reinforcing how much Lois exerts control over her children, her words reflect the collective frustration of families mired in dysfunction. From the Bundy family in “Married With Children” to the real people in the world who have kids they can’t manage and jobs that don’t pay enough, she articulated a sentiment that is difficult for most non-working class people to grasp.

Malcolm and his family are essentially trapped in the dungeon of modern society. They’re low-class, ill-mannered people who never got the opportunities to climb the social ranks. Lois and Hal work demeaning, low-paying jobs that don’t provide nearly enough to support a large family, let alone one full of rowdy children that get in trouble every other week. How could they not be dysfunctional in that environment?

It’s an environment that keeps anyone who wasn’t born into a good situation from improving their lives. It’s an environment that breeds and reinforces the dysfunction that Malcolm and his brothers so hilariously embody. Any time somebody does get a chance to leave, they jump at the opportunity and never look back. Moreover, they don’t do anything to help those who never get that chance.

Lois knows this. She can already see that happening with Malcolm. If he takes that job, he’ll just get rich and comfortable, forgetting about where he came from and never giving another thought to those who weren’t as fortunate as him. That’s entirely understandable, as Malcolm’s reaction so nicely demonstrates.

Most people do take the easy path out of hardship, poverty, and dysfunction. It’s not just a temptation. It’s a reflex. Growing up poor and dysfunctional is akin to torture and, as is often the case with torture, people naturally do whatever it takes to make it stop. Lois, for all her neurotic tendencies, is pushing Malcolm to endure for the good of every other dysfunctional family like them.

What makes these final moments of the show so powerful is that Malcolm actually listens to his mother in this case. He doesn’t fight her, for once. In the final scenes of the show, he actually follows the path she lays out for him, going to Harvard and working as a janitor to pay his way through. He’ll continue to suffer the effects of his family’s dysfunction, but it’ll help him maintain perspective.

That perspective is something almost no modern President will have. They really can’t because most modern politicians are millionaires. They essentially do exactly what Malcolm suggested, getting rich first and then buying their way into power. The fact that many politicians seem so out of touch with ordinary people, especially the working class, gives further weight to Lois’ words.

Rather than leave his dysfunction behind, Malcolm will carry it with him. He’ll use it to bring a perspective that others either don’t know about or don’t want to confront. Unlike everyone else who tries to raise awareness of working class dysfunction, he’s smarter than them. He’s actually capable of overcoming the traditional barriers that keep people like him from achieving real power.

It’s an unexpected, but satisfying brand of hope. Most episodes of “Malcolm In The Middle” tend to end with a sense of misanthropy that reverts Malcolm’s family back to the status quo. They’re never allowed to get ahead or rise above their dysfunction. At the same time, though, they don’t sink into a defeatist malaise like the Bundy family.

That’s exactly what puts Malcolm in a position to do something more in the end. Everything that held him and his family back is now a catalyst for something greater. He has both the perspective and the aptitude to do great things, such as become a President who actually cares about helping dysfunctional family’s like his.

At a time when income inequality is on the rise and the working class is enduring greater hardship, the world needs leaders who have Malcolm’s perspective. Unfortunately, such leaders are exceedingly rare, especially as powerful institutions become more and more prone to the interests of the rich.

The “Malcolm In The Middle” finale dares people to imagine what we can do when capable people from dysfunctional backgrounds actually get a chance to do something greater. The show doesn’t offer too many details about what happens to Malcolm beyond Harvard, but it’s refreshing and even a little uplifting to think that a show full of so much exaggerated dysfunction could envision a brighter future.

That future may not improve for people like Reese, though, but that’s probably beyond Malcolm’s abilities. Some dysfunction is just too great, even for a genius President.

2 Comments

Filed under human nature, media issues, philosophy, psychology, television

2 responses to “The Mixed (Yet Uplifting) Message Of “Malcolm In The Middle”

  1. Elisa

    Thabk you for this article.

  2. This was beautiful. Way to go!!!! MITM FOREVER!!!!!!

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