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'Malcolm' at the top after muddled start
By Jefferson Graham, USA TODAY

STUDIO CITY, Calif. - In comedy, timing is everything. Consider the case of Malcolm in the Middle, which was the last "fall series" to debut, but which has become the season's first sitcom hit.

Despite airing just three episodes so far, Fox's Malcolm is the highest-rated new show of the 1999-2000 TV season - No. 5 season to date, attracting an average audience of 23 million viewers in a season that had been dominated by dramas.

But before instant success came delay and rejection. Malcolm was initially turned down by UPN. It was held by Fox until January, during a four-month period when the network's ratings were in a free fall. It debuted at a time when new comedies were being canceled right and left, and observers were speculating about the death of the sitcom.

Yet it turns out that Fox made the right decision to make Malcolm wait. Millions have shown up Sundays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT (repeats Tuesdays) to see the comedy about a gifted child and his wacky family - and haven't left.

"We had a great lead-in in the best written show on TV, The Simpsons," says Malcolm executive producer Linwood Boomer, trying to explain the show's success. "It turned out to be a great fit."

Media buyer Stacey Lynn Koerner of TN Media calls Malcolm the "right show at the right time. People are tired of being spoon-fed the perfect family. Malcolm depicts a family in a real way and makes light of it. People responded."

Bryan Cranston, who plays Malcolm's harried dad Hal, says that at its core, the show is about a blue-collar couple who go from paycheck to paycheck. "People relate to that," he says. "They live in chaos, get angry and yell at home, and that strikes a real chord. We twist it, of course, for comedic effect, but I think that really resonates with the public."

Cranston adds: "With a name like Linwood, you're either a thug fighter or a comedy writer, and he happens to be a damn good comedy writer. Everything is filtered through Linwood. These are his experiences, and that's a huge reason why the show is successful. Fox left him alone. On all the other shows I've done, the network and studio are always around, hovering, making notes, and they dilute the process. On this show, they trusted Linwood and just really let him go."

Add the charm of 14-year-old Frankie Muniz in the title role and ample time for Fox to promote the series, and a hit was born.

In the wake of Malcolm's popularity, Boomer says he gets calls from producers telling him he's "rewritten the rule-book" for TV success. "I don't buy that because I don't believe there are rules. If people like it, they'll watch."

However, Malcolm looks different from most TV comedies, which are filmed in front of a live studio audience. Malcolm is produced with one camera, like a movie, with intensive special effects and music added afterward.

"I knew this way of production would be tough," Boomer says, "but this show is too weird and too idiosyncratic to do in front of a live audience."

The actors went home after the 13th episode was completed in November, but Boomer is still finishing the last three shows. Normally, when a show hits big, the network scrambles to get more new episodes, but Boomer says there's no way he could get them finished until midsummer.

He got through his first order by completing all the scripts before production began, and that's what he wants to do again - or at least 15 of the expected 22 scripts for next season.

Fox hasn't officially renewed the show - a mere technicality - and Boomer hopes to begin writing with his staff in the third week of February, with production beginning in May for an expected August return.

Oddly, Boomer never came up with a last name for Malcolm and the family, an age for his main character (he's somewhere between 9 and 12) or even a city to set them in.

The issue of the family name, in fact, has become a running gag, such as how viewers never saw Maris on Frasier or Vera on Cheers. "It's turned into a fun thing," he says.

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