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Malcolm Lands on Top
Six weeks into its run, 'Malcolm in the Middle' is making sitcom history. Who knew success would look this quirky?
By Marc Peyser
Newsweek, February 21, 2000

Eileen Boomer would like to set the record straight about the sitcom based on her family, "Malcolm in the Middle." For one thing, she says she did not shave her husband's hairy body in the kitchen. "Can you imagine! I was a little more concerned about my housekeeping than that, and it was certainly not the whole body," she says. Nor did she walk around the house topless, regardless of what her son Linwood puts in the Fox program he's created. He did befriend a disabled neighbor, though his mother never told him, "You're going to be friends with that crippled boy, and you're going to like it!" as the "Malcolm" mom does. Nor did the real Mrs. Boomer punish her sons by making them run in circles -- they were only marched around the room. "I called and asked Linwood about some of these things, and he says it's exaggerated," Mrs. Boomer says. "But the part about putting his father's hair out for the birds was true. They made nests out of it."

Whatever the case, Mrs. Boomer, there's probably nothing you can do about separating fact and fiction. "Malcolm" is apparently here to stay, in all its wacky, Technicolor, comic glory. After only five episodes, it is the top-rated show on Fox and the only breakout comedy of the season on any network. That's no small feat, considering that all anyone seems to be watching these days is "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Fox renewed "Malcolm" for its second season only last week, so it's too soon to know if it'll continue to nip at the heels of "Frasier" and "Friends" in the race to be America's No. 1 sitcom. Some people say its quirky voice and unconventional visual style will change the way Hollywood makes sitcoms. It has certainly altered the outlook at Fox, which is weathering a disastrous year filled with the corpses of shows from "Action" to "Ally." "We had a bad fall. Not like Sofia Coppola in 'Godfather III' bad, but really bad," says Doug Herzog, president of Fox Entertainment. "It's nice to have a hit." For a show with a no-name cast and a decidedly offbeat take on the American family, that's not a bad place to start. "Malcolm in the Middle" doesn't really look, sound or feel like any family sitcom you've seen before. The show centers on Malcolm (Frankie Muniz), a rambunctious but well-meaning tween with a high IQ and a low tolerance for his weird family. It can feel like a kid's show at times, with its penchant for gross-out humor, sight gags -- the shaving scene is truly unforgettable -- and its kids-vs.-parents sensibility. But "Malcolm" has drawn some of its biggest audiences among men 18 to 49. That may be because of the dead-on way it depicts boys picking on boys at school, at home and anywhere adults aren't watching. The show sometimes has too big an appetite for silliness, especially in the scenes at Malcolm's school. But its quick wit and sassy tone make it one of the few shows that are actually funnier the more times you absorb its quirky rhythm. And as funny as the kids are, the parents are hilarious. Hal (Bryan Cranston) mostly hides behind his newspaper, though in a future episode he reveals a secret past as a roller-skating champion, complete with sequined outfit. Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) bellows like a truck driver and sometimes shaves her legs in the car when her hectic life doesn't allow enough time in the bathroom. Few shows -- except Fox's own "The Simpsons" -- so deftly straddle the line between kid-friendly slapstick and sly adult satire. "Many reviews refer to them as dysfunctional, but that really irked me," says Kaczmarek. "They have dinner together. The kids don't get away with anything. They're a colorful family, but there's a lot of love."

Like almost everything decent on television, "Malcolm" had to fend off plenty of Hollywood bullies to get on the air. Boomer, who before his writer days played blind Adam Kendall on "Little House on the Prairie," faced a barrage of complaints about the script. Too grim. Too expensive. Where's the laugh track? UPN actually picked up the show, only to drop it last year. Around that time, Herzog arrived at Fox from Comedy Central. He heard even more complaints, not the least of which was that Boomer -- a 43-year-old writer whose credits stretch from "Silver Spoons" to "Night Court" to "Townies" -- wasn't a big enough name or, conversely, another Ivy League whiz kid. "I'm a cable guy. I've never heard of anybody," Herzog recalls saying. "If you're asking me to pick comedies, this is the funniest one. We've got to make this." Helped by a huge promotional campaign -- "I was sick of the hype," says Boomer -- "Malcolm" had the biggest debut in Fox history after "The Simpsons." Even the competition is paying attention. "Linwood Boomer has written about his life here, his passion, and now he has a big hit," says Ted Harbert, president of NBC Studios. "I hope it will prompt us all to take more chances." On the testosterone-soaked "Malcolm" set, just getting through the day can be risky. "Somebody is always trying to get someone's goat," says Kaczmarek, who just had a baby with husband Bradley Whitford, who plays Josh on "The West Wing." "They throw things, they tease each other. There's so much junk everywhere on those sets." The plus side to dealing with normal, red-blooded males is that they're not spoiled Hollywood monsters. Justin Berfield (Reese), 13, goes to public school when he's not acting. Erik Per Sullivan (Dewey), 8, commutes to L.A. from Massachusetts, where his parents own a Mexican restaurant. Christopher Kennedy Masterson (Francis, the brother in military school), 20, is nice enough to take the younger ones paintballing. "I have worked with a lot of kids who ask, 'Who's your agent? Are they working well for you?' They don't have any of that," says Cranston, who played the dentist on "Seinfeld."

Despite his precocious golf ability -- he shoots in the low 90s -- Muniz is the most surprisingly normal of all. A New Jersey native who began acting five years ago, he's already become a mini-star, whether it's being swarmed by fans at the premiere of his new movie "My Dog Skip" or fielding hundreds of e-mails every week from female admirers. "I think it's unfair to have a girlfriend because I travel around so much," he says maturely over a dinner of cheeseburgers and a chocolate shake. Not that finding a girl of his stature would be easy. Muniz, 14, is -- how do we put this diplomatically? -- vertically challenged. "I'm five foot," he says. "Not quite," says his mother, Denise, a former nurse who now travels full time with Frankie. "You're 4'11". Remember? I measured you for the movie." "I'm five foot!" he says emphatically, then adds with an impish smile, "with my boots on."

Frankie's height is nothing to laugh about. Though Malcolm's age is never mentioned -- Boomer hasn't even given the family a last name -- he appears to be 11 or 12. What will happen if he hits a growth spurt? Will the push/pull, love/hate dynamic of the show change if the star is no longer a lovably angst-ridden squirt? "Look at 'The Wonder Years'," says Cranston. "Fred Savage had that long run, but once he got to high school, it ended fast." Cranston thinks Fox should put the show into overdrive and tape 35 episodes now, while the kids are young, and bank the extras for later seasons. Fox insists the beat-the-clock strategy isn't necessary. "We're going to have it evolve as Frankie grows," says Herzog. " 'My Three Sons' ran a nice, long time. We grew up with those boys." So stay tuned, "Malcolm" fans. Some day, your pint-size star will be mature enough to get his body shaved in the kitchen, too.

2000 Newsweek, Inc.

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