Quietly Subversive: Malcolm in the Middle

Bryan Cranston became a superstar playing a kindly suburban teacher turned deadly drug kingpin on the hit AMC show Breaking Bad, but before that he was best known as Hal, the emotional center to Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006). Superficially just another wacky sitcom about a dysfunctional family, Malcolm was ahead of its time, quietly subverting stereotypes, and paving the way for the more groundbreaking shows that would later follow it.

Hal and Lois, the parents, became increasingly central figures as the show went forward. A large part of the reason was the outstanding work by both Cranston and Jane Kaczmarek (Lois). In Cranston’s characteristically fearless performance, Hal brings a secure and unquestionable masculinity to a wide range of stereotypically feminine characteristics including emotional vulnerability, a nurturing personality, and a love of race-walking. Conversely, Lois is the more stereotypically masculine of the two, an aggressive, unsentimental disciplinarian. The show normalizes their gender role non-conformity, which is often funny, but never the butt of the joke, and their strong and passionate relationship gives the family an emotional anchor. (It is perhaps not too far a reach to see them as forerunners of the similar, and likewise hilarious couple played by Constance Wu and Randall Park on ABC’s Fresh off the Boat.)

Malcolm (Frankie Muniz), the title character, is a genius who acts like a normal kid; Reese (Justin Berfield), his thuggish older brother, is a crude bully with a hidden passion for cooking and sewing. Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan), the youngest, is a cute face hiding a powerful and devious intellect. Stevie (Craig Lamar Traylor), Malcolm’s best friend, is a black kid who is a non-athletic intellectual, and whose single father is a cultured professional.

In addition to consistently breaking its main cast out of the usual stereotypical sitcom cliches, Malcolm was forward-looking in one other way, that unfortunately, contemporary television has yet to catch up with. In Season 3, eldest son Francis (Christopher Masterson) married Alaskan Native-American Piama Tananahaakna (Emy Coligado), who remained as a major cast member throughout the show’s run. This gave the show one of the very few Native-American characters to ever feature in such a central role in a prime-time sitcom, as well as an interracial marriage that, while often contentious, was portrayed as loving and successful.

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