All's well that ends well

Malcolm in the Middle wraps up its seven-year run tonight with a simple, 30-minute finale.

Published May 14, 2006

There was once a time, believe it or not, when Malcolm in the Middle was cool.

It seems forever ago, given the Fox show's slide into relative irrelevance. But Malcolm in the Middle, which wraps its seven-year run with a simple 30-minute finale tonight, was once one of critics'- and viewers' - favorite sitcoms. It was sharp, groundbreaking, even a little edgy.

Consider the network TV landscape in January 2000, when Malcolm, a single-camera sitcom about a boy genius stuck in a dysfunctional working-class family, debuted in 14th place higher than Everybody Loves Raymond, but below duds like Jesse and Stark Raving Mad.

Single-camera sitcoms were still rare. ABC's Sports Night struggled to survive two seasons. Fox canceled Jay Mohr's Action after eight episodes in 1999.

Now imagine network TV today without single-camera sitcoms. There'd be no Scrubs, The Office, My Name Is Earl, The Bernie Mac Show or Everybody Hates Chris. Same with late, great shows like Arrested Development, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Greg the Bunny and The Tick - all quirky sitcoms debuting on a post-Malcolm Fox.

But Malcolm wasn't just a single-camera sitcom. It was a sitcom whose star, a child, spoke directly into the camera while his nude, hirsute father got his back shaved at the breakfast table. It was a sitcom smart enough to find poignancy in a fight scene between boys and clowns, set outside a batting cage to the music of Kenny Rogers.

The show managed to blend silly, slapstick humor with the sort of genuine angst that emerges when a family has more troublesome boys than resources to control them.

Malcolm won a Peabody Award and five Emmys (six if you count one for guest Cloris Leachman), including two for writing. Frankie Muniz (Malcolm), Jane Kaczmarek (Lois) and Bryan Cranston (Hal) received nine nominations total.

But it's easy - oh, man, is it ever easy - to forget how fun Malcolm in the Middle once was. The show's audience is a third of the millions who tuned in for episode one - no surprise there, considering it was moved from a cushy Sunday time slot to a dreadful post on Fridays. With Malcolm airing in syndication five nights a week, one could be forgiven for thinking the show had already bitten the dust.

In the final episode, Graduation, Malcolm's heading off to Harvard, but first he must deliver a valedictory address to his school. Hal and Lois wonder how they'll pay for Malcolm's tuition, while Reese (Justin Berfield) tries to land a job as his high school's janitor. And the boys reveal the worst stunt they ever pulled, the so-called nuclear option. There are also jokes involving cancer, pregnancy and an exploding barrel of you-can't-imagine-what.

You'll probably laugh watching it. And you'll wonder how Malcolm ever fell so far off your radar.

Jay Cridlin can be reached at cridlin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8336.