Fox's new "Malcolm in the Middle" is the wittiest, smartest, sharpest-written, most original comedy of the season. As a bonus, no laugh track, and not a stand-up comic in sight.
Such praise can lift expectations perilously beyond reality. What's more, sustaining laughs is one of the biggest challenges in the business, witness the recent decline of comedy in prime time.
If you like your family humor tart, sophisticated and just a bit bent, though, get ready to howl at this series about a brilliant little kid buckling under the crushing stigma of being designated a genius.
Just about eclipsing Malcolm is his earthy, free-spirited hoot of a mom, Lois, who rules a family almost in as much disrepair as the patchy, weedy lawn outside the modest tract house where she and her husband, Hal, and their sons live . . . somewhat peculiarly.
When is it apparent that "Malcolm in the Middle" is not your typical sitcom?
Possibly when opening in the kitchen with Lois cheerfully shaving Hal's thicket of dark body hair beside their sons eating breakfast, and suggesting that birds could make nests of the falling fur. "Or I don't know, maybe you boys could use it for school projects."
Then back to Hal: "Raise your arms."
As the three boys chomp away obliviously and Lois keeps chattering, nude Hal's private parts are discreetly covered by the newspaper he is reading. Just as Lois' breasts are obscured from our view when she answers the door topless and tells the stunned teacher who has come to inform her that Malcolm is a genius: "They're just boobs, lady. You see them in the mirror every morning, and I'm sure yours are a lot nicer than mine."
What's wrong with this picture? Absolutely nothing if you've a yen for risky TV that turns sitcom formula on its ear.
You may be getting the wrong impression, for "Malcolm in the Middle" is much less bawdy than bright and fresh. Nor is it mean, its sunniness elevating it appealingly above the craters of cynicism that scarred another offbeat, even coarser family comedy on Fox, "Married . . . With Children."
Fox continues to be TV's most schizo network, ranging from utterly repulsive to ambitious and creative, the latter defining veteran comedy writer Linwood Boomer's "Malcolm in the Middle," which offers its own take on incompetent parenting while approaching the satirical tone of "The Simpsons." In style, though, it assumes more of the weird, unconventional tics of "Parker Lewis Can't Lose," an inventive Fox comedy of the early '90s.
If its first three episodes are indicative, "Malcolm in the Middle" shouldn't lose either. It has Frankie Muniz cherubically on target as earnest Malcolm, who is scandalized by his 165 IQ and shares with viewers his desire to be normal and hang out with his skateboarding pals instead of being banished with his gifted peers to a classroom ghetto of nerddom. Or as such kids are titled at his school, krelboynes.
Most significantly, it has wonderful Jane Kaczmarek kicking butt as Lois, fiercely driving Malcolm and this series in the comedy role of her career.
The premiere is written by Boomer and directed to the stylish hilt by Todd Holland. In addition to vacuous Hal (Byran Cranston), it introduces Malcolm's youngest brother, Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan), and his older brothers Reese (Justin Berfield) and Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson), a minor delinquent whom his parents have dispatched to a military school for reprogramming.
Meanwhile, Lois orders Malcolm to befriend another genius (Craig Lamar Traylor) who is in a wheelchair and gasps for breath while speaking (go figure), as all of them build toward one of the more hilarious endings in recent sitcom history.
The equally funny second episode finds Lois imitating Captain Queeg in subjecting three of her sons to a chamber of tortures while obsessively trying to discover who torched her red dress, as Francis is on the phone counseling his younger siblings on resisting their dominatrix mother's brutal interrogation.
"If we would have had your mom in Nam," a fellow cadet tells Francis, "there'd be a McDonalds in Hanoi square right now."
Second cadet: "Dude, there is a McDonalds in Hanoi square."
First cadet: "All right!"
Better yet is truly inspired week three, when Malcolm reluctantly unfurls his brilliance at a disastrous family day picnic for krelboynes where Dewey wonders if Malcolm is a robot. It's here, too, where Francis meets and falls hard for a girl with whom he immediately proceeds to go steady before their torrid 15-minute relationship ends when she becomes too possessive.
Him: "Would you quit nagging me?"
Her: "Maybe if you'd pay a little more attention to me."
Him: "You're smothering me. I need space."
Her: "You'll get your space. We're through!"
If "Malcolm in the Middle" isn't granted more than 15 minutes of fame, we're all through.
* "Malcolm in the Middle" can be seen Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on Fox. The network has rated it TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for coarse language).
Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.