(Malcolm in) The Middle
I’ve seen a few episodes of The Middle lately, and immediately I see the appeal for general audiences of America. It’s a sitcom about a working class family with a head matriarch, a working father, and a few kids to keep things interesting. In these economic times, it’s easy to see how a generalist crowd pleasing sitcom has made it to syndication. Struggling with debts is mentioned here and there, but they have enough money to have cable. Who can’t connect with that?
What I find striking however is that the shows is by all appearances an altered reflection of Malcolm in the Middle. Both mother figures are dominant forces in the narrative. In Malcolm, Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) is a commanding presence and the only organizing force for the family, trying to keep things functional at best with a house full of boys. The mother of The Middle, Frankie (Patricia Heaton), shares leadership with her husband, but more importantly, is the main character of the series, narrating every episode.
The kids of The Middle are far more … normal than those in Malcolm‘s family. There may be some acceptable pains of adolescence, but no destructive impulsiveness or weird journeys that distinctively mark Malcolm‘s storylines.
The Middle‘s Brick Heck is a clone of Malcolm‘s Dewey. Both are the youngest sons, socially awkward, but also gifted (Brick in inquisitiveness and reading, Dewey is later revealed to be musically gifted.) My fiancé commented that they were so similar he though they were the same actor, and that this show was a direct spin-off/remake of Malcolm in the Middle. The show was in development right after Malcolm in the Middle ended (Malcolm ending in 2006; The Middle beginning in the 2006-2007 development cycle.) Direct facsimile does not seem out of the realm of possibility.
Where the show hasn’t appeared to take cues directly from Malcolm, it directly inverts or waters downs instead. Whereas Malcolm‘s father figure Hal is at best mildly incompetent, Mike of The Middle is by contrast much more reliable and steadfast, a direct inversion. In terms of toning down narrative elements, The Middle‘s children are decent and respectable. As I had not seen many episodes, I can’t speak much more about them, though this may also be due to the show’s focus on the parents. While Malcolm is the main character for the titular show, there is a kind of narrative egalitarianism throughout the family with every character getting narrative threads and subplots.
There is another form of altered reflection, than of the economic hardships of the families themselves. Whereas the Heck family faces economic recession, Malcolm’s family struggles as a working class family before it. However, I find The Middle‘s portrayal of a economically struggling family to be more lip service to such a notion than in practice. In an episode of The Middle, the whole plot of the episode is focused on the family’s budget and trying to make ends meet. It turns out a lot of income was going to non-essentials (ordering out food rather than making dinner, drive through coffee runs, cable, etc.) The climax of the episode revolves around how to spend $1000 they happened to win at the local church bingo – credit card bills, or a new TV? (I’d write more on the worrying nature that the church is having large prizes for raffles rather than social ministry during a recession, but this post is long enough.)
By contrast, I find the dreariness and hardship Malcolm’s family faces that far more tangible and realized. Much of it is in the little details. Hal keeps watering down the apple juice until there is no flavor left. Lois needs daily physical therapy from Hal to recover from long shifts as a cashier. Hand me down underwear is a thing in this family. Details like these not only function as elements of humor and thrown away lines, but can even be narrative threads in stand alone episodes. It’s this economic struggle that feels not acted but lived, and is a large part of why the show sticks so well in my memory.
I must note there are drastically differences in tone between the two: The Middle‘s optimism in situations turning out for the better in contrast to the constant hard knock life for Malcolm’s family. I also suspect that The Middle gets many viewers by being a supportive escapist fantasy rather than being a reminder of the harsher reality many live in. But while Malcolm in the Middle never ends well for anyone (indeed, the last sound often heard before an episode ends is a door slamming), its excellent humor makes the journey worth watching. And it’s on Netflix. Huzzah.