Saturday, October 17, 2009

Malcolm versus The Middle

There's a new sitcom out this year called The Middle which Siobhan has been watching while I've been in the room. At first, when I saw her watching it, I didn't know what the title was. It struck me, hard, how much the show seemed like an imitation of Malcolm In The Middle, to the point where many of the characters matched on a one-for-one basis, and I wondered if the creators realized and were doing it on purpose. But when I found out the title, that paradoxically made me think maybe they aren't, because that's just too obvious.

Actually, the title in this case refers to the fact that the show is set in the Midwest, the "flyover states", and this is made clear in the show's first episode's opening narration. However, essentially nothing in the show, as far as I can see, has actually referred to the Midwest in any meaningful way, or depended on it. There was one scene that took place on a highway in cornfields where there was no cell coverage, but nothing about it, not a single word or joke, would have changed if it was a winding road in wooded hills, or anywhere really you can imagine not having cell coverage. Another joke referred to Terre Haute, but it would have played out precisely the same if it had been Hackensack, San Bernardino, or Galveston. There haven't been any jokes that alluded to the culture of the Midwest (or if there have, I missed them!). The entire show could be transplanted to any suburb or small town in any part of the USA with no change other than the scenery and place names, without a single word needing to change. So it's doubly odd that the name of the show refers to something not (so far) central to the show, unless it's a very ham-handed way of drawing the comparison to Malcolm.

This just seems like a bad idea though because it is a comparison that can't go well for the new show. But I suppose they can't help it. The premise is very similar, with a family of about the same type and mix of personalities enduring the same kinds of challenges and trials. The biggest difference is no Malcolm, and no analog to Malcolm, which is a bad start. The mother character is the viewpoint character (though she does voiceover narration instead of talking to the camera), and because of that, she lacks Lois's most interesting traits, her fiery and terrifying will. There's nothing really replacing it either: she's simply tired and stretched out as Lois was. The youngest child is nearly a perfect match to Dewey and even resembles him, though instead of having Dewey's unrecognized obsession and talent with music, he has one with books. The oldest child parallels Francis's being an unmotivated slacker, though without any of Francis's wild (and admittedly over the top) tendency to cause trouble. The father is well-meaning but clueless but still isn't that much like Hal because his cluelessness is simpler, it's just that he's painfully honest out of a complete lack of awareness that there's ever a time to be anything else -- a trait which I can certainly appreciate, but which comes off as more of a one-trick pony than Hal.

And the middle child... well, she doesn't really correspond directly to anyone on Malcolm which is a relief. Her dominant character trait is that she's comically inept but doesn't seem to be discouraged by it. She's constantly trying to get involved in some new activity, she always proves unbelievably bad at it and doesn't succeed, but she's perenially cheerful, and each time her dreams and hopes are crushed she's only down for a short time (or not at all) before she's ready for another.

The characters verge on being caricatures. Not that the characters on Malcolm were rigidly realistic; they were very over the top, especially Francis. But there was a depth to them. Within their world they make sense. Now, I realize it's very unfair to be comparing several seasons of Malcolm with three episodes of The Middle; if I had analyzed Malcolm this closely after three episodes I suppose it would have failed the test too. But my gut feeling says that after two seasons, The Middle likely will still have characters that are more superficial, more caricature-like, less fully realized.

If you take any two characters in Malcolm and consider their relationship to one another, you will find that there's a lot to it, you can say something unique about that particular relationship, its history, and how it contributes to the characters, to who they are. The closer you look at the family, the more it holds together, the more internally consistent it seems, the more it becomes inevitable that each person would be just the way they turned out to be, the more clear it is how the family works. I suspect that if you did the same thing on The Middle it would fall apart under that level of scrutiny. You would have to turn to answers like "it's that way because the writers need it to be that way" or "he's just like that" too much, and you would conclude that, even in the unrealistic sitcom world they live in, the family wouldn't hold together.

Maybe not. Maybe after we get to know the characters better it will turn out that there's a depth we haven't seen. And if there isn't, that's okay. A sitcom can be perfectly serviceable and entertaining without that. And I am laughing when it's on. Malcolm in the Middle is a really high bar to set, after all; a sitcom needn't strive to match it just to be good. But it's not my fault; they're the ones who set themselves up for the comparison, so they have to live up to it.

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