Saturday, July 13, 2013

Week 8 of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

I regretfully present a late instalment of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV," an entry that heads in a number of different directions in the hopes of making a larger point about the series in question as a whole. It's a thing I tend to do sometimes. I hope it makes as much sense on paper (or...Internet, whatever) as it does in my brain.

After the break: Every damn time I wrote it as "Louis" and had to change it back to "Lois".

Malcolm in the Middle, "Bowling"
First aired on Fox Sunday, April 1, 2001

"You want a strike? Here's your damn strike!" - Malcolm

TV critics Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg are doing something pretty cool on their “Firewall and Iceberg” podcast this summer.

With the dry, humid months still something of a wasteland for original content on primetime television, Sepinwall and Fienberg often spend the summer re-watching an old show. For the first two years of the podcast, they picked an old favourite just for the sheer fun of it: in 2010, they reviewed “Undeclared,” Judd Apatow’s 2001 college-set follow up to “Freaks and Geeks” that lasted all of 17 episodes on the Fox network. In 2011, the guys revisited the first season, and a bulk of the second season, of “Twin Peaks” (Fienberg has yet to discover who killed Laura Palmer...okay, not really).

Last summer saw a slight shift in the goal of their summer re-watch, in that the re-watch now had a goal. Sepinwall and Fienberg decided to spend the summer watching the 12 episode first season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” charting the progress of a season that contains as many ridiculous duds as glimmers of hope for the show’s bright future.

The time came to select a project for summer 2013. A few ideas were tossed around – with “The Office” coming to an end, Sepinwall suggested rewatching that show’s outstanding second season, and many listeners assumed that the upcoming “Veronica Mars” movie meant they would revisit that show’s first season. In the end, Sepinwall and Fienberg did not end up choosing a show at all. Instead, the pair decided that each week, they would rewatch a classic pilot episode of a television show. Sometimes, it would be an evocative introduction to what was a great series, such as “The Sopranos”. Other times, like in their “Buffy” rewatch, it would be a less-good pilot of a show that ended up being great. So far, the two haven’t confirmed many of the pilots they will be watching this summer, but something that piqued my interest was the idea that they might decide to watch a very good first episode of a show that either went nowhere fast (“The Walking Dead,” for example; for further reading, a long-forgotten ABC drama called “The Nine”) or slowly eroded in quality over time.

And one of the first shows that came to mind when thinking of the latter was “Malcolm in the Middle”.

“Malcolm” was one of the first primetime shows I ever really “watched,” in that I made sure to sit in front of the TV when it aired a new episode every week. Odd how even fifteen or so years after coming into existence, Fox was still kind of the first exposure that some kids got to the network TV model. But “Malcolm” was a show I just sort of fell in on, surrounded by other Fox Sunday comedies that I watched like “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill”. The first time I saw season one episodes was when one of my local channels aired reruns at midnight. I was maybe 12 or 13, so I was able to stay up and watch them during the Christmas holidays. I was very surprised at how much more I enjoyed that version of the show than the one that was airing at the time. Somehow over the course of seven seasons, a show that was very much a ratty-looking, stomped on love letter from creator Linwood Boomer to his family had been torn apart and then very awkwardly put back together by people who clearly didn’t understand the point of the show.

Malcolm was always our tour guide through this world because he was the voice of reason inside controlled chaos. Sure, the character always had his quirks, with his genius level intelligence doing him as much good as harm in his teenage years (it’s worth noting how far the show strayed from its initial premise that I had no idea Malcolm was supposed to have a high IQ and be in the gifted classes at school until watching the pilot), and this of course placed him even more at odds with his family than he already was before they knew he was a genius. There’s an absolutely fantastic scene in a season one episode in which the gifted class’ picnic has been completely ruined by various disasters and Malcolm’s teacher Caroline feels guilty for letting all the kids and their parents down. To try and at least distract from the wreckage, Malcolm gets on stage and basically becomes a human computer: he immediately memorizes a parent’s credit card number and has audience members shout out math problems or ask for world capitals. And the look on the faces of his family members as he’s doing this is one of horror. For the first time, they see that Malcolm is not just slightly gifted, placed among the “krelboynes” (as the gifted kids call themselves, in a “Revenge of the Nerds” reference) because the regular classes aren’t challenging him. Malcolm is so much smarter than they ever imagined – in terms of academic knowledge, he basically knows everything he could ever need to.

How does the family react to this revelation just a dozen or so episodes into the series? With the kind of light teasing familiar to such a family. Oldest brother Francis first diffuses the tension by flipping off Malcolm and asking him how many fingers he’s holding up. Mom Lois wonders how he can remember all those math problems but can’t remember to clean his room. By the time dad Hal suggests they stop for fast food on the way home, it’s entirely a non-issue – the family has worked out their insecurities and the episode ends happily.

I can only imagine how that would have played out in the version of the show that existed six or seven years later, in which Malcolm’s intelligence and the abilities it lent him were slowly changed into a neuroticism that was met with disdain by his entire family. Pretty much everyone on that show hated Malcolm by the end because the deconstructed version of the character was just an attention craving lunatic who was no longer the voice of reason, but now perhaps the most insane of them all. And sure, part of this was because Malcolm grew up and only became even more book smart (though losing all common sense) and it stopped making any sense for the family to have such a higher degree of respect for him. It was impressive that Malcolm was a human computer at 11, but eventually the impressiveness wears out its welcome when the cute kid stops being cute and I don’t blame the family for getting so used to his brain and not being as impressed by his abilities when he’s college-aged. There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing a dark show in which the POV character attempts to spin the presentation of the show in their favor, but is thwarted because the people they actually interact with hate them (a nice little show with this premise could be seen on HBO earlier this year). But you can’t start that show in the sixth or seventh season after making that character his dysfunctional family’s sounding board and confidante in the first five.

I’m not even sure they realized the change had happened, because at that point the show was so clearly not about the family. Malcolm and Reese had become the real focal points of the show, and I’m sure that spending so much time writing them as people their peers had no respect for was just brought into their home as well. Frankie Muniz and Justin Berfield gave good performances, and even at the show’s start Muniz was capable of carrying a lot of the series, but this was always Jane Kaczmarek and Bryan Cranston’s show. When the focus shifted away from the family dynamic, the two best characters and performances were downgraded to supporting roles and the quality suffered as a result.

These excellent performances and the show at its qualitative best are on full display in “Bowling,” an episode that is very much remembered as an Emmy-baiting gimmick and in no way remembered for being such a detailed but nuanced examination of what it’s like to be raised by a parent who is over-aggressive and one who is excessively passive. This detail was one of the most interesting about “Malcolm in the Middle,” as it could sometimes present the illusion that Hal and Lois balanced each other out and despite the family’s squabbling, the kids really were growing up in an ultimately healthy environment. Here, writer Alex Reid basically steps in to clarify that no, that is in no way the case.

Malcolm and Reese are going bowling with friends from school, and get this – no chaperones! The only question is, which parent is going to drive them to the bowling alley?

     Left: "I hate bowling!" Right: "I love bowling!"
The two-shot of Hal and Lois becomes a split screen of duplicate images. On the left, Lois offers to drive them. On the right, Hal does. There are a few of these split screen devices used throughout the episode in which characters, each in their own “What would happen if this parent took the kids bowling?” timeline, show contrasting views, most notably when the Malcolm of the “Hal takes the kids bowling” timeline is great at the game and impressing The Pretty Girl declares “I love bowling!” at the exact same time that Malcolm in the “Lois takes the kids bowling” timeline declares “I hate bowling!” after sending every ball into the gutter. It’s a testament to how much care was put into this episode, though, that these split screens are by far the least interesting component of the parallel narrative device.

I mentioned earlier that Kaczmarek and Cranston were the stars of this show, but in “Bowling,” I think even they are outshone by the fluid camera work and cinematography, the seamless editing, Reid’s sharp script that mindfully takes the transitions between Lois and Hal’s respective bowling outings into consideration, and Todd Holland for helming one of the best directed TV episodes of the decade. The camera is able to pan from Hal’s Malcolm sneaking off to make out with The Pretty Girl behind the lanes to Lois’ Malcolm walking up to the lane to attempt what will surely be another gutter ball and make it look as though Fox had somehow cloned Muniz in order to work around child labour laws (“Frankie Muniz is...Orphan Black!” Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

On the exterior, Lois was the shrieking control freak mother who was constantly yelling at her kids. But Kaczmarek spent years giving that character layers and it’s no more evident than in one of the Hal timeline’s final scenes where, stuck at home babysitting a grounded Dewey, she has this internal struggle about whether or not Dewey giving up on trying to sneak out of his room is actually a reverse psychology ploy to get her to let him out herself. She changes her position back and forth in ten second increments before finally compromising that Dewey will be allowed to watch 20 minutes of television, but it will be something he’s not going to like (“CSPAN...that ought to do it!”). Later episodes often defended Lois and her parenting by pointing out just how awful her kids were from the moment they were born, especially persecuting Francis for his irrational and hyperbolized hatred of his mother (one of the best scenes in “Bowling” shows Francis, at military school, calling Hal and Lois in their separate narratives asking to borrow $100 so he can go in with his classmates on a used car that he can have every seventh weekend; when Lois says no, he goes on a long rant about how she’s withholding and dedicates her entire life to seeing him suffer – when Hal says no, he says “thanks anyway” and hangs up). But moments like the “Is Dewey trying to outsmart me?” battle make you wonder if this is some kind of chicken and the egg scenario: is Lois awful because her kids were awful first and she needed to establish who the boss was, or do the kids feel they have no other choice but to be manipulative and deceitful to get what they want because Lois, by nature, is a controlling, over-aggressive person regardless of whether or not she’s a parent? It’s a question that perhaps will have no definite answer.

I would also argue that Lois’ aggressive tendencies get equal time in this episode with regard to how they affect her kids. Her controlling nature causes her to constantly pull Reese away from The Pretty Girl to keep the bowling lanes moving, which prevents him from telling her the “joke” (the punchline of which is him spitting his drink in her face and messing up her hair) that sends her into Malcolm’s consoling arms in the Hal timeline. When she and Malcolm are using dumb voices to flirt with each other, Malcolm addresses the camera using this voice and says, “I just can’t seem to stop talking like this”. We cut to awful bowler Malcolm in the Lois timeline being told by his mother to “stop talking like that, Malcolm!” obviously referring to Malcolm’s claims that he is terrible at the game, no thanks to Lois constantly trying to embarrassingly coach him in front of his friends. Lois can occasionally stop her kids from making small mistakes in the moment without realizing it, but she can also only end up pushing them closer to the breaking point, like in the absolutely devastating scene where Malcolm is fed up with Lois’ insistence that he can bowl a strike and he walks right to the end of the lane – throwing the ball inches away from the pins and still not hitting a single one. Malcolm walks back towards all of the bowling alley patrons who are laughing at him, and Lois shamefully tells him to put his shoes away and meet her at the car. At the end of the day, are we sure only one of them was responsible for that outburst?

And like I said earlier, “Bowling” is not a specific condemnation of any of the show’s characters – it makes the case that Lois and Hal are terrible parents in very different ways. As bad as Lois can be, the kids are no better off with Hal, who spends most of the episode having no idea what Malcolm and Reese are up to while he attempts to bowl a perfect game. In brilliant Hal fashion, he recreates a superstitious sequence that involves taking a sip of his drink, unzipping his fly, and saying “Gesundheit!” before bowling each strike. It works until the very last frame when Malcolm, whose jacket has been caught in the pin-setter while behind the lanes with The Pretty Girl, is sent flying down towards the lane knocking over all of Hal’s pins. Surprisingly, the bowling alley did not count this as a valid 300. A brilliant performance from Bryan Cranston, who was always so great in portraying Hal’s childlike obsession for juvenile activities (one of my all time favourite Hal moments comes in a later episode where Malcolm is able to clear his father in a lawsuit from his company by determining that every date in which Hal supposedly participated in illegal activities was a Friday, on which Hal has always skipped work for the last 15 year to attend activities such as go-karting or becoming a junior dolphin trainer at “Ocean Land”).

The Emmy-baiting of this episode ended up working in a sense – both Reid and Holland won Emmys in the comedy writing and directing categories respectively. But to call “Bowling” a gimmick is actually reductive and frankly inaccurate. There are legitimate stylistic choices made in this episode and they always service the presentation of the story. As the episode ends, Hal and Lois come home from their bowling adventures and the parent stuck at home with Dewey asks the other how it went. They both respond “Next time, you take them.”

Which parent are Francis, Reese, Malcolm, and Dewey better off with? According to “Bowling,” the bleak answer is always “the other one”. To quote Malcolm’s memorable line from the pilot, “You want to know what the best thing about childhood is? At some point it stops.”

Next week: 60...59...58...57...