Walk into my living room these days, and you are likely to see my children doubled over in laughter. It’s the laughter of recognition; they are working their way through reruns of the old Fox sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle.” The show, which aired in the early 2000s, is a rollicking, madhouse comedy about a lower middle-class family with four sons. “Dysfunctional” hardly even begins to describe them. The boys are constantly pummeling one another, flouting authority with glee, and manipulating everyone they encounter. The parents attempt to maintain order, but as often as not merely add to the chaos.
Perhaps I should be chagrined that my children hear the strains of our own family’s melody in the show’s raucous din. But I’m not. “Malcolm in the Middle” is a profound exposition of the mystery of love in family life. It is a show about deeply flawed people who nonetheless faithfully love one another.
Life for Malcolm’s family (we never learn their surname) is a struggle. With little money and less sophistication, they are far from flourishing by our culture’s standards. Lois, the mother, is a control freak who terrorizes the boys with her omniscience about their wrongdoings and her ruthless punishments. She works as a clerk at a Lucky Aide drugstore, where she dons a mint-green smock that might as well be a hair shirt. Hal, the father, is kind but feckless. His career is foundering, due in part to his family obligations. Francis, the oldest son, is a scofflaw who wreaks so much havoc that he is exiled to military school. Next is Reese, a roughneck dolt who delights in bullying the weak. The title character is Malcolm, a scheming prodigy so neurotic he is incapable of enjoying good fortune. Last is Dewey, a doe-eyed liar whose family thinks he is slow.
This is a family of people who constantly fail one another. In one episode, Lois brings the three youngest boys to her workplace and hands each one ten dollars so he can purchase her a birthday present. She less than subtly suggests that they pool their money to buy her a foot massager. Instead, they storm past her and in five minutes return with their gifts: an eyeglass repair kit, a box of throat lozenges, and a dirt bike magazine (“I might want to look at that when you’re done,” says Reese). The rest of their money they spend on candy. Lois returns home despondent to complain to Hal, who has forgotten her birthday altogether.
Every episode is filled with such failures. The show depicts family life stripped of the toxic sentimentalities you so often find on television comedies. There’s no cheap grace in “Malcolm in the Middle,” no lessons and hugs at the end, the episode’s problem tidily solved. Rather, the show portrays the unending stream of sin, of failures of love that mark the lives of even the most virtuous families.
Yet amid these daily acts of selfishness and heedlessness, Malcolm’s family reveals an enduring, faithful love. In one episode, Malcolm betrays his father in a moment of need shortly before the family goes on vacation. (The incident involves a pair of Speedos, a sporting goods store, and a mistaken rear end. It’s a must-see.) Overwhelmed by the guilt of his betrayal, Malcolm believes Hal is giving him the cold shoulder. As the vacation starts, Malcolm is plaintive, “Dad, please! Talk to me.” His father responds by handing Malcolm the new fishing pole he had wanted. “Oh, man! You wouldn’t believe how hard this week has been,” Hal gushes. “Every time that I looked at you I wanted to spill the beans. … We’ll take the dingy out, and we’ll do some fishing. Just the two of us.” Hal wasn’t punishing Malcolm; he was so excited about the gift that he had to ignore Malcolm so as not to reveal the secret. Hal had forgiven the betrayal and was joyful with the anticipation of spending time with Malcolm.
Despite their myriad shortcomings, Malcolm’s family exemplifies what the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk calls an “unyielding togetherness.” You see it in Malcolm’s anxiety over his intelligence. After performing, at a school event, a display of mathematical prowess that leaves his family stunned, Malcolm is terrified that his genius will leave him ostracized from them. He climbs into the family van to a stony, awkward silence. But Francis immediately dispels Malcolm’s fears by flipping him the bird. “Hey, Malcolm, how many fingers am I holding up?” Everyone erupts into laughter, Reese belches in Malcolm’s face, and harmony is restored. The scene captures the crude beauty of this family. In that one vulgar act, Francis responds to Malcolm’s fear with love.
Finally, you see love amid failure in the relationship of Lois and Hal. They are faced every day with the disappointments, banalities, and humiliations of adult life: failing careers and struggles with money; ungrateful children and sneering neighbors; power struggles and petty squabbles. But despite these daily defeats, Hal and Lois are devoted to one another. In a flashback episode, we see them arguing bitterly in the backyard, when Lois suddenly goes into labor with Dewey just as a storm begins. Hal can’t get to his car keys (three-year-old Malcolm has accidentally filled the house with chlorine gas), and the older boys are wrestling in the mud. Lois and Hal are near despair. “We have to fix us!” she screams between contractions and demands that Hal tell her seven things he loves about her. He begins to list them, “…and I love how you’re honest and fearless.” She breaks in, “I love your loyalty and your kindness, and that you still suck in your gut whenever I walk into the room.” The episode then flashes back to the present and ends with the four boys in a wrestling scrum in the living room, pounding each other and breaking a lamp.
“Love is loyalty,” Marilynne Robinson writes in her essay “Family.” “The antidote to fear, distrust, self-interest is always loyalty. The balm for failure or weakness, or even disloyalty, is loyalty.” “Malcolm in the Middle” is this truth set to stage. It is family life as fidelity amid constant failures. No doubt my children recognize their own family in the chaos and strife of Malcolm’s. My hope—and I believe this to be true—is that they also recognize the faithfulness that transcends it all.