Fresh as a Twinkie right off the assembly line, more welcome than a power failure during the State of the Union speech, fitfully "Seinfeldian" in its pure, crazed hilarity, "Malcolm in the Middle" could very well be the best new sitcom of the season.
Why is it premiering in January? Don't ask. Unnecessarily complicated. Better just to watch and marvel and perhaps recall that old cliche, "Wonders never cease," even though it has often seemed that in television, they do.
It's hard to describe the new Fox series, premiering tomorrow night at 8:30 on Channel 5, without making it sound like a flagrant redundancy: Smart-alecky kids, dizzily dysfunctional family, gross jokes aplenty and wackiness on a rampage--and oh, of course, that dark, sassy "edge" that everyday, monosyllabic TV executives in Hollywood worship as if it were the basic ingredient of money.
But for all that, some lovable kind of brilliance breaks through. "Malcolm" immediately, instantly, explosively achieves an identity all its own--a little bit like a live-action "Simpsons," but with a Bart who's a genius, not an underachiever. Perhaps it bears something of a resemblance to certain other programs, but never mind, "Malcolm" is the master of its domain and its own brainy-zany wavelength.
In the premiere, we meet the family. Frankie Muniz plays Malcolm, whom his parents think of as just your normal bratty tot but who turns out to be a genius with an IQ of 165, somewhat to his own annoyance but naturally to their delight. Muniz has just the right off-center, off-kilter look to play this child for whom super intelligence is both blessing and curse, as it would be in real life.
Jane Kaczmarek is very funny and very authentic as Lois, the ever-hassled mom, whose family chores include, in the premiere, shaving the obscenely excessive, sasquatchian body hair off her husband Hal, played by Bryan Cranston. An older son, Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson) goes off to military school but is always available to his siblings for strategy sessions by telephone when a crisis looms. One that looms in a future episode is that Mom finds her new red dress burned and in the toilet on her wedding anniversary and spends most of the episode interrogating Malcolm and his two young brothers in an effort to unmask the culprit.
The series, created and executive-produced by Linwood Boomer (yes, really), is very smart about the games parents and children play, the fragility of the peaceful coexistence that is supposed to reign in most homes but probably prevails in very few. Television naturally is not an appliance or a link to the outside world but more of a relative, so that one way Mom tries to get a confession on that red dress issue is by threatening to attack the TV with an ax.
"Say goodbye to a cherished family member," she shouts, ax in hand.
In the premiere, Mom tells Malcolm that "TV makes you stupid" and Malcolm, correctly enough, retorts, "No. TV makes you normal." It's the democratizer, the equalizer, the normalizer in Malcolm's house and tens of millions more.
Frenzy is pretty much the rule in this happy home, and life a game in which the kids see how much they can get away with--without being caught. There's a cheering, rollicking playfulness to the show that gives it a tone and a tenor unlike anything else that's on right now, and it is so vacuum-packed with funny lines and situations that there really isn't room for a laugh track. And it isn't missed.
Bravely, daringly, one of Malcolm's best friends is another bright boy, but he's a bright boy in a wheelchair and he tends to speak in short bursts with gaps of silence because he has asthma. The producers do not sentimentalize the character, but neither do they go too far in being "irreverent" for its own sake.
Malcolm talks directly to the camera a great deal in the premiere. Probably too much, even though his observations are pretty witty: "Around here, being smart is exactly like being radioactive." But in future episodes this technique is, wisely, minimized. The point is, "Malcolm in the Middle" is funny in the extreme.
Incidentally, for its first few weeks on the air, Fox will repeat each Sunday night's episode of "Malcolm" the following Tuesday night at 8:30. And then in February, Fox executives will stupidly move "Malcolm" to 7 p.m., opposite "60 Minutes." It's rare enough that Fox airs a show of any intelligence whatsoever, so it only makes sense that they'll try to screw this one up somehow.
No matter. The cult is already forming. The Internet will be ablaze. The only question is whether "Malcolm" will be a huge sensation or merely a large one. It deserves to be the former.
Someone is poisoning the pigeons of New York! And before you say hooray or "Who cares about the filthy things?," check out a segment of "National Geographic Explorer" airing tomorrow night at 9 on "Explorer's" new cable home, CNBC.
"The Pigeon Murders" is an investigation into a strange and truly malicious serial killer who sneaks around New York poisoning the food that pigeons eat. More than 1,000 have died, it is reported, since this fiendishness began. Even if you loathe pigeons, you have to admit this is a cruel way to control the pidge population. The poisoning also presents a threat to pets and humans and, well, it just isn't nice.
From the dry sad facts of this case, producer Sean Fine has put together a surprisingly amusing, visually inventive report that makes one sympathetic to the pigeons and their plight without overstating the case.
One sequence is devoted to another threat to the pigeons, a red-tailed hawk that lives, rather snootily it appears, high on a fashionable Fifth Avenue Building and likes to hunt pigeons in Central Park. There's quite an impressive shot of the hawk swooping down from the sky and snatching a pigeon out of the air. There are also very unpleasant scenes of the hawk scarfing down the dead mangled pigeon. The swooping is definitely easier to watch than the scarfing.
A dedicated cop works tirelessly on the case, and in the course of his investigation runs into two bona fide nutty New York characters: one woman who is outraged at the cruelty to pigeons and another woman, less nattily dressed, who is outraged at the outrage and says the pro-pigeon woman shouldn't be feeding the pigeons anyway. The pro-pigeon woman calls the anti-pigeon woman "nuts in the head."
Fine is the son of Holly and Paul Fine, two broadcast journalists who used to work for "60 Minutes," now work for ABC News and long before either of those, were the prides and joys of WJLA-TV (which currently is very hard up for prides or joys, with the exception of Maureen Bunyan, of course). Young Fine does a terrific job with this piece and makes it much better than it needs to be.
If only the pigeons themselves knew how grateful they should be, they might declare a moratorium on targeting Fine's car--at least for the next few weeks or so.
CAPTION: Frankie Muniz in "Malcolm": Family life is not always peaceful.