The Littlest Freudian

So much happens in this week’s episode of Malcolm in the Middle—titled “Pearl Harbor”—that maybe you’d be safer at MoMA or the movies. Even when it isn’t trying so hard, Malcolm, in its sixth season as a Chernobyl in the Fox family of nuclear dysfunctions, is already a kind of concentrate of sitcom toxins, the splat left over on the walls of the centrifuge after the pop spin of Mommie Dearest and the Ugly Duckling. But when Malcolm surrenders entirely to its demons, it looks more like one of Freud’s perverser theories: perhaps the spooky maternal vulture he dreamed up as an explanation for Leonardo’s same-sex yearnings.

As the episode begins, we zoom in on Malcolm’s dad, Hal (the hapless Bryan Cranston), in his suburban tract garage, in ferocious competition with the neighbor across the street, who somehow always manages to put up a gaudier display of Christmas lights. This holiday season, by mounting instead a commemoration of Pearl Harbor Day, Hal hopes both to flummox his adversary and impress his youngest son, Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan), who is writing a school paper on personal heroes instead of talking to a dog. We are entitled to fear the worst: first, because Hal is the essence of network-sitcom daddom, from Ozzie Nelson to William Bendix to Danny Thomas to Tom Bosley to Sherman Helmsley—a sort of Dagwood Bumstead antihero sandwich, more infantile than any of his kids. And second, because postdoc sitcom Malcolm, a hypertext of the many junior-high-school shows that came before, has been preprogrammed to recognize that fathers never know best. Even Hal, who left a computer job to try to paint and would really rather be a stock-car racer, expects in advance to disappoint his sons and himself.

Meanwhile, Malcolm’s mom, Lois (Jane Kaczmarek), with the mad eye and the Kirk Douglas dimples, seems uncharacteristically inattentive. Of course, she has bread to win, debts to pay, status anxieties to suppress, and Malcolm’s college to decide on—not to mention a missing kidney and a mother of her own who sued her last season. But how could she not notice that Jessica (Hayden Panettiere), the frizzy-blonde teeny-bopper who drops by in time for dinner every night, is manipulating her sullen boys in order to humiliate them? Shouldn’t she have twigged immediately that Jessica, in arranging for tickets to a road-show production of the Abba musical Mamma Mia!, intends Malcolm (Frankie Muniz) to suspect Reese (Justin Berfield), and Reese to suspect Malcolm, of trying on tutus in the closet? I will say no more, but those of you who have followed Malcolm to a military academy, a dude ranch, and Afghanistan, through jury duty, hangovers, shoplifting, book clubs, hot tubs, and Oliver North, ought to know better than to doubt for a second the savage savvy of Lois in her solitary splendor. All in one, she is Mother Jones, Mother Courage, Mother Goose, Mother Superior—and Pol Pot.

That Malcolm, who wants only to be average instead of a genius with a 165 IQ, and Reese, whose specialty is hitting people, should actually be nicer to each other when each thinks the other needs some tea and sympathy, is something that Jessica didn’t count on—and Lois enjoys as a time-out from the usual civil war. After the wounded have been shot, family life returns to angry normal: “I liked you better when we were gay.” But once again we are reminded that the template for Malcolm doesn’t derive from the standard narratives of family mortification—whether that means Hamlet, Lear, Sister Carrie, Uncle Remus, Auntie Mame, or the Brothers Karamazov. Instead, it’s Gregor Samsa, waking up in Kafka’s situation tragedy “The Metamorphosis” to find himself—like poor, brilliant Frankie Muniz—in servitude and humiliation, a dung beetle of the suburbs.

Malcolm In The Middle
Fox. Sundays. 7:30 P.M.

The Littlest Freudian