I’m still on my half hour kick, but for Malcolm in the Middle I went back to the excellent, funny and original pilot. Not the original pilot as seen on air, this is the extended pilot from the DVD set for which the writers are seriously under-compensated and hence. In addition to not downloading episodes of this or other WGA-written shows, don’t buy the DVDs.
Malcolm in the Middle has a short teaser followed by three acts. There are three story threads running through the pilot — all featuring Malcolm. There’s his playdate with Stevie and the friendship that ensues. There’s the bully on the way to school and finally, gifted testing.
The show starts with Malcolm’s voice-over introduction to his brothers and ends with the line that writer/creator Linwood Boomer says inspired the series: “You want to know what the best thing about childhood is? It ends.”
Following the titles, we meet the rest of the family: Mom is shaving Dad while the boys eat breakfast. Malcolm’s motivation in life becomes clear. He wants to pass for normal in the world outside the family. The family means that everything is stacked against him. He first problem is set up when Mom announces that she has arranged a play date for him with Stevie.
In the next sequence, the boys walk to school and encounter a bully. He’s beating up another kid and they escape unscathed. But the threat is established.
During the same sequence, we flash away to some memories of Malcolm’s eldest brother, Francis and how he ended up in military school.
At school, the bully gets Malcolm. The joke runs like this: everyone is at their desk painting. Malcolm gets out of his seat to show his painting to the teacher. The bully goes over to Malcolm’s desk and does something unseen. Malcolm returns to his desk and sites, accompanied by a subtle sound effect and Malcolm’s facial expression. Malcolm is told to go the office. He resists going. We see him rise. Cut to him walking away from camera with red paint all over his butt, his classmates jeers ringing in the soundtrack.
Malcolm meets the special ed teacher and is given a test. He ends up yelling “I have red paint on my ass.” And that’s the act one curtain.
Act Two begins with Malcolm at Stevie’s. The scene has a typical MitM structure. Basically, there are four gags. The first is mostly visual as the boys scope each other out and weird lenses make it clear that they don’t get each other. Next is the slow talk joke in which Stevie tells a joke really really slowly and Malcolm can’t stop himself from interrupting. Finally, it turns out that Stevie isn’t allowed to watch TV. It seems unlikely that these boys will be friends. And then it turns out Stevie has the world’s greatest comic book collection and the boys bond.
It’s a terrific scene structure for this edgy material. We get deeper and deeper into the kind of territory that makes networks squirm. Our lead character Malcolm is developing a real hate for and anger at a black kid in a wheelchair with a debilitating disease. The tension between them gets stronger and stronger, but is broken when they find common ground. In other words, you get away with the edge, by ending the scene on a positive note — quirky though it may be.
Then we go to Saturday morning, the kids eating junk food in front of the TV and mom topless, frantically getting ready for work and doing the housework. There’s a call from Francis which ends badly and the boys start to fight.
Intercut with the boys battling it out is a scene between mom, still topless, talking to the gifted teacher on the doorstep. She wants to talk to Mom about Malcolm and Mom really doesn’t want to give her the time of day. The teacher talks her way in.
And so ends Act Two.
In Act Three, we begin at the breakfast table, a beautiful comedic scene of the family shoveling food into their mouths. Mom announces that Malcolm has an IQ 165 and is going into the gifted class. Malcolm really doesn’t want to, it’s going to make him look different.
In the Malcolm’s bedroom, in a scene bordering on heartwarming, Mom explains why Malcolm is going to go into the gifted class and promises no one will treat him as different.
And then we cut directly to his old teacher explaining to his old class why he is so very very different from them.
We transition into his new classroom where all the kids are staring at him. The sequence continues with some experiences in the gifted classroom and then cuts to the playground where no one wants anything to do with Malcolm and he has to go befriend Stevie.
That’s when the bully attacks. Remember the bully? We haven’t seen that storyline since act one, but now he’s on full attack in front of a playground full of kids. Malcolm stands up to him, invites the punch and then ducks. Stevie is the one who get punched, but the blow barely grazes his chin. Nonetheless, Stevie takes a big fall, his wheelchair keeling over sideways. All the kids in the playground rise to his defence, appalled that the bully would attack a “cripple”. Thus justice is served.
The final sequence functions a lot like a tag, we’re close on Malcolm as he speak to camera as he recaps for us how things turned out with the bully. We keep hearing Dewey’s voice. As we pull out we can see that Malcolm is seated on an overturned trash can and we realize Dewey is trapped under it.
The story telling is simple and straight forward as it is in other half hour comedies with lots of beats repeated for comedy value, though in this case they are grouped into a single sequence (eg the play date with Stevie) rather than intercut with other story elements.
The gifted story goes like this: Malcolm wants to be normal. He gets tested. The teacher comes over to talk to Mom. Mom announces that Malcolm is very smart and has to move to the gifted class. Malcolm resists, but ends up in gifted and doesn’t look normal at all.
The Stevie story looks like this: Mom sets up the play date. Malcolm goes, they don’t get along and then they do. At school Malcolm makes Stevie feel bad. He makes up with him in playground where Stevie proves a valuable ally.
The bully story: Malcolm sees the bully. At school, the bully bullies Malcolm. The bully attacks again and Malcolm stands up to him.
Some of the resolution comes from the convergence of story lines — just as in Seinfeld, when Seinfeld’s and Elaine’s stories collide so that his virgin girlfriend ends up sleeping with the focus of her crush: JFK Junior. In the Malcolm pilot, the bully story and the Stevie story collide in penultimate sequence in the playground.
But there are no turns in these stories. Aside from the storyline cross-overs, they are very straight ahead and simple.