'Malcolm' To The Rescue

When Malcolm's mother finds her red dress badly burned and stashed in a toilet, she does what any sitcom parent would do. She punishes her children. Only because the family on Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle" is prone to inspired exaggeration, punishment looks a lot like hilarious torture. That means making the boys run around in circles until they admit which one did the deed. Or standing the three hell-raisers in the same corner, even though little Dewey's smelly diaper makes that cruel and unusual punishment. Mom even pins them upside down behind the couch, where the kids graze on the kind of long-lost food that lives under every sofa in America. But still the boys won't fess up. "You have forced me to do something terrible," Malcolm's mother says. "Say goodbye to a cherished family friend." With that, she puts on gloves, lays down a tarp and prepares to bash the TV set with a mallet.

That's not the only TV that's hurting these days. Only recently, television pundits were arguing that the sitcom was dead. This season features only 42 half-hour comedies, down from more than 60 in 1997. Game shows, one-hour dramas--that's where the action is. Or was, until "Malcolm" arrived three weeks ago. With its zany humor, irreverent look at family values and the irresistible Frankie Muniz as brainy motormouth Malcolm, it's one of those rare shows that appeal equally to kids and parents. In its second week, "Malcolm" was the most-watched comedy on TV among people 18 to 49--more than "Frasier." Suddenly people are talking about a sitcom revival. "They're pushing the envelope, not going with the banal shows other networks have," says Marc Berman, a programming consultant. "It's funny, and a little sleazy. It's definitely a Fox show. And it's huge."

All this talk about saving the sitcom makes the "Malcolm" people a bit nervous. "I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that it's going to be a success," says Linwood Boomer, the show's creator. In fact, "Malcolm" is an unlikely savior. There is no laugh track or even real jokes--unless you count the humor in watching characters find new ways to pick on their friends, relatives, even a boy in a wheelchair. The show did poorly in its focus-group testing. "Testing is when you get 30 people in a room and ask them, 'Do you like seeing wheelchairs knocked over?' What are they going to say--yes?" says Boomer. Yet the wheelchair tipping is hilarious, and it lands gently with a subtle message about tolerance. Boomer, 43, who worked on "3rd Rock From the Sun," says he's simply exaggerated situations from his youth. "I usually get corrections after every episode from my mother," he says. "But she thinks it's very funny." There's a lot of that going around.

'Malcolm' To The Rescue | News