« The American Dream in Malcolm in the Middle » – Louison Oudart

1. Screenshot taken from the Pilot episode (S1EP1)

Malcolm, renamed Malcolm in the Middle, is an American sitcom created by the Canadian actor, filmmaker and producer Linwood Boomer for the Fox Broadcasting Company. Composed of 151 episodes divided into seven seasons, the show aired from January 2000 to May 2006. This short programme of about twenty- three minutes per episode and set in America of the 2000’s, depicts the reality of lower middle class life at that time through the eyes of Malcolm, a child genius, living with his family.

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     The show was quite popular and received several distinctions; a Peabody Award and a Grammy Award in 2001, seven Emmy Awards (one per season), as well as seven Golden Globe nominations; however, because Malcolm was so ahead of its time, it did not get all the attention it actually deserved. Indeed, this show is about everyday life, but it is also implicitly highly critical of American society and its political and social norms.

      Through humour, Malcolm offers a very raw and hilarious, yet extremely realistic vision of what the 21st -Century American Dream is truly about; showing that the ideas commonly associated with the Dream are not enough in the 2000’s to reach happiness. It separates people’s vision of success from happiness by showing that being successful in life has nothing to do with meritocracy and materialism. Money cannot buy happiness, just as hard work does not imply success and recognition.

     The American Dream is a highly portrayed theme in the popular culture of the United-States. Everyone, even outside North America knows what it is, even though its definitions are numerous and very different from one another. However, one of these is more common, as it has its origins in History. The American Dream is far from being a new concept. Indeed, it started with the colonies, when the Crown of England promised its poorer citizens landownership for those who were ready to leave everything behind and settle in the newly found continent. Nowadays, both Americans and foreigners still believe in the possibility of starting from nothing, from rags to riches, and becoming successful. To them, success is deeply associated with materialism, meaning having their own house, car, or even business, having an opulent lifestyle, becoming someone. Even if the vision of the American Dream has not changed very much throughout the years, the possibility of its realisation has. In a world where money decides everything and defines worth, acceding to the old American Dream is now a complete utopia, urging people to create their own definition of the American Dream as accessible and eligible to happiness.

     Just like the American Dream, sitcoms are nothing new, and have definitely made a place for themselves in popular culture. Sitcom, short for Situation Comedy, appeared in the late 1940’s, in the post-World War II context. They are one of the oldest form of televisual entertainment. Made to amuse, sitcoms present the audience with comical situations, often treating their characters with derision. As a typical sitcom, Malcolm presents a recurrent cast, evolving in a limited number of locations. Linwood Bloomer did not chose this format by default: with their obvious comical nature, sitcoms are the perfect genre to openly criticize society thanks to the cover up of laughter.

     However, laughter in the show only comes from the audience itself, as there is no use of a laugh track in the show, allowing it to decide when and about what to laugh. There is no guide line, which leads to a genuine reaction to the situations. Like most modern sitcoms, Malcolm in the Middle is not shot in front of a live audience, allowing a more realistic filming process and a very detailed set. Because the audience is not directly included in the making of the show, Malcolm, regularly takes the audience aside in private monologues. These sequences are important for the show dynamic as they create a bond between the protagonist and the audience; they are inclusive, therefore breaking the fourth wall. The audience is not a passive witness of the family’s live; viewers are almost treated as family members [1].

     The opening theme was carefully selected and can be seen on both explicit and implicit levels. Boss Of Me is a song by They Might Be Giants, written in 1999 and “specially recorded for the show [2]. The lyrics suit the show very well, as they can be applied to both adults and children. Indeed, with Malcolm and his brothers always defying their parents’ authority, the opening song sounds like a rebellion for freedom; but it can also be seen as the parents’ fighting back karma, as they are always put in difficult and stressful situations, be this at work or at home. “Life is unfair” is the motto of the show. This opening was kept from the pilot episode until the end of the show. Furthermore, the opening features images of Dinosaurs, an ABC sitcom which is “an anti-capitalist, moralistic puppet show about a family of dinosaurs living on a swampland owned by [a] Corporation […], run by a Trump-esque CEO. It offers a critique of exploitation, sexual harassment and political corruption, and concludes with the family becoming extinct due to a climate change-induced ice age” [3]. By using such a powerful reference, Linwood Boomer clearly indicates the nature of his show right from the beginning: it is not to be seen as a fun to watch sitcom only, but also as a sort of social documentary based on Modern day.

Yes, no, maybe, I don’t know

Can you repeat the question?

You’re not the boss of me now

You’re not the boss of me now

You’re not the boss of me now

And you’re not so big

You’re not the boss of me now

You’re not the boss of me now

You’re not the boss of me now

And you’re not so big.

Life is unfair

They Might Be Giants, Boss Of Me, Rykodisc Records, 1999[4]

     The last sequence of the opening is also quite striking, as it features Malcolm with his hands covering his eyes, while slowly opening up his fingers, revealing his eyes. This is interesting as this sequence is used as the background for the show title, possibly implying that the aim of the sitcom is to be an eye opener for the audience, so far blind to the reality of the world they are living in. Moreover, each episode ends with the sound of a door being closed. It “is standard [practice] in sitcoms” to use a similar process to end episodes, making “everything return[ing] to how it was.”[5] With this sitcom, however, this means that there is never any improvement, that reality always finds its way back in. The sound of the slamming door is an indication that the family is doomed to remain in the same situation, no matter what happens in between. Overall, the basic structure used in every single episode is a great way to implicitly show that things can quickly change, but it does not mean this is going to remain so.

     Malcolm and his family are a very interesting representation of the American middle class. The parents, Lois and Hall are two drastic opposites; both portrayed with traits usually not associated with their respective gender, Lois is a very authoritative, resourceful and hard working woman who is not afraid to stand up for herself and her family, while Hall is given more feminine stereotypes, as he is very sentimental, fearful and submissive to others. In a way, Lois is portrayed with male stereotypes, while Hall is more feminine, almost childlike. Their five children are out of control, which is the source of the show’s comical situations. All five are very different. While Francis is a rebellious teenager, Reese is stupid, violent and lazy. Malcolm is the storyteller. He is the middle child since 2003, hence the renaming Malcolm in the Middle. He is an arrogant and egotistical genius, constantly bullied by his classmates and professors who despise him for being intelligent, while Dewey gets little recognition and is very good at manipulating people. Finally, little brother Jamie tends to closely follow Dewey’s example: acting as stupid as his brothers but being smart enough not to be blamed for his bad behaviour. Each member is important, as they all give meaning and a definition of the American Dream through self-discovery and improvement.

     The generational gap between parents and children as well as between the children themselves, as they all are in a different part of life, allows an evolution for the audience regarding their own understanding of the American Dream. Furthermore, the family has no known last name. Fans wondered for years and regularly asked for it to be revealed. As a last joke, the final episode of the show features a scene in which Francis drops his employee badge, on which can be read “Francis Nolastname”. This may seem to be a minor detail, but it actually does say a lot regarding the show. Indeed, this family is not a specific one, but a representation of the lower middle class American family. They are Mr and Mrs Average and their children, evolving in a difficult economic context. This absence of last name could also mean that they are nobodies, as their existence has no impact on the US economy, due to the fact that they are poor people. With such ordinary, yet out of the ordinary people, compared to their surroundings, the “Nolastname” family engender universality, as each and every viewer, regardless of their age, can relate to at least one of the issues the family is facing on a daily base; be it money, parental, family, work or school issues, or even the fear of growing old.

     For the parents, growing old is a frightening thing, as they worry for their children’s future, and want to be there to help along the way. However, for the children, this fear is not initially portrayed, and will only come as they age and mature through the seasons. In the pilot episode, the opening sequence features Malcolm introducing his brothers and himself in a very pessimistic manner. Indeed, this first private conversation starts with Malcolm lamenting the impossibility of seeing the entire world in a lifetime and ending with “Wanna know what the best thing about childhood is? At some point it stops” [7]. Like most children, he cannot wait to be an adult as he associates adulthood with freedom, having a childish view of the American Dream. This is a feeling shared by all the brothers, the hope of living their dreams and becoming their own bosses.

     As already mentioned, the American Dream is, in popular culture, deeply connected to materialism. With Malcolm in the Middle, this stereotype is portrayed to be laughed at. Having a beautiful house with a lot of furniture and a nice car, a great job and a perfect family. Malcolm’s family has these things. However, possession is not synonymous with quality. Indeed, they have a home, but it is falling apart and too small, resulting in three of the boys sharing a room with one single and one double bed. They possess a lot of furniture, but it is either broken or simply junk. They have a car, but it is old and average looking. Both parents have jobs, but they do not pay that well. As a result, the kitchen is a room where the difficulties of life are most of the time represented. The kitchen can be associated with the financial issues the family is facing. Indeed, seeing Hall and Lois sitting at the table with a mountain of bills to pay is a common sight.

     With huge debts, and in a home in desperate need of renovation work, the couple often has to decide which bill to pay and have to make sacrifices and concessions, everyone in the family has to. A good example of this situation is the lunch bags sequence. In those scenes, there are always two identical lunch bags, and a third one with less exciting foods in it. Dewey being smaller than his brothers, he is usually given the less appealing one, as he cannot run fast enough to the kitchen to grab the good one; those scenes are the perfect illustration of the “you cannot always get what you want on the first try”, and the general unfairness of life, where meritocracy does not have its place, no matter how hard one tries. Because Dewey always seems to be calmer than his brothers, he is often unintentionally neglected as his parents believe him to be happy and just fine. Unfairness is always shown through very laughable actions and scenes, making it easier for the audience to swallow.

     In Malcolm in the Middle, stereotypes are challenged gender wise and social wise. The sentimental aspect of men and the strength of women is portrayed through many characters. It is part of the comic of the show. The social aspect of the show is very interesting; indeed, Malcolm and his family are seen by the other protagonists as pariahs because they are poor, but not only. The main difference between Malcolm’s family and the others lies in the way they behave around one another. Malcolm and his brothers may hurt and annoy each other, yet at the end of every episode, conflicts are always done with. In a way, the family is ridiculed because they act as a family.

     Malcolm’s family truly is living an American Dream in comparison to the show’s other protagonists. Indeed, many characters in the show are having troubles with their relatives; some have parents who do care about them, or parents getting divorced, or having to cope with their loneliness. Malcolm’s family, in spite of the difficulties they face everyday remains very bonded, facing problems together and caring for one another. In that aspect, they succeeded where the other characters failed. Unlike them, they did not manage to get all the money and luxury, but what they have is far more precious as they end up being the only characters to be really happy throughout the show. The parents love each other and are proud of their children. They had no real expectations for them, their only goal was to raise them to be prepared for the unfairness of the world.

     Malcolm in the Middle is an outstanding sitcom, often looked upon as being unrealistic, but it is only because people were not ready to deal with the reality it actually portrays. The message is pretty simple: there is no such thing as meritocracy. The show gives a realistic definition of the American Dream: being true to oneself is the only way to achieve happiness. The definition of success is a rather personal one, as it depends on the goals one wants to achieve. Having dreams is a wonderful thing, but it is important not to be too ambitious in order to have the possibility to evolve. Socially involved, the show denounces the way society uses people, making them believe that they one day will become rich through hard work, when it is only for the rich to become richer.

 

Louison Oudart (Master 2 Anglais)

 

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Notes :

[1] Screenshot taken from the Pilot episode (S1EP1)

[2] They Might Be Giants, Boss Of Me, SongFacts.com

[3] Yohann Koshan, Why ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ Is Actually a Socialist Masterpiece, Vice Channel, 2017

[4] They Might Be Giants, Boss Of Me, SongFacts.com

[5] Yohann Koshan, Why ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ Is Actually a Socialist Masterpiece, Vice Channel, 2017

[7] Malcolm in the Middle, pilot episode (S1EP1)


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