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The Kid's All Right

Child actors are creepy. Good TV dramas frequently sidestep the child problem by operating in a world where small children aren't seen or heard, or by being so creepy that child actors fit into the show nicely. But the sitcom -- more specifically, the family sitcom -- is infested with these unsettling little people. And no matter how well-written the episode, no matter how competent the adult actors, any sitcom will grind to a halt as:

a. the child actor toddles into the scene

b. the child actor assesses the scene with the aplomb of a seasoned police hostage negotiator

c. the child actor delivers the scene's punch line, usually woodenly

d. the child actor saunters off with a world-weary slouch

Now I realize that the whole hoo-ha-funny angle to this dreary series of events is that the child -- who is supposed to be naive, untutored, and untouched by this world -- is the voice of wisdom for the brain-damaged adults around him. I also realize it's impossible to have a family sitcom without actual family members, hence necessitating the presence of children and explaining why the most successful comedies about families are animated -- Bobby Hill and Bart Simpson are more realistically developed children, and they don't come with pushy stage mothers or the incipient threat of growing up and starring in Working or Charmed.

But there's a freshly debuted family sitcom which turns my unpleasant little thesis on its head: Malcolm in the Middle is fast, funny and true-to-life, and the strength of the series lays in child actor Frankie Muniz.

The adults are above-average. Bryan Cranston as Malcolm's father, Hal, beautifully underplays his role as a father who knows he had some hand in creating a chaotic, four-boy household, but has no idea what he's supposed to do about it now. Jane Kaczmarek is a scream as Lois, the harried mother who runs her house with ruthless pragmatism in the face of imminent domestic entropy.

But the real joy in the series comes from the four juvenile tornadoes wreaking havoc in nearly every scene. Malcolm's older brother Francis (Christopher Masterson) is an unrepentant hell-raiser of the suburban variety, next-oldest brother Reese (Justin Berfield) thinks with his fists, and youngest brother Dewey (Erik Sullivan) is a curious little pest. Malcolm himself is a motormouth with an outsized I.Q. Rather than spend his time focusing his high-beam intellect on "productive" pursuits, he runs off at the mind in improbable directions.

All four of them act like actual kids, rather than types. Francis, who remains available for emergency consultations via dormitory phone, loves his little brothers even as he leads them into repeating his own ill-advised experiences. Like real kids, Reese, Malcolm and Dewey watch their parents like hawks for signs of favoritism and brawl with each other over every perceived unfairness.

The house is a mess and the parents aren't supervising their children so much as playing zone defense against them. But we never see this directly, which is proof of the talent driving the show. The writers have an eye for the telling detail -- Mom never has enough of any one foodstuff for all three kids, so one of them gets shafted on choices ("Two of you can have meat loaf and the third can have, uh -- oh, I don't know, peas."); the kids spend Saturday in a sugar coma on the couch watching television, the neighbors are convinced this family is bringing down their property values.

Through it all, Malcolm and his family sail or stumble through the world's most mundane events, pitching from lunacy to a genuinely moving moment back to chaos. The show feels loony and surreal precisely because it's the first family show on television that gets the details of family life right and shows us how funny we've really been all along.

And it takes the sunny, open face of Frankie Muniz and his other juvenile co-stars to do it. TV sitcom writers take note: if you're going to include children on your show, let them act like kids. It's much funnier that way.


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