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TeeVee Awards '03: Worst Actor

A week or so ago, a couple of us Vidiots spent a lovely evening at the Oakland Coliseum watching the Oakland nine fend off the feisty Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The "Star Spangled Banner" that evening was performed by a local youth choir, and we don't think we're being overly critical when we say the little tykes didn't do Francis Scott Key and his difficult-to-sing prose poem any favors. The opening lyrics were delivered with a high-pitched, jarring shrill, and matters worsened rapidly from there, until the final lyric -- that bit about this being land of the free -- which the choir sang as if they were simultaneously strangling a dozen cats.

Admittedly, we were in the distinct minority with our assessment of the youth choir's performance. A housewife seated immediately behind us was far more effusive in her praise, applauding as if anything less than an enthusiastic response would doom the children to an evening of recriminations and canings. "They sing like angels," the woman burbled. "Like angels!"

If so, then perhaps the eternal rewards of heaven have been vastly oversold to us by our clergymen. We continue to hold out hope, however, that the heavenly multitude sounds nothing like a chorus of trilling, off-key boy sopranos, but instead that the seraphim and cherubim sound more like Sinatra during the Capitol years, with the archangel Gabriel providing Nelson Riddle-like arrangements.

The point of this story? We don't like children here at TeeVee. We don't like tow-headed moppets singing our National Anthem. We don't cotton to the rugrats sitting near us in fine restaurants or behind us at late-night showings of R-Rated movies. And we certainly don't like it when the little bastards ruin our favorite TV programs.

Because let's face facts -- the uncomfortable truth that obstetricians, the PTA, and the sales staff at your friendly, neighborhood Babies 'R Us don't want you to hear: short of casting Tony Danza or incorporating the words "wacky next-door neighbor who solves crimes" into your show's premise, adding a child to the cast is about the worst possible thing you can do to a TV program.

Remember Mad About You? We used to have nice things to say about that relationship-com back in the day, particularly when it came to the performance of Helen Hunt. Then, in the show's waning years, someone got it into his or her head that what Mad About You really needed was a baby... and the next thing you know, a once vibrant comedy transformed into a tedious death march (which, come to think of it, was pretty good preparation for watching most of Hunt's post-Mad About You movie roles). NYPD Blue was among the best dramas in the 1990s -- right up until the moment the producers decided America was yearning to see Detective Sipowicz as the parent to a sawed-off little runt. We have no idea if, in keeping with the grand tradition of unspeakable tragedies befalling Sipowicz, the disgustingly cute moppet finally met a premature and gruesome demise, as that would require us to actually watch the wheezing drama, but better him than Rick Schroeder, you know? And, in regards to programming of more recent vintage, it's probably no coincidence that both 24 and The West Wing are at their very worst whenever the chowder-headed offspring of the main characters are eating up valuable screen time.

Bottom line: Kids. Ruin. Everything. And when a TV show centers around the kiddywinkies from the get-go? Oh doctor, pour us another scotch.

So in a sense, you could say that Malcolm in the Middle defied the odds when it debuted back in 2000. After all, here was a show that not only featured a kid in the title role, but one in which all the action revolved around four hellions and their destructive ways. Yet, where other programs might have collapsed under all that baby fat, Malcolm flourished. And it did so, not by insisting that its under-age cast was precocious and sugary-sweet and dimple-cute, but by embracing them as the monsters that they were. That, coupled with some clever camera-work and top-notch writing made Malcolm in the Middle a stand-out comedy at a time when the sitcom genre seemed to be gasping for air.

Then, somewhere along the way -- some argue the second season, others believe it was the start of the third -- Malcolm fell flat on its face. The primary culprit: the ravages of time, which did a number on the pre-teen cast members. Growth spurts, rapid voice changes -- the lads of Malcolm in the Middle became a living, breathing seventh-grade Life Sciences film strip on the mysterious changes ushered in by adolescence. And while all that's great from a let-us-now-begin-our-wondrous-journey-into-manhood perspective, it sure took its toll on the show's format. Because the same chaos that's funny and frenetic when it's perpetrated by youngsters suddenly becomes alarming and sociopathic when those same perpetrators now have deeper voices than you and are shaving between takes.

To their credit, Malcolm in the Middle's production team and cast tackled the problem head on. The writers tweaked the scripts ever so slightly, making sure the characters stayed likable instead of eligible for the death penalty, and airlifted the oldest son Francis out of the dead-end Alaska wilderness plotline. The actors stepped up their game as well. Christopher Masterson took the Francis character in a new direction, as did Erik Per Sullivan, who transformed youngest child Dewey into a delightfully demented little boy that uses his Lego-like building blocks to create an imaginary totalitarian world. Justin Berfield, who plays Reese, gave the best performance on Malcolm this past year and, in our estimation at least, one of the best performances you'll find on television. After carrying the show through its lean season, Bryan Cranston, the harried and hopelessly over-matched father, continued to turn in fine comedic work. Everyone, it seems, pitched in to help Malcolm in the Middle not only find its footing, but regain its place among the best sitcoms on television.

Well... everyone except for Frankie Muniz. And since he plays the title character, that's kind of a problem.

We have nothing against Muniz personally. To our knowledge, he's not planning a liquor-store heist, and it's not like anyone dragged us off to see "Agent Cody Banks." In every interview we've seen, Muniz has come across as a very pleasant young man, largely unaffected by the monetary and societal benefits of fame.

That doesn't make him any better in Malcolm in the Middle, however.

The trouble with Muniz's performance is that it's no different today than it was when Malcolm premiered more than three years ago. Muniz has shot up a like a weed while his voice has dropped several registers; yet, he's still playing Malcolm like the know-it-all middle-schooler we met back in 2000. Consequently, the things that used to be endearing about the character -- the exasperation with his family, the awkwardness with his classmates, even that blasted talking directly to the camera -- now come across as annoying and grating. Other characters in Malcolm in the Middle faced a similar dilemma; they managed to correct it. That Muniz has not means he's either unaware there's a problem or unable (or worse, unwilling) to fix it. Either way, Malcolm the character isn't a lot of fun to watch.

Now normally, that would be more than enough to clinch our Worst Actor award. Save for Jane Kaczmarek's increasingly shrill and one-note performances, Muniz's the-character-was-like-this-when-I-found-him approach is easily the worst thing about Malcolm in the Middle. Then again, we are talking about an actor who only recently became old enough to legally vote. By saddling Muniz with Worst Actor honors, we're essentially picking on a child -- karmically speaking, that's just a few steps above baiting bears and booing a parade of aged, armless war veterans. Are we really so cruel that we have to stoop to belittling the accomplishments of teenagers -- especially in a year filled with so many worthy Worst Actor contenders?

The past season, after all, gave us the chilling sight of David Caruso, preening in the Florida sun, playing his crime-scene investigator as a pompous, all-knowing automaton. Mark Feuerstein certainly wasn't the worst thing about Good Morning, Miami, but he wasn't exactly helping the ipecac go down any smoother. We're not sure what it is Eric McCormack does on Will & Grace -- we think it's something along the lines of "Take up space while Sean Hayes capers like a monkey" -- but we certainly wouldn't classify it as acting. Speaking of Hayes, after watching his portrayal of Jerry Lewis in the Martin-and-Lewis telepic, we have a greater understanding for deteriorating Franco-American relations. As for Jim Belushi, the According to Jim star gave an interview with TV Guide earlier this year in which he proclaimed his hatred of television critics, particularly those who were not bright enough to grasp the subtle intricacies of his program.

Believe us, Jimmy, the feeling is more than mutual.

If anyone was going to snatch the Worst Actor crown away from Muniz, however, it would have been Justin Louis, the bug-eyed simian who helped run the irredeemably idiotic Hidden Hills into the ground. Like Muniz, Louis was the focus of his show. Like Muniz, a chunk of his dialogue was delivered in oft-painful, straight-to-the-camera monologues. Unlike Muniz, he's long past the legal drinking age, meaning Louis would at least be able to drown his sorrows after we handed him our booby prize.

But at the end of the day, it turns out we are cruel enough to name Frankie Muniz Worst Actor of the past season. Because as bad as Justin Louis was -- and it was a Michael Jackson's "Bad" kind of bad -- he was bug-eyed and ape-like on a show that nobody liked and that nobody watched and that nobody will ever see again until Trio unveils its "Shitty And Cancelled" series. Muniz is on a hit show -- a good show -- and thus figures to be with us until he leaves behind television for good to make "Agent Cody Banks XIV: Midlife Crisis Undercover."

What swung the pendulum in Muniz's favor was a single episode from last season, featuring Jason Alexander in a guest-starring role. Alexander played a whining, thoroughly unlikable complainer a little bit too impressed with his own book-smarts; naturally, Malcolm took a shine to him. Because Jason Alexander was just like Malcolm, you see. "This annoying man is who Malcolm is going to grow up to be," the writers seemed to be saying. "Ha ha ha ha!"

And it was pretty funny. Until you realized that Jason Alexander's annoying character was gone for good after this episode. Malcolm we're still stuck with.

Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels.


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