Choice nuts

It’s already earning comparisons to "The Simpsons," but can the dark-side-of-suburbia shtick of "Malcolm in the Middle" stick to prime-time television? Linwood Boomer’s ("3rd Rock from the Sun") new Sunday-night sitcom on Fox doesn’t only pose this question; it also leaves us digging between the sofa cushions, in search of twisted domestic comedy’s lint-speckled charm.

Homer, Marge and Co. are much-loved pioneers in the business of exploiting reality and covering their comic tragedy and hard-edged satire in the harmless Crayola box colors of a cute cartoon. To offset the underlying darkness and to throw off the weight of preachy social comment, the Simpson family members are as caustic as battery acid and as harmless as circus clowns. It’s simple – it’s stupid – it’s over the top. But the joys of its repetition are seductive. The same serial joke told episode after episode has a pleasant rhythm to it, or at least it makes us laugh at each new uniquely idiotic nuance.

In the same way, success for "Malcolm in the Middle" depends on Malcolm’s (Frankie Muniz) ability to reflect enough bitter truth about middle-class family life to keep us coming back to the same fun house mirror of ourselves – that is, without spooking us beyond laughter. And it looks like Malcolm is the right young man for the job. He’s a cute preteen, a savvier Beaver Cleaver crossed with Macaulay Culkin in his Home Alone days.

Malcolm is a nice enough kid who happens to have seen enough R-rated movies and played enough video games to understand the dangers of childhood ignorance. Of course, the Beav would never tell his teacher, "I have paint on my ass."

Malcolm’s view of the world is a confused mix of curiosity, enthusiasm, innocence, sophistication and chronic boredom. This is especially evident in the lively monologues he delivers to the camera. For the pilot episode, Malcolm orders the action into slow motion so he can savor and narrate a moment when he outsmarts a threatening bully on the playground. He also ponders, "Is it just me, or is my life starting to get weird?"

The truth is, his life has been weird for a long time.

So bizarre they’re normal, Malcolm’s parents, Hal (Bryan Cranston) and Lois (Jane Kaczmarek), showcase those creepy eccentricities born of everyday life’s monotony and stresses – driving the kids to school, keeping up with the laundry, getting to work on time, etc. They shuffle through their domestic routine without the time or energy to make real observations, let alone react to the craziness of their shared existence. Is that why Mom answers the front door topless, shaves Dad’s body at the breakfast table and tells one of her four sons to chew the curdled milk in his cereal bowl?

The real revelation here is that Malcolm and his brothers manage to survive, even thrive, in their home environment. In fact, a steady diet of television, Captain Crunch and being shaped by the idiosyncrasies of the average American family hasn’t kept Malcolm from becoming a young genius. A test at school reveals that he has an IQ of 165, putting him in the socially difficult position of being placed in an "advanced class" with a crew of nerds who crowd around on his first day, eyeing him curiously through their Coke-bottle glasses.

At home Malcolm has developed a critical coping skill: adaptability. Still, for an average kid who just wants to make it to school without getting beaten up by a tough kid, being grouped with a class of outcast brainiacs presents real challenges. And the young new TV hero meets them all – so far – with appropriate, albeit unconventional, verve and wisdom beyond his years. When a particularly nerdish "advanced class" student meets to play after school, he tells Malcolm, "TV makes you dumb." Malcolm replies with a look of amusement and disbelief, "It makes you normal."

Contained in this single statement are all the major premises that underlie the charm and appeal of "Malcolm in the Middle." A television show is telling us that the average suburban kid can grow up on sugary cereals and Saturday morning cartoons and still be a genius. It’s also challenging some assumptions made in our society about morality and exposure (e.g. kids who swear and watch too much television grow up to be sociopathic killers).

It’s a pretty optimistic attitude that’s expressed in a surprisingly balanced way. "Malcolm" means to entertain us, to clown around enough to keep our interest. But like "The Simpsons" and other shows of its ilk, it recognizes that each generation carries its own burden of ordinariness. Ours happens to be an overdose of media input crossed with a shortage of time to contemplate or assess what the hell is going on – until, of course, television shows start informing us about their own effects. Is it just me, or is TV starting to get weird?

"Malcolm in the Middle" airs Sunday nights at 8:30 p.m. on Fox 2, WJBK-TV.