First airing on Fox back in 2000, Malcolm in the Middle ran for over 150 episodes. Compared to other sitcoms being made at the time, the show was much more grounded and realistic. There was no laugh-track, nor was there a live studio audience. Malcolm Wilkerson1 and his family live in an uninteresting suburb, struggle to pay the bills and go on modest holidays. Instead of exciting and expensive adventures, the Wilkersons spent most of their time watching television and trying to alleviate their boredom.
I loved this show as a kid and looking back, the main reason was that the Wilkersons were working-class. They get by but the best things in life – foreign travel, fulfilling jobs, social advancement – are basically out of reach. It’s not a perspective you often see on television.
Malcolm was inspired by the life story of Linwood Boomer, creator and producer of the show. The third of four sons, Linwood was enrolled in a gifted class at school because of his high test scores. He did not enjoy the experience – speaking to the Oakland Tribune in 2006, Linwood recalled:
“My childhood was not super-happy … I was a troubled kid with very few social skills and did not connect to the people around me. I was not a sociopath, but I wasn’t social. I was always telling the principal he was stupid and arguing with my teachers. I would be horrified if my children ever did that.”2
Of course, the show wasn’t a documentary and plenty of wacky things happened on Malcolm, even in the earliest seasons – Francis finds the corpse of a janitor in the basement of his military school; the family bring home an armoire cabinet that infests their home with bats; Hal creates a battle robot and accidentally covers himself in thousands of bees.
Nevertheless, Malcolm still managed to portray real-life situations better than most other shows. Which brings us to my favourite episode of the series…
Krelboyne Girl – the best depiction of teenage romance I have ever seen.
For those who don’t know, Malcolm Wilkerson is part of a middle-school gifted class nicknamed the Krelboynes.3 The class is mostly made up of boys, but Malcolm has his first crush when a new girl joins the group – Cynthia.
Malcolm introduces himself and their first meeting is adorably awkward. Cynthia fidgets with a pencil and tries to break the ice by explaining that she and her dad moved away from Manhattan after her parents divorced and that “nothing’s been the same since my brother died in the boating accident … just kidding!”
Malcolm is bemused and says that he will see her later. Malcolm wanders back to his desk before looking over his shoulder – he and Cynthia share a smile. Malcolm then looks back again and wonders why Cynthia is still looking at him.
Later that day, Malcolm stays behind to use the school computer.4 He heads outside and Cynthia is waiting for him – she wants to talk about his views on extra-terrestrial life, before earnestly asking him “what’s it like to have a brother?” Malcolm isn’t sure how to respond, and is even more confused when Cynthia follows him home and Lois invites her to stay for dinner.
Now, I don’t condone Cynthia’s actions here – following someone home without their permission is not an acceptable thing to do. However, I do think that these two scenes are an excellent portrayal of the difficulty teenagers have in expressing romantic attraction. Society doesn’t give us a convenient script on how to tell someone that we like them, and a lot of media aimed at teenagers are power fantasies where making friends and flirting with other people is effortless. Watching two teenagers struggle to connect with one another is a nice change of pace.
All the way through dinner, Malcolm’s older brother Reese teases him about his new “girlfriend”. Reese is twelve years old at this point (about one year older than Malcolm) and I think it is interesting that he sees a romantic relationship with a girl as something he can taunt his brother about. The episode doesn’t comment on it but as boys enter puberty and begin to feel the patriarchal social pressure to be sexually dominant, this sort of mocking becomes almost nonsensical.5
The next day, Cynthia sits next to Malcolm at lunch. Malcolm asks Cynthia why she is spending so much time with him and she explains that “We get along so well, I just thought we’ve got a good thing going.” Malcolm is bewildered but he is soon distracted by Reese who comes up and starts teasing them again. Reese pokes Cynthia on the nose, she asks him to stop and when he doesn’t…
It turns out that Cynthia knows Krav Maga, much to Malcolm’s astonishment. In the show, Reese has been established as the school bully and he often initiates (and wins) fights with his brothers at home. Malcolm is impressed and looks enviously after Cynthia as she walks away.
There is a lot to say about this scene. We could discuss the way media tends to minimise the seriousness of bullying because the participants are children. We could note how defeating a bully in a fight is a common power fantasy and why that is a problematic “solution”. We could even draw a connection to the scene where Cynthia followed Malcolm home and how children generally have poor boundaries.6 Suffice it to say, the show portrays Cynthia’s actions as correct and the viewer is supposed to agree.
Over the next few scenes, Cynthia and Malcolm spend more time together. The pair are laughing together, they move together to kiss and Malcolm is repulsed when Cynthia snorts due to allergies. Cynthia teaches Malcolm some Krav Maga holds, he compliments her perfume and she replies that it’s anti-dandruff shampoo. Finally, we see them as lab partners and in a moment of frustration Malcolm tells Cynthia that she doesn’t have to say “just kidding!” all the time – he knows when she is joking. A visibly hurt Cynthia responds that “just because you’re cute doesn’t mean you can be rude“.
What I like about this sequence is that Malcolm is feeling a lot of new emotions but he doesn’t really know how to process them. He clearly likes spending time with Cynthia, but he is also struggling to establish emotional boundaries or express himself in an appropriate way. When Cynthia scolds Malcolm in chemistry class for being rude, he is defensive but he obviously didn’t want to hurt her. The show portrays teenage romance as messy and difficult and I find it very relatable.
Unfortunately, the ending is where this episode falls apart. Unhappy with how things have been going, Malcolm tells Cynthia that he does not want to be lab partners anymore. Cynthia accepts the “soft” rejection but when she has lunch with another boy, Malcolm gets jealous. In one of his characteristic fourth-wall breaks, Malcolm says that “If I’m such a genius, I should be able to come up with a smart way to deal with this.”
He decides to throw a brick through Cynthia’s window at 2 o’clock in the morning.
Lois manages to smooth everything over though, giving a speech that is full of biological essentialism:
“It’s puberty! Their bodies are going all crazy down there and they can’t do anything about it so they start all that silly making out and then they get all tingly and charged up (so) they throw bricks and things … They are idiots at this age. That’s just what they do.”
I suppose you could dismiss this as ignorance but Lois keeps going, telling Cynthia’s father that while her son’s behaviour was unacceptable, Cynthia better get used to it because she “is an early bloomer. She’s going to pop out of every bra you buy her for the next three years.”
Malcolm and Cynthia are both deeply embarrassed but when they are left alone by their parents, they feel able to express their feelings for one another. There is no happy ending though – Malcolm gets distracted as they start to kiss and accidentally insults Cynthia by talking about her bra. She storms out after using a Krav Maga move on Malcolm’s throat.
Looking back, this is a very uneven episode of Malcolm. I stand by my claim that is an excellent portrayal of teenage romance – the heavy focus on conflicting emotions and the difficulty in establishing healthy boundaries is something I have rarely seen explored in other pieces of media. Cynthia is a well-rounded character with her own interests and mannerisms – she isn’t just a female version of Malcolm introduced to act as his love interest.7 Unfortunately, all this good stuff is held back by an ignorant understanding of puberty and the idea that being “all tingly and charged up” excuses Malcolm from responsibility for his actions towards Cynthia.
If you haven’t watched Malcolm before, I recommend giving the show a chance – it is a good depiction of working-class life, the editing is interesting, the performances captivating. When the show works, it really does works.
Sources and further reading
The YouTuber José also has an excellent retrospective on the show that I recommend you watch: