Sunday, August 11, 2013

Is Malcom in the Middle Fox Network's Most Successful Black Sitcom?

Malcom in the Middle, which ran on the Fox Network from 2000 to 2006 and can still be seen in syndication, follows the exploits of a young genius (played by Frankie Muniz), his parents, and three (later four) brothers. The show was created by Linwood Boomer, a writer and producer of other well-known sitcoms like Silver Spoons, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Night Court, and loosely based on his personal family experiences. It was one of Fox’s most successful live-action sitcoms. I liked the show a lot for its manic energy, clever storytelling, and the surreal touches it employed, such as how throughout the series neither Malcom and his family’s last name nor their specific city of residence is revealed. (In the pilot episode one of the sons wears a name tag on his uniform that shows the family last name, but all subsequent episodes were careful to never show or mention that information again.)

I had always thought there was something else about the show I could not put my finger on, something that made it more unique than other family shows that used similar set-ups. A possible answer came to me a few months ago when I was reading various pundits’ opinions about the current Presidential election and how the presumptive Democratic party nominee Barack Obama has to make sure he’s black enough to maintain credibility with his base. The Commander-in-Chief’s blackness is not a new subject. A few years ago writer Toni Morrison opined that Bill Clinton was America’s “first Black President,” saying that saying that he “…displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”

Morrison’s comment is a good example of how, moreso than any other ethnic group, black people in the United States are defined by a set of behaviors as much as, if not more than, their physical characteristics. I’m confident that if any black person reaches a certain age and expresses interest in something not directly linked to the black experience (be it opera, European cinema, lite rock, hockey, or whatever), at some point someone will come up to them and ask some variation of the question “Are you sure you’re black?”

African-American sitcoms have appraoched the blackness issue in many ways over the decades. Programs like The Cosby Show and A Different World made a conscious effort to show black people in the best possible light, while shows like Martin and The PJs routinely used less-than-flattering black typecasts as a major part of their act.

One day the neurons in my brain that carry around my ruminations about race crossed with the ones that hold my memories of MITM, and I came up with a theory as to what makes that TV show so unique. It’s the way the show takes major stereotypes about black people and imprints them on a white family. Stereotypes such as:

Black people are violent and prone to criminal behavior: It’s well-established that Malcom’s older brothers Francis and Reece are juvenile delinquents, so much so that their mother Lois is on a first-name basis with local police officers. Reece, especially, is a borderline psychotic thug whose main pleasures in life come from hurting others. Francis’ history of destructive behavior is what leads his parents to ship him to military school (not unlike the youth boot camps that came into vogue in the 1980s and 1990s). Even cerebral Malcom is happy to going along with his brothers’ criminal behavior, which at one time or another has included theft, harassment, fraud, and blackmail. The boys’ father Hal also displays the same violent tendencies. Because it’s a sitcom, after all, the behavior is presented in a fun, lighthearted way, but it’s there.

Black people are lazy and lack ambition: Exterior shots of the family’s home show that the front lawn is never mowed and the house is falling apart. Hal works at a dead-end corporate job but spends most of his time trying to avoid work. In one of the later episodes he reveals that he spends every Friday leaving his desk and spending the day somewhere else. Lois works as a cashier in a convenience store and shows no particular desire to do anything else. Her sons put more effort into trying to avoid doing work than it would take to actually do work.

Black people (especially women) are loud and obnoxious: Lois is unique among white American TV sitcom moms in her loud, aggressive, bullying nature, both toward her sons and anyone who she feels is against her, which is most people. One of Malcom’s and his brothers’ biggest complaints in life is they have a domineering harridan for a mother.

Black people are oversexed with no self-control: One of the running jokes on the show is how Lois and Hal are constantly having sex. One of the show’s later plot lines concerns the birth of Jamie, their fifth son. The last episode hints that they have a sixth child on the way. Basically, even though they both have low-paying jobs and no money, they keep having kids.

Black people (except for a select few) are dumb: Even though they attend what appear to be well-funded, non-overcrowded educational institutions, Francis and Reece are constantly skipping or flunking out of school, unable to sit still long enough to grasp the simplest lesson or complete an assigned project. Reece flunks out of this senior year, but doesn’t mind because it means he does not have to go out and get a job.

On the other hand, Malcom’s genius with math is identified early and he’s separated from the other students and put in a special curriculum, perhaps so he can more easily take his place with the “Talented Tenth.” It’s later revealed that Lois’ other boys are in fact quite talented, but in areas they can’t express in school. Francis is a natural leader, Reece is a prodigy gourmet chef, and Dewey is a gifted musician. However, other than Francis’ stint as a manager on a dude ranch, they don’t focus on developing their innate skills. At the end of the series Francis leaves for Europe to manage a third-rate rock band, and Reece becomes a janitor.

Black people are always getting special treatment and are a drain on society: Despite the havoc Malcom and his brothers rain down on everyone, they never go to jail or prison for their actions. Despite his admitted apathy and laziness toward his work, Hal manages to keep his job without doing anything productive. Throughout the series, Malcom and his family live in a nice neighborhood despite the fact that their neighbors hate them and they never have any money. In general, the family seems to enjoy the benefits of living in a solid middle-class community without contributing much to it.

I wonder if the show would have been able to portray Malcom and his family’s exploits the way they did if those characters were played by black actors. The violence, the borderline poverty, and the characters’ lack of control and civility work just fine as comedy when the subjects are Caucasian, but might quickly swing toward an unacceptable reflection of certain parts of society with a black cast, at least on American television. Interestingly, Malcom and Hal's best friends on the show are direct refutations of black stereotypes. Stevie, Malcom’s best friend, is African-American, wheelchair-bound, and stricken with asthma and a number of other diseases. He’s also quiet, polite, really smart, and he likes school. He is the exact opposite of the jive-talkin’, in-yo’-face brutha-man made popular from Jimmy Walker to Will Smith to Martin Lawrence.

Stevie's mother Kitty Kenarben is an uptight, repressed housewife, and his father is a neutered, spineless professional. All of Hal’s black friends, as it turns out, are well-off, successful professionals. Sit-coms have to paint with a broad brush, but not since The Cosby Show have so many solidly upper-middle-class black men occupied one place.

I don’t think Boomer was intentionally pushing some kind of agenda with MITM, but it is interesting to see how race commentary, intentional and otherwise, can come from unexpected places. Pundits and politicians constantly implore Americans to have a “conversation about race.” Examining prime-time TV shows like MITM and others that hold up a funhouse mirror to family life could be one place to start.

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