Cockpit of conflict

Television - Andrew Billen on a painfully funny sitcom that shows the family as war zone

The wonderfully funny new American sitcom Malcolm in the Middle presents the world from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy. It is not a pleasant vision. The squabbles of everyday family life and the pressures of school loom terrifyingly large. In the opening moments of the first episode, the familiar from-space image of Earth zooms up the left nostril of Malcolm's brother Reese, where it - or something - causes an obstruction that makes him squeak as he sleeps. This world, on the other hand, gets up Malcolm's nose all the time.

This is a programme about the American home as a cockpit of conflict, of the dispute between individual rights and group responsibilities, of enforced familial alliances and the brutalising that one generation does to the next even as it attempts to tame it. It is, in other words, about being a child and, as Malcolm says, the best thing about childhood is that at some point it stops. It is pretty much all said in the show's theme tune by They Must Be Giants, which expresses the dream of one day turning round and declaring: "You're not the boss of me any more."

Malcolm has been described as a live-action Simpsons but, while that is a lofty claim, it does not do justice to its originality.

Linwood Boomer has invented a more enclosed and claustrophobic family than the Simpsons. Homer and co participate all too fully with the Springfield community - the "cast" stretches into the hundreds. Malcolm's family is hermetic and dreads a neighbourly knock at the door. His mother has traded so many of her social skills for hands-on child-rearing that she unashamedly greets Malcolm's special needs teacher topless. At one point, Malcolm perceives his folk as a family of chimps defending their territory from a neighbouring tribe.

In Simpsons terms, Malcolm, gracefully played by Frankie Muniz, is a mix of Bart and Lisa, a brilliant anarchist, a pest with higher moral sensibilities. His great desire is to be ordinary, but fate does not make this easy for him. On the one hand, there is his abnormally "colourful" home life (as his teacher euphemises); on the other, his intellect. Malcolm has an IQ of 165, so he is "different in his brain". His only real schoolfriend is the wheelchair-bound, asthmatic Stevie, and all they have in common is their status as outsiders and a shared love of escapist comic books.

At the head of Malcolm's family stands his mother, Lois, known to her in-laws as "Loist Common Denominator". There is a blue-collar coarseness about her, demonstrated when she shaves her legs in the car on the way to a wedding (and it is wet shave, too), but her background is not what's wrong with her. Played larger-than-life by the stage actress Jane Kaczmarek, Lois has become over-involved with her family. A sign of this is the way she lets her maternal panic show: "You take your legs for granted, like nothing could ever happen to them," she warns her boys. "Let me tell you something. That is just wishful thinking. There's meningitis. You could be in an accident."

She loves and understands them, but her empathy also makes her highly suspicious of them. The kids in return call her the Special Prosecutor. In perhaps the best episode so far, "The Red Dress", they burn the dress she has bought for an evening out with her husband. After the initial admonitions against playing with fire ("Do you want us to identify your charred little bodies by your dental records?"), she launches an investigation into who was responsible, using psychological interrogation techniques perfected in the Korean war. She soon forgets all about the dinner.

Waiting at the restaurant, her husband, Hal, is not overly concerned. He turns his breadsticks into chopsticks, experiments with complimentary cologne in the washroom - "I've been thinking about a signature scent" - and invites the cloakroom attendant to his table. Hal is played by Bryan Cranston as a version of Rob Petrie from the Dick Van Dyke Show, pipe-smoking, ineffectual, emotionally myopic and childish. In one episode, he learns from his children the full possibilities of the wood-chipper machine he has hired to dispose of a tree. One by one, household item after household item is passed through its turbine, emerging from its funnel as garish confetti advertising the family's passion for over-coloured interior decoration.

There are aspects of the show I quibble with. Every time the story shifts from what could actually be seen through Malcolm's eyes, the formula is diluted. How does Lois's over-attentive manager at work fit into Malcolm's life? The scenes set in the military school where the eldest of the boys, the plausible trouble-maker Francis (whom his brothers worship), has been sent, are weaker than the rest and over-emphasise the family-warfare conceit.

But Malcolm in the Middle earns the right to take us where it wants. It is frenetic and vivid. It packs an extraordinary amount into its 20 minutes. It is an attention-deficit show fortunate to escape a dose of censorious studio Ritalin. Sky One smartly showed its first season last year. Now BBC2 fields it at 6.45pm on Fridays after The Simpsons. After the disgrace of the BBC's scheduling of Seinfeld, I hope it knows what it has this time.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, John Prescott: sinking fast