Dec 13, 2012

Malcolm in the Middle vs. The Middle: apples and oranges?

Growing up I remember always looking forward to watching Malcolm in the Middle (MM) and recording episodes on VHS tape. It was watched by all my friends and was one of the most popular TV shows in Australia. Years later The Middle came along. It was greeted with much scepticism because it was seen as a rip-off of MM: another show about a dysfunctional, middle-class family. I doubted whether The Middle would be any good. Now, The Middle is one of my favourite shows. But what makes these two shows which seem the same, so very different?

The families
MM was about the central-character called Malcolm, the third son of four brothers (later five). His mother, Lois, was a dictatorial, control-freak who struggled to keep her sons from misbehaving and his father, Hal, a dim-witted and oversensitive man. Malcolm’s older brothers: Francis, a former rebel sent to military school but in later seasons becomes a responsible man; and Reece a dumb, schoolyard bully who constantly gave Malcolm and his family trouble. Then there were the youngest brothers, Dewey, an intelligent but weird child and in the final seasons Jamie, an infant.

The Middle is about a middle-class family of five (the Hecks) living in a mid-sized city in the American midwest state of Indiana. The central character, Francis (“Frankie”) Heck, is the wife and mother who lives by the motto “you do for family”. Her stoic husband, Mike Heck, manages a local quarry and serves as the stabilizing influence in the family. They have three children: Axl (the oldest), an under-motivated and cynical teenager; Sue (the middle child), an enthusiastic but socially awkward young teen; and Brick (the youngest), an intelligent but introverted compulsive reader with behavioural quirks and socialisation problems.[1]

From these brief descriptions we can draw several similarities: Dewey and Brick are very much the same, except Dewey is weirder than Brick. Axl and Reece are both poor at school, but Axl is not a bully. Yet we see some fundamental differences: both the mother and father figures are more traditional; Frankie is gentler and Mike remains calm in stressful situations.

However, to really understand what makes a show unique one has to examine the minds of the people who generate the show’s direction and concepts.

The creative minds
Several years ago I remember watching the Emmy Awards when MM won Best Director during its golden-era. It was quite a memorable ceremony because this director and co-executive producer, Todd Holland, jumped up from his seat then passionately kissed his boyfriend and thanked him in his acceptance speech. After witnessing this I started to view MM in a very different light.

The creators and executives of a TV show, film or any creative work provide the direction and inspiration on how the work should be presented. So if these creative minds have a particular set of beliefs or agenda would they not express them through their work? So who are these people?

The show was loosely based on the personal life of creator, Linwood Boomer. Born in Vancouver, Canada, he was the third of four children.[2] He was enrolled in a gifted program at school and his mother, Eileen, was very strict with her children’s upbringing.[3] Boomer also created the short-lived, but highly controversial animated series ‘God, the Devil and Bob’.[4]

Todd Holland was the co-executive producer and director of 26 of the 151 episodes. Holland earned two Emmy Awards, both for outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series: his first for the pilot episode and his second for the season two episode ‘Bowling’.[5] His current spouse is Scotch Ellis Loring, an actor and singer, who played Dr Ron in his film Wonderfalls.[6]

It is also worth mentioning that Bryan Cranston, who played Hal, is a strong supporter of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights.[7]

            The Middle
There was not a great deal of information available on the personal lives of the creators Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline. However, from what I could source they have been friends and writing partners since sharing a dorm room at Indiana University.[8]

They both live traditional lives, in that they are both married to men with children. Just as in the show, the creators both grew up in middle-America so it can be assumed that much of the show is based on their own life experiences.

Gay subplot?
When I reflect on MM I am lead to believe there was a certain agenda beneath the surface. All sitcoms have to rely on exaggerations and stereotypes to stay consistently funny, but what seemed out of place was how all the male characters were ‘feminised’. I believe this was to promote ‘gay acceptance’.

Instead of acting as a normal male would be expected to act, they instead acted in a rather ‘queer’ fashion. Several scenes that come to mind:
-         one of Francis’ friends at military school had two gay fathers;
-         when Hal played poker with his friends they looked more like gossiping, elderly women playing Gin;
-         when the boys ran away from home and stayed at a hotel Recce is shown arranging flowers and says, “I think these flowers add a nice touch to the room”;
-         Reece wearing a pink apron while baking;
-         Francis regularly complaining about his mother to his fellow cadets;
-         when stressed Hal would start screaming and shrieking like a girl; and
-         Malcolm’s friends from the gifted school acted out scenes from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar named Desire.

It’s as if the writers of MM took away the characters’ sense of masculinity and replaced it with remnants of 1950s homemaker nostalgia. Frequently the men would react highly emotional and dramatic, characteristic of a woman. It was a mockery of society’s expectations of male behaviour. Whereas Mike Heck, from The Middle, would always act in a straightforward manner and remain emotionally stable. Perhaps MM wanted to show that even straight men could act in a queer way and vice-versa – so that the audience could reconsider what was ‘normal’ behaviour.
Another tactic that may or may not have anything to do with furthering gay-acceptance could also be how the female characters were portrayed. I always felt as if the females, especially the girls, were often unsympathetic and hurtful towards the boys. Was MM trying to say cruel-girls can’t be ‘true friends’, but one could have a more meaningful relationship with an over-sensitive male? An acceptance of gay men or is this going too far? Then there is the aggressive behaviour of the mother, Lois, and the bitter old grandmother. Roles which should normally be sensitive and compassionate were instead the complete opposite. However, the creator of MM did base the character of Lois on his own mother.

Two other elements I believe to be working towards gay-acceptance was the reactionary/instinct and overtly masculine behaviour of some characters. Regularly the male characters, Francis and especially Reece as a bully, would react in ways that were a gross overreaction. This behaviour was especially so in physical conformation with other men, “I don’t know what came over me. I become like this animal” was a common phrase and, “I don’t know why I did it”. It almost seemed to be a case of ‘I have no control over my actions. I do what I feel’. Taking into account MM’s queer humour, it could be argued the show was pushing the attitude that people can’t change who they are, this could also extend to sexual preference.

Whilst on The Middle, the only possible gay character is Sue’s ex-boyfriend, Brad. He comes across as ‘flamboyant’ and rather feminine; however, his sexuality is not disclosed. Unlike MM’s queer and homoerotic humour, this is not a major element of The Middle’s formula.

Treatment of Christianity
The core values of The Middle family are very different. They appear to be Christian based on the regular sighting of a Celtic-style Crucifix in the parent’s bedroom and in the hallway of Frankie’s parents’ home. There is also the minister, Rev. Tim-Ton, who has made several appearances.

In a Christmas episode, Brick had questions about the Bible and Sue was determined to make him believe as she did. This is a touchy topic used by many sitcoms to make fun of Christians. However, the interaction between Brick and Rev. Tim-Ton was one of respect. Rev. Tim-Ton does not force Brick to accept his beliefs but allows Brick to decide for himself. Even more surprising was their discussion about God granting humanity freewill to believe in Him. This is quite unusual for a TV comedy as one would expect Rev. Tim-Ton to stereotypical be a fire-brand-preacher.

As for MM, the family was officially atheist. In the following examples:
-         the family joined a church to get their new-born son, Jamie, free child care. During that time Dewey contemplated that God was a vengeful God. He then told his Sunday school teacher that he couldn’t accept this and that people need only be nice to each other and have no need of God.
-         when Hal was selling Christmas trees, undercutting the local Catholic Church’s tree stall, two priests came threatening him to back off. When the family didn’t, the priests then sent a bunch of homeless people from the Church’s shelter to hang around the family’s stall to scare off customers.
-         when Malcolm went to meet the family of a girl from his school, when talking about himself he explains how he found the concept of God illogical.

Such comments are extremely prejudicial towards Christians, especially Orthodox theological. Although one can argue MM is a comedy and should not be taken seriously, it seems unfair that only Christianity is targeted and never shown in a positive light. No faith should not be the subject of ridicule. At least in The Middle, the show decided to make the family Christians but avoid being preachy – is that too much to ask?

The moral
Most shows tend to finish with a ‘moral of the story’ which The Middle has adopted. Usually they tend to be ‘sickly-sweet’ endings but The Middle is slightly different. Its morals tend to be uplifting and poignant relating to ordinary daily life. For example, Frankie telling-off a rude woman during Halloween to be more considerate of those with special-needs, the family celebrating Frankie’s late aunty passing and Sue standing up for her rights when she was eliminated from the cheer squad. Having an upbeat approach gives the viewer hope and optimism in their own lives.

The Middle offers a more refreshing approach than MM’s pessimist attitude. Virtually all episodes of MM would end with the family just getting by and Malcolm left unsatisfied or disheartened – the ‘loser’ ending. There occasionally needs to be a positive ending because characters can’t always be used as a ‘means to an end’, that is, for our entertainment.

Last words
Although MM and The Middle are based on dysfunctional families with some similarities they are yet very different in their own way. The Middle is more realistic of day-to-day trials which most can relate, whilst MM relied on gross exaggerations and queer humour. The Middle is more heartfelt and upbeat while MM relied on pessimism.

Whether I have overanalysed what I consider to be MM’s peddling for gay-acceptance it is up for much debate. My opinion is based on my subjective observations. However, when you factor in the background of the creator and executive producers it starts to add some weight to this theory. MM only pushed the envelop a little by bringing gayness to primetime in a subtle way. Perhaps this was to lay the foundations for future shows, such as Modern Family, Glee and The New Normal.

Its understandable networks don’t want to push a particular religious view but in several episodes the executives of MM allowed the aggressive mocking of religion, especially Christianity. The Middle made the family Christian but did not use it for the purposes of mocking them.

Overall, in my opinion, I like to think that the two shows are at poplar opposites including their comedy style, characters and storylines. I find The Middle to be a more entertaining family show without any subtle political agenda weaved into the story. If you haven’t watched an episode of The Middle yet, I suggest you give it a go.

Written by Chris Vlahonasios



Nathan Lee Lewis said...

If MM and The Middle were subtle in their gay indoctrination, there were at least 40 sitcoms that preceded them and upwards to 50 since then, whose promotion of out-of-the-closet characters is obvious.

Chris said...

That's true. MM was not the first to 'overlay' queerness during prime time, off the top of my head i can think of half a dozen episodes from Seinfeld & The Simpsons. I suppose why i found MM so shocking was because of the realisation that this subtlety was happening in a show very popular amongst children in their early to mid-teens, a age group that is vulnerable to suggestion, especially as they are developing mentally and socially.

Anonymous said...

You really have invested, way too much thought in a good sit-com and it's rather obvious ripoff.
your case for "gay indoctrination"
is grasping at straws, and considering The Middle airs on the family oriented Hallmark network, and It's star, Patricia Heaton, is an outspoken conservative republican, The Middle plays, as an Malcolm in the middle, with "the Full house writers. And considering you felt the need to mention that The Middle's creators were not married to each other, while hilarious, certainly, shows that you spend entirely too much time looking for the gay agenda under every rock.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you and I like The Middle much more. Thanks for such a great article!

Siphiwe Mkhwanazi said...

The fact is that the middle is nothing more than a rip off, it's not original

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that those three things in Malcolm in the Middle are "extremely prejudicial towards Christians." I'm not saying I didn't feel like being defensive about any of them. But, "extremely prejudicial" may be a bit of an overreach. First of all, it's a t.v. show. One of the things people do when creating movies, music, t.v. shows, or any artistic endeavor, is try to provoke a thought or feeling in the "audience." Obviously, this was achieved with you and me, both. Also, I think there are a lot of people who've seen God as vengeful, unnecessary, or viewed the concept of a Devine Being as illogical. Any instances of art reflecting life are good to take note of. I could go further, but I don't think that I want to seem "preachy" any more than I already might have. (Plus, I'm tired.)

But, I like your theories and observations. I thought it was a great article overall. And let's not forget Romans 3:23, as well as the rest of the chapter. Happy writing to you! And God bless you!

Allegra said...

i disagree Malcolm in the middle is awesome. I wish the never stopped!

Anonymous said...

My theory is a lot less complex:
Kids of popular hit show grew up in real life. Lois can only breed so many times
Hey, the mom from "Everbody Loves Ramond" is a hit, lets get her and a Dewey lookalike!

Master Blek said...

The Middle does not have what Malcolm got: BIG HUMOR
I tried to watch The Middle but every episode makes me wonder why do i even waste my time at watching this crap.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Love Malcolm in the middle. It only became daft when the went too PC. The middle is as entertaining as a weekly shop in Sainsburys!

PDEX said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Seriously? Gay agenda? For one thing, the male characters acting feminine was obviously done to create humour. When characters act unlike their stereotype, it can be funny. This video is a great example:
That's because it's unconventional that two posh WWII pilots talk like chavs, like it's unconventional that the MM male characters act feminine.
Secondly, there is nothing wrong with not conforming to a stereotype and it is wrong to assume that by doing so a character isn't who they seem. It doesn't make you gay if you don't like the things you're "supposed" to like or do the things you're "supposed" to do - and it certainly isn't wrong.
While I highly doubt that Malcolm in the Middle was intentionally trying (a strange phrase) to make society more accepting of homosexuals (which wouldn't be a bad thing anyway - we could all do with a little more tolerance) - I think the allegation is absurd - it would be wrong to rate the show lower even if it was.
Personally I prefer Malcolm in the Middle to The Middle. A grenade went off in their fridge, enough said.

Unknown said...

I agree with this and i would like to add that in real life there isn't always a sappy happy ending where we all learn a lesson and are better for it. In real life, life is disappointing, people go to bed wondering why they even bothered getting up anymore. MM wasn't afraid to be realistic in that aspect.

Gwen said...

Hm, are women always overly sensitive? Are people raised to be a certain way because of culture? Are those roles serving society? Some of the qualities you pointed out should be embraced equally by both genders. I don't see where gossiping and being unstable serve the individual or society.

Anonymous said...

You admitting you believe there to be a certain set of "masculine rules" that men have to follow is highly sexist. Your opinion is based tightly on the outlook of a bigot.

Anonymous said...

Having seen both. The middle is a milder form of humour but leta be honest in terms of humour it lacks the spontanietyand hilarity of MM. As for gay agend, creayive art reflects creator. So i cant say you are wrong however MM was brilliant humour but not family friendly. The middle is family friendly but not as brilliant as MM.

Byobz0r said...

The Middle is dangerous propaganda exposing children to Christianity at a vulnerable age, don't you think the scenes with the reverend and Brick were 'normalising' contact between priests and young boys (which we know is dangerous)?

Fuckthis said...

So the only reason you like the middle better is because you think it's more Christian and mm "promotes gayness". Do you realize how offensive that is? I read this because I honestly wanted to know what the difference is between the 2 shows. this is a ridiculous article clearly written by an oversensitive Christian who is threatened by gay rights. Maybe christians would be seen in a better light if they weren't always trying to make gay people feel like less of human beings than themselves. There is no gay agenda, gay people want what everyone wants. To live and be treated like everyone else. Nobody's talking about your bigomist agenda. You want the right to treat gay people like crap and be protected doing it but don't want gay people to want any of the same rights you have. It's not fair, if you can't see that all human beings deserve THE SAME then you're obviously "extremely prejudicial" about gay people. I was lookin for an honest article, not this ones gay I used to love it until I saw the creator kiss his boyfriend! Gross!!!! It promotes gayness. The other one though is great and it promotes Christianity so watch that. Like ok..... this was supposed to be about the shows not how fucking gay or not they are. You used to love the show before you found out the creator is gay. What does that say about you? That you'd stop liking something just because the creator is gay. That's screwed up.

Douglas Ginn said...

Who ever wrote this article, is a well spoken idiot. just my 2c.

Douglas Ginn said...

Written by Chris Vlahonasios, when the writer even comments to prove a "gay agenda point" lol. No we can tell the logic of a bigot wrote this. Oh no someone supports LGBT rights and they worked on this show. Solid point......Not i should become a critic, it takes stupid comments and no brains to become one hahaha, ive watched the show SO MANY TIMES. and i cant see a " CLEAR GAY AGENDA" but when i watch the middle i can see a very clear "anti gay" PRO CHRISTIAN AGENDA. look at me mom im a good critic. Yea lets make little children feel ok when a catholic pastor gets personal with them, we have plenty of examples.

Anonymous said...

Its sad to me how staggeringly stupid some people can be. And yet, nothing is there to stop them from spreading their poison amongst the populace. I understand that death is a very scary thing for all of us. What I do not understand is how people are able to use that as an excuse to accept a belief system which is based on the most deplorable aspects of human nature and then to go on from there to attempt to convince others of the validity of their preposterous claims which are, in fact, a direct contradiction of the actually observable physical reality in which we all exist. I am here to tell you all this - no system of belief, however absurd or believable, no matter how artfully presented or conveniently placating to our emotions - nothing you can tell yourself will ever actually be able to save you from your ultimate fate. So my question to all of you is this: since you're going to die anyway, why not in the meantime reject logical impossibilities in favor of a more reasonable and objective view of our existence? Why embrace the tenets of a religion who's history and legacy is one of blood - a history of violence, rape and torture of those who conscientiously object to the nonsense these religions purport? If you want to believe in something for which there is not one shred of evidence then why not just invent something for yourself which seems plausible and doesn't involve such evils? Do you lack imagination? Or perhaps intelligence? Do you think that merely because many thousands before you have made these mistakes that they are no longer mistakes to be avoided? Religion holds almost NO truth whatsoever but instead feeds people lies which cause them to feel okay about the terrible things they will do to others. Religion is a front for evil and oppression of the human spirit, and its very design is to subvert the personal power of the multitudes and channel that to the ruling class. Did you imagine that you were righteous? Did you also imagine that there was a separation of church and state as outlined in our constitution (in the USA)? These are fallacies which until realized and addressed by all of you, will remain the architects of our own demise. 'The Middle' is an attempt to whitewash over an actual artistic creation (Malcom in the Middle) by shamelessly and talentlessly plagiarizing and repackaging it to make it more suitable for the scared little sheep who dare not peek outside of their comfortable little boxes to discover the unforgiving logic of the real. If you can't handle full frontal reality; if you prefer the bland and pallid over the real and the diverse, then I am sure this farce will not challenge your comfort zone and will not cause you to question your reality which has been fed to you by those who would keep you stupid and powerless. Just realize that I will hold no pity for you but instead, only contempt. For YOU are the real problem here, not those men who hold the reins of power. The power IS you! And you gave it all up to murderers, rapists, thieves and liars. And all for some ridiculous promise of some impossible fantasy, which was paid for not by the blood of one lone savior but instead the blood of many millions. Women. Children. The very Earth itself bleeds for your stupidity. And yet all of you are just marching blithely on, unconcerned for the plight of us all. Because some mysoginistic pedophile told you it was your salvation? Shame on you. SHAME ON YOU! And you will reap what you sow. I will do my best not to laugh at you all as I watch your world crumble, but I most certainly will not shed a single tear for you because you did this to yourselves. You did this to all of us. Shame on you.

Anonymous said...

Hal believes in heaven. There's an episode when he and Lois find a way to actually have time together and they find out that they feel differently about it. Eventually Lois overcomes her pride and lies for Hal, saying that she believes they will spend eternity together. Also, how is that for a moral of the story which you said was lacking? A lot of what you've said here is pretty rude and not even well thought out or argued. As a Christian I understand that there are more conservative versions of our belief but I really felt uncomfortable when you mentioned Hal or Reese acting feminine as being 'queer humor' it was actually just humor and opens peoples eyes when such boys reflect on themselves in the show. I've seen this show probably five times by now and I wouldn't say they were pushing any agenda. Gay rights is controversial for some but they are still rights and out of all my time watching the show there was probably 5 instances where I was surprised by how 'progressive' it was. Such as when Hal kind of plays wife for Stevie's dad for a while, or when a girl convinces Malcolm and Reese that the other is gay and they are careful not to offend each other. I'd say that Malcolm in the Middle is comedy occasionally colored with 'gay comedy' in a way that is not offensive or in your face because the show is meant to be funny and being over serious about it would distract from the show.
When I saw 'In the Middle'; episodes tonight' I thought that it may have been a continuation of MM or the same concept and I was apprehensive and excited because I haven't seen much forth wall breaking comedy that was so funny. I looked it up, read this, and concluded that In the Middle sounds incredibly boring in comparison.

Anonymous said...

I see Rants and Triggered people here. Go outside. The year 2016 is over. Live for the future.