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?
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.
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. He was enrolled in a gifted program at school and his mother, Eileen, was very strict with her children’s upbringing. Boomer also created the short-lived, but highly controversial animated series ‘God, the Devil and Bob’.
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’. His current spouse is Scotch Ellis Loring, an actor and singer, who played Dr Ron in his film Wonderfalls.
It is also worth mentioning that Bryan Cranston, who played Hal, is a strong supporter of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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