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Fall TV Preview: 'Malcolm in the Middle'

The Comeback Kid — Frankie Muniz’s family comedy comes back for a second season

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Surely you’ve heard the story by now: A slew of ”hot!” series debut on Fox last season. They are quickly coldcocked by viewers. The network plunges into a Nielsen black hole. Then suddenly — Heavenly chorus! Sunshine! — a punky 11-year-old kid and his nutso family burst onto the scene. Rave reviews. Huge ratings. And just like that, Malcolm in the Middle becomes savior of the family sitcom, not to mention Fox’s fanny.

Flash forward seven months to an August afternoon. One can only imagine how hugely the heads have swollen on the show’s Studio City, Calif., set. The fame … the fortune … the lavish network gifts … ”This is something Fox gave me,” says Jane Kaczmarek, displaying the revised version of a silver plate that was sent after her Emmy nod for playing matriarch Lois. ”It had chocolate-covered strawberries on it — and my name spelled incorrectly. It’s funny, I started thinking that one of the good things about the show being so successful is, my name is spelled correctly pretty consistently. Even in fan mail, they get it right.” She shakes her head and smiles. ”Things like this really keep you humble.”

If an innocent typo is all it takes to keep this endearing clan of freaks in perfect disharmony, then so be it, Jayne Casmric, Frankee Mewnis & Co. After all, this sitcom has made a name for itself by transforming everyday family knickknackery into a symphony of destruction and punishment (Watch daydreaming man-child dad Hal and the kids wreak havoc with a wood chipper! See Lois torture the tykes after finding her dress torched and in the toilet!) and, gosh darnit, nothing’s gonna stand in the way of that. ”The motto is ‘everybody suffers,”’ declares Malcolm exec producer Linwood Boomer. ”And it’s not just a motto, it’s a dictate.”

Yikes. Could this mean curtains for Dewey? When we last saw the little guy in May’s season finale, he was chasing a paper bag down a random street after his babysitter, guest star Bea Arthur, suffered a heart attack. (Interestingly, Arthur’s character was originally going to kidnap him, but when Fox became skittish about promoting the story line, the producers changed it to Dewey wandering off. ”Even for us, it’s probably not in the best taste to make light of child kidnapping,” notes Boomer, ”so we killed Bea Arthur instead, for the good of America.”) All summer, the net pumped a ”Where’s Dewey?” campaign, which revealed snippets of the sweet tyke wandering all over the country. Alas, trying to glean any hints from the cast as to his whereabouts was about as easy as persuading Survivor contestants to reveal the million-dollar winner. Witness our chat with boy wonder himself, 9-year-old actor Erik Per Sullivan.

EW: So, how many times have your friends asked you, ‘Where’s Dewey?’
Erik: [Sighs] Quite a few. How many times have I given the answer? Zero. They’re like, ‘Where’s Dewey?!?! We’ve got to find this out!!!’ and I’m like, ‘Can’t tell ya, bud. Tough luck.’

Will you tell me if I give you a really yummy candy bar?
[Leans back in chair, smirking] Nope.

Whaddaya gonna do? The kid is good. Luckily, there are a few earth-quaking, sanity-shaking, trouble-making stories this upcoming season that we can tell you about. The boys get busted for raining terror with a catapult slingshot loaded with diapers and balloons. The family vacations at an Indian reservation and winds up dodging live ammo in an artillery range. Malcolm pretends to be emotionally disturbed to get out of class. (Dude, remember when family sitcoms used to be, like, all TGIF-lame and stuff?) And, in an episode sure to upset one special-interest group, the family brutalizes a pack of clowns after one of them insults Lois. ”It was amazing,” says Christopher Kennedy Masterson (the clan’s military-school brat Francis). ”We got to kick the piss out of these stuntmen. There’s a great shot of us just beating clown ass and then the camera pans over to our mom and she’s just smiling, like, ‘Oh, those are my boys.”’

Boys may be boys, but you can still expect to see some heavy character growth. Not only does preteen whiz Malcolm land a real girlfriend, ”I’ve grown eight inches and my voice is a lot deeper than last year,” boasts his alter ego, Frankie Muniz. ”My shoe grew like five sizes. Seriously. Nothing fits me anymore. They had to cut holes in my shorts so they’d fit around my waist.” Adds Bryan Cranston, who plays dad Hal: ”I’ve recommended that Frankie become a castrati, just to keep his voice nice and high, and stunt his growth a little bit. You know how the Japanese used to bind feet? Well, we need a whole body binder.”

He won’t be the only one keeping close tabs on Malcolm’s growth pattern. Starting in November, Fox will air original episodes of the series on Sunday and Wednesday nights, and it’s possible that Malcolm could move from its comfy Sunday slot later this season to anchor a night that needs the help. ”This show is obviously a key piece to our future,” says Fox exec VP of programming David Nevins. ”It’s a hit, but we don’t know how big. We think this show can be The Simpsons and it’s almost there. It just needs to stay weird and be completely unexpected and do stuff they don’t do on any other show.” For Malcolm, that’s as easy as spelling K-A-C-Z-M-A-R-E-K.

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