At a time when game shows are spreading quicker than the flu and the sitcom seems to be a dying format, the fact that Malcolm in the Middle is shaping up as a hit for Fox is exhilarating. It’s rare for a show that tries to do something new within its genre to become an immediate attention grabber; look at how long it took Seinfeld, or more recently, Everybody Loves Raymond, to snag a significant audience.

What’s made Malcolm a magnet for viewers? Certainly, the network’s nonstop marketing (which conveys the show’s whiplash pace and impudent tone) along with a post-Simpsons time slot haven’t hurt, but that doesn’t always guarantee instant buzz, as that period’s previous occupant, the genial Matt Groening cartoon Futurama, has learned. (It’s a bolt-solid show, but do you know anyone who talks about it?) More important to Malcolm in the Middle‘s success, I think, is its freewheeling, truth-rooted humor and the amazingly adroit, beguiling performance of young Frankie Muniz as Malcolm. The show takes the most trite sitcom subdivision — the family comedy — and brands it in a new way, with an instantly recognizable visual style that matches the show’s scripts in scrappy energy.

The show’s most original stroke is in making Malcolm a young genius wedged into a family that’s noisy and disorganized, pushed to the exploding point with both anger and love. Malcolm is the third of four brothers, the eldest of whom, Francis, is a deceptively easygoing troublemaker who’s been sent away to military school. (He’s played by Christopher Kennedy Masterson and is, like his brother Danny on That ’70s Show, a master of the modulated smirk.) The show’s creator and frequent scriptwriter, Linwood Boomer, understands that families often produce opposites like this: The No-Account and The Brain, the prodigal son and the “good” son.

Similarly, Malcolm’s parents are yin-and-yang ding-a-lings. His dad, Hal (poker-faced Bryan Cranston), is a cheerful doofus whose parenting strategy is to ignore everyone around him, while his mother, Lois (Jane Kaczmarek, deploying her stage training with a magnificently farcical ferocity), is an all-seeing, all-knowing dervish, quick to punish but fiercely proud and protective of all her sons, not just Malcolm.

Lois is an outlandish version of the mom in Eliza Minot’s marvelous new novel The Tiny One, a tale told through the eyes of an 8-year-old girl. At one point, the girl says dreamily of her mother, “She’s everything everywhere like she’s more me than I am.” Similarly, Lois knows exactly how her boys think — she knows when they’re hurting inside and need bucking up, and when they’re being little criminals who need to stand in the corner for a while.

When some early reviews said Malcolm was cartoonish — a live-action Simpsons episode — I wanted to laugh: Have these writers ever experienced contemporary family life? The riotous chaos of Malcolm in the Middle is an only slightly heightened reality — a kid’s view of today’s plugged-in, instant-messaging, where’s-my-Ritalin pace. On this show, the talking-to-the-camera routine has a very specific purpose: It tells us that what we’re seeing is Malcolm’s interpretation of what’s going on all around him.

And so, for example, in an episode in which Lois finds her new red dress burned and stuffed down the toilet, his response to her relentless attempt to get the culprit to fess up is played with the emotional intensity a boy like Malcolm would feel if his mother were that angry. In conveying this and other shaded emotions (shame, irritation, ambivalence), Muniz cannot be overpraised — and isn’t, on evidence of the raves he’s also receiving for his performance in the current feature film My Dog Skip. Compared with young TV personas ranging from Jay North’s creepily cutesy Dennis the Menace 40 years ago to Fred Savage’s likable but limited Kevin Arnold in the earliest, and best, seasons of The Wonder Years, Muniz as Malcolm is the Cary Grant of kid stars.

There are times when you wish the jokes in this series were a little funnier, but right now its unique situations — there’s comedy gold being mined from Malcolm’s gifted-child class of awkward brainiacs — make it distinctive, a quality the Fox network has sorely needed this season. The fact that in its second week, the show was second only to the lumbering ER in attracting 18- to 49-year-olds suggests that while Malcolm may be a middle child, he’s certainly poised for the top. A-

Malcolm in the Middle
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