With every passing season, it seems as if the state of sitcoms fades further and further. Uninspired situations, characters and dialogue are found each week on a series of shows that, more often than not, are nowhere to be found a few weeks later. Shows that may prove promising are given less and less time to prove themselves, while old favorites such as "The Drew Carey Show" are running out of steam (although I doubt they could ever top the episode where Mimi sent Drew to China with no money.)
The state of most network programming, in my opinion, makes the rare instances of brilliance even better. This year, NBC provided the superbly written "Scrubs", a sitcom that blends marvelous characters with a remarkably smooth mixture of comedy and the occasional drama. Before that, one must head back to the 2000 television season, where Fox introduced "Malcolm in the Middle", an off-beat sitcom that managed to take the most cliched situation in the TV book - the dysfunctional family - and make it fresh.
The show stars Frankie Muniz as Malcolm, a highly intelligent young kid who observes the chaos of his surroundings, including two brothers - one a potential felon and the other a remarkably creepy little character, as well as a mother who rules the household with a mixture of politics and pure anger. Last, but not least, there's the father (Bryan Cranston, whose performances are occasionally pure genius) who's trying to be on both sides at once - staying on the good side of his wife while also being as much of a kid as his kids are. Elsewhere, there's older brother Francis, who has been sent to military school and run away to Alaska.
Watching this first season of "Malcolm" again reminds me how wonderful the show once was. It's certainly still one of the better comedies on television, but there are signs of problems: Jane Kaczmarek's mother Lois now displays less strategy in trying to control her family and more pure volume and temper. The decision to move Francis to Alaska resulted in repetitive jokes about the hellish conditions he had to live in and far less sharp humor about his Ferris Buller-ish ways of getting around working in school. Muniz and Cranston still have a keen sense of timing and provide most of the laughs.
Season one has some episodes that still remain classics. "Rollerskates" offers Cranston's finest half-hour, as the episode transforms the simple story of Hal teaching Malcolm how to skate into something over-the-top and remarkably hilarious. There's also the destructive end that the brothers bring to Hal's day of car shopping in "Smunday", played out superbly in slow-motion. "Home Alone 4" and the pilot (shown in extended form here) are also some of the highlights of this 16-episode set.
VIDEO: "Malcolm in the Middle" is presented by Fox in 1.33:1 full-frame, which is unfortunate, given the fact that the show has been shot in 1.78:1 since this opening season. The image quality is unexpectedly inconsistent, barely improving on broadcast quality. Sharpness and detail vary, as some scenes are crisp and defined, while others look soft and occasionally almost a bit blurry.
The problems visible with the image quality also are inconsistently seen. Grain is the most noticable problem, as the image can either be free of grain, present mild amounts or even show heavier amounts on a few occasions, giving the image a rough appearance. Slight edge enhancement and a couple of tiny traces of artifacts are seen, but the grain really remains the only bothersome aspect of the image quality.
Colors remain rather flat and bland, but the show never was particularly colorful early on. The image quality throughout this set is certainly watchable and often enjoyable, but I have to say I was expecting more.
SOUND: The 2.0 soundtrack presents both the music and dialogue clearly. There's not a whole lot to the presentation, but audio quality is still a bit better than expected.
MENUS: Fox has put together great animated main and sub-menus for the discs - there's even nice transitions between main & sub menus.
EXTRAS: As Fox TV product on DVD continues to sell, new releases provide more and more supplemental materials. While not exactly as feature-rich as the two "Simpsons" releases, the "Malcolm in the Middle" set still provides quite a bit to go over.
Creator Linwood Bloomer and director Todd Holland (as well as other members of the cast and crew) provide audio commentary throughout the three disc set. Bloomer and Holland start off with a full-length commentary for the extended pilot, but afterwards, the commentary is only available during certain scenes throughout many of the remaining episodes. The commentary tracks are stellar, as the various participants treat it as a party atmosphere instead of a serious discussion of the various aspects of the production. While still informative, there's a lot of entertainment to be found here, too. An "ID Track" lets us know - via subtitles - who's speaking at any given time.
Malcolm Vision: This little featurette offers Cranston's discussion of the show's shooting in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. While the use of widescreen has many positives, this featurette shows how mistakes can occasionally be made where people aren't aware they're sticking their head into the frame.
A Stroke Of Genius: Although the title is a bit much, this superb 40-minute documentary does a terrific job portraying the beginnings of the series - including writing, casting and character development. While some of the basics are presented in a somewhat dry fashion, the piece starts to get going as it traces the show's ride to screens and shows the reaction by audiences. It's all a little E! Television-ish, but still very good and worth watching.
Dewey's Day Job: This short featurette follows actor Erik Per Sullivan, who plays little brother Dewey on the show, through a day off the set. He doesn't seem any different than the character on the series.
Cold Opens: Four alternate openings.
Also: Rounding out the set are four deleted scenes, promos for season one, an amusing gag reel and the "behind the middle" promo for season two.
Final Thoughts: "Malcolm in the Middle"'s first season still contains its best moments, with "Rollerskates" being one of my favorite episodes. Fox's DVD edition offers decent audio/video quality along with some solid supplements. The list price of $39.99 and less at most stores makes this an easy recommendation for both hardcore and casual fans of the series.