Summer TV Club: Malcolm In the Middle "The Graduation"

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This week Jef, Pete and I went back in time about five years to weigh in on the series finale of the hit sitcom Malcolm In the Middle. The show quickly became a huge hit for Fox television and made stars out of Malcolm (Frankie Muñiz) his mother Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) and father Hal (Bryan Cranston). Malcolm In the Middle was nominated for countless awards and won quite a few, and the show is considered one of the top 100 "New TV Classics" by Entertainment Weekly, for whatever that is worth to you.

In the "Graduation" episode, the series finale, Malcolm is struggling to write his valedictorian speech, as his family also tries to piece together how they are going to pay for him to go to Harvard, where he has been accepted. At the same time, the boys (Malcolm, brothers Reese and Dewey), realizing that this is the end of an era, decide to destroy something called the "nuclear option," which is evidence that they all secretly convinced their mother she had cancer in order to get her to sign off on their failing report cards.

Like all Malcolm In the Middle episodes there are many various plots going on. Reese wants to keep his sweet janitorial job forever, which he is told is something that doesn't happen to newbies, so he plans with his grandmother the most monstrous spill of all time that will require his attention to the mop, while older brother Francis refuses to let his mother know that he has found a normal 9-5 job. Now you are pretty much caught up.

ABBY: How in the hell did Malcolm get to be so smart? I know that's the whole premise of this show, but in regards to nature over nurture or vice versa, neither of these concepts are at play; his parents are dumb and I highly doubt they were reading Proust to the kid when he was young. What's your theory on Malcolm's brains?

JEF: You, my friend, watched Idiocracy too recently. The not too bright have brilliant kids all the time. I usually gauge this by looking up high school friends on Facebook and marking which ones left Galena Park. He just got the good brain cocktail. Happens all the time.

PETE: I wouldn't say Lois was dumb at all. She's just a control freak. Hal, well, we'll get into him later. And Francis and Dewey proved to be plenty smart during the show's run, Francis just had a penchant for poor decision-making (and was obsessed with aggravating his mom) and Dewey was ... a little off. But yeah, Malcolm was one of those bell curve busters.

And Jesus Christ, did nobody watch Lois' final speech? That woman makes Machiavelli look like Heidi of the Swiss Alps.

ABBY: I am asking this as someone who didn't watch much of this show: Reese and Malcolm are in the same grade? Did he get left back? That's my assumption.

JEF: This is my first episode too, and coming from a long line of left-backs I am willing to bet the little finger on my left hand that's the way it was. Some kids just mosey along until public school tells them last call. Not bad kids, really, just not very driven.

PETE: I'll be right over with my machete. Reese is older than Malcolm and Dewey, younger than Francis. It's also suggested that he tests well when he puts his mind to it, but that wouldn't be apparent to a couple of pop culture Visigoths like yourselves.

ABBY: Malcolm is the worst character on the show. I feel like at some point the writers realized this and moved him to more of a back burner. Thoughts?

JEF: It is sort of hard to identify with him, but I think of him like more our generation's Alex P. Keaton.

PETE: There are parallels. Keaton's mercenary assholery was a reaction to being raised by ex-hippies while Malcolm's neuroses stemmed from bullying and overbearing (Lois) or incompetent (Hal) parents. If you think he's worse than Craig, though, perhaps you need to sit through a few more episodes of Nancy Drew.

ABBY: Malcolm needs five thousand dollars in order to go to Harvard and his father attempts to go to the mafia. Wouldn't a school loan work better? Where would you go to find that last five grand?

JEF: I'm pretty comfortable selling my body to medical experimentation like Robert Rodriguez myself.

PETE: Malcolm is still five thousand dollars *short* of making tuition, meaning I assume he's already maxed out Sallie Mae. As for Hal's organized crime overtures, am I the only seeing parallels to Breaking Bad here?

Plus, his "break my legs" speech? Hilarious.

ABBY: When the show began, Reese was something of a bully, even picking on Malcolm but in this episode he is a huge loser, moving in with Craig, Lois nerdy co-worker. I found this odd. Was it just me?

JEF: What, you never knew anyone that grew out of being a bully before? It happens. People lose interest, grow up, learn to recognize hurt in others.

PETE: I liked the union angle. Plus, he doesn't grow out of being a bully, if his "dolphins are gay" diatribe is any indication.

ABBY: The gay dolphin speech is brilliant. Malcolm is offered a sweet job making bank but his mother makes him turn it down in order to go to college and hopefully one day become president of the United States. Would you vote for him? I would only if he made every day "free ice cream day."

JEF: Not to change the tenor of the discussion, but I would indeed vote for Malcolm for the same reasons I voted for Obama... he's embarrassingly smarter than me and he knows what it's like to beat your way through life on the end of a string. That matters more than almost anything. Malcolm's mom is right.

PETE: I'd vote for Malcolm. Frankie Muñiz in real life appears to be a bit of a turd.

ABBY: This show was something of an anomaly or perhaps it was the first wave of single-camera, no-laugh track sitcoms, which is now the norm. There is something more honest about this type of filming and Malcolm feels like a more honest type of show (it's Rosanne for the 2000s). Do you think this attributed to its success or did people not realize this style until it became imitated by so many others?

JEF: You're ignoring the groundbreaking cinematography of Parker Lewis Can't Lose.

PETE: I think it was just continuing the trend of "warts and all" sitcoms. I mean, they show the scene of Lois shaving Hal's back in the opening credits (one of the greatest opening credit sequences of all time, by the way). My favorite recurring gag was their perpetually dead front lawn. Welcome to lower middle class suburbia.

ABBY: Why is there like no one at the graduation? There were rows and rows of empty seats.

JEF: It's like Saved by the Bell. In reality only like ten kids go to school there.

PETE: Hell, I wouldn't have gone to mine if they hadn't held our diplomas hostage. And the whole time I was praying someone would give Bruce Dern's speech from Middle Age Crazy.

Next week we are paying homage to the return of Breaking Bad by watching the seminal "The Fly" episode from Season Three. Remember you can watch along with us on Netflix and wonder aloud if any of us really watched the episode we are discussing.

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