By Cory Barker
Welcome to Television’s Best Episodes, a recurring feature where TWTV contributors discuss episodes considered great by various critics, publications, awards bodies, internet comment sections, hashtag users, and anyone else you can imagine. The goal here isn’t to discredit Emmy-winning or beloved-by-TV Guide episodes, or to express encyclopedic knowledge about a series or a time period. That might happen along the way, but we just want to talk about random episodes of good TV.
Malcolm in the Middle, “Bowling”
Season 2, Episode 20
Original airdate: April 1, 2001
The increasing speed and accessibility of the internet has been a great thing for television, and you already know this. The internet allows to connect with like-minded peers and track a show’s rise to prominence (and eventual fall). But the explosion of discussion about TV in the mid- to late-aughts also created a system where we’re mostly talking about the shows of the moment, always in the mode of declaring new classics and determining what show tops what power rankings (I’m as guilty of this as anyone; no judgment). Along the way, sites like this one have attempted to take a look backward at pre-internet greatness, but mostly at shows already considered part of the ethereal canon. Consequently, shows have fallen through the cracks, by the fault of no one in particular.
Malcolm in the Middle is one of those shows. I never really LOVED Malcolm in its seven seasons on the air (partially because I wasn’t quite a dedicated TV watcher yet), but I remember thinking how different it felt, and not just because Frankie Muniz broke the fourth wall and spoke to the camera. The show’s shooting style–single-camera, film over video, no laugh track–hadn’t been done that successfully in the sitcom format and the representation of modern family life hit the sweet spot between typical TV-gloss and the angrier perspectives provided by Married with Children and Roseanne. For a while, it seemed like the show wasn’t going to get much credit for popularizing the single-camera format (Arrested Development and The Office were getting the credit), but I feel like that’s changed a little bit over the last couple of years. Still, amid all the stylistic innovations, Malcolm succeeded more because of that representation of the family. I hate to throw out the word realistic, but it’s mostly true. Growing up, I knew families like this. Heck, sometimes this was my family.
What’s really fantastic about “Bowling,” the season two episode that garnered the show Emmys for both writing and directing in 2001, is that the stylistic flourishes are supplemented by a simple, but completely effective story. Like some of the episodes of more-discussed comedies that came after Malcolm (Community most notably), the concept thrives because the audience buys the characters’ experience of that concept. This episode, where Malcolm and Reese are taken to a bowling party by their mother in one timeline and their father in the other, tells a nice little story about how differing parenting styles shapes kids’ experiences, sometimes fundamentally altering those experiences and sometimes not changing them much at all. That’s not necessarily the deepest exploration of theme and character that we’ve seen on television, but in 22 minutes, with the various editing and directing maneuvers, it’s pretty darn impressive.
One of the problems I have with contemporary sitcoms is the skewed balance between ironic detachment and heartfelt emotion. I love Community to death but there are only so many times the show can do a Winger speech and then point out how many times they do a Winger speech. Modern Family isn’t as cynical as Community and yet it loves to slap on an obnoxious voice-over full of platitudes and then immediately undercut it with a lame joke or a misdirect. There’s a perception that full-blown emotion is off-putting to today’s 18-34 viewers and maybe it is, but sitcoms trying to have their proverbial cake and eat it too can be frustrating.
Malcolm in the Middle mostly stayed away from this kind of faux-emotion in its best episodes; the characters simply had a different way of expression their love and affection for one another. This way never felt cheap or hollow at the ends of episodes. I was reminded of that when I watched “Bowling” (an episode of the show I randomly hadn’t seen), particularly in the timeline where Jane Kaczmarek’s Lois takes the boys to the bowling alley. Lois’ more aggressive, louder form of parenting created a lot of episodic tension for the show, but that tension was always played from a place of love. She’s overbearing and sometimes inexcusably (from the kids’ perspective at least) involved when she should just let go. Here, she refuses to leave the bowling alley once she recognizes that there are no adult chaperones, immediately embarrassing her sons. To make matter worse, she forcibly “teaches” Malcolm how to bowl, destroying his confidence and making him look like a fool in front of the girl(s) he’s trying to impress. It’s uncomfortable to watch Lois push and push, but even though the show is framed from Malcolm’s perspective, Lois’ isn’t a full-on villain, she’s a buzzkill. Portraying Lois as an antagonist, or a disruptive force, without turning her into a villain during any given scene is a tough balance to execute, but the show does it here, and it did pretty often in its run. And when Lois’ tough love ultimately results in Malcolm getting to make out with the cute girl, the show doesn’t push that too far either. Lois unintentionally caused it, but the scene isn’t overly warm, nor is her disruption of the make-out session false for the character.
Meanwhile, Hal’s laissez faire parenting unsurprisingly doesn’t work in Malcolm’s favor. He steals money from Lois so he can bowl at the opposite side of the alley, stumbles into a perfect game-in-progress, and disregards the trouble around him. He’s not directly involved in the boys’ bowling experience like Lois is, but that’s point. While he was committed to his family, Hal always tried to find little moments for himself and usually, they turned out about like this. The differences in parenting on display here aren’t novel, in fact they fit the Overbearing Mother and Doofus Dad tropes we all know. But Kaczmarek and Bryan Cranston are so damn good in their roles and the episode comes together so well that it doesn’t really matter. It’s all familiar, but that’s kind of the point with Malcolm in the Middle. It offered us a familiar look at family life in a novel way (that’s especially true here), but regularly hit close enough to home without being overwrought or preachy.
“Bowling” scored two Emmys and will probably go down as Malcolm‘s most famous episode because of its cool, playful structure. But its the contents within that structure that make the episode so appealing.