in the Middle': trite
Fox fare with a first-rate time slot
And this Simpson ripoff will need it to stay afloat
By Andrew Wallenstein
Fox may finally break its streak of ill-fated new series with "Malcolm in the Middle" (Sundays, 8:30-9 p.m., beginning this weekend, but the show's success will be dictated by its time slot, not its content.
"Malcolm" has landed a plum position following "The Simpsons," the cornerstone of Fox's strong Sunday lineup. On any other night this annoying sitcom would sink quickly.
Picture the mischievous Bart Simpson and precocious Lisa Simpson combined into one character. That will give you a feel for the title character in "Malcolm," an eight-year-old who feels even more out of place in his dimwitted family when he discovers he has a genius I.Q.
Frankie Muniz is singularly unappealing in the leading role.
Putting "Malcolm" after "Simpsons" is no accident: The series was clearly inspired by that animated classic, but the family dynamic being imitated doesn't translate well to live-action TV.
Also like "Simpsons," "Malcolm" is irreverent at every turn. Mom not only shaves Dad's back hair as he stands naked reading a newspaper in the kitchen but later accidentally opens the front door topless. She also refers to a wheelchair-bound playmate of Malcolm's as a "cripple."
Fox deserves credit for trying something different than the cookie-cutter sitcom, but the pendulum swings a bit too far away here. The network made the same mistake with the "Get Real," a raucous drama struggling for ratings on Wednesdays.
Were "Real" on Sunday, it might be a different story. Fox obviously has a lot of faith in "Malcolm," giving it the same time slot that has helped, but by no means guaranteed, acceptance of "King of the Hill," and "Futurama."
The entire Sunday lineup, especially "Simpsons," has scored well in the Nielsens, among adults 18-49, and "Malcolm" certainly will skew young.
Also boosting "Malcolm" is that its first few episodes will be double-pumped on Tuesdays following "That '70s Show," which slides back to 8 p.m. with the recent cancellation of "Ally," the half-hour rerun version of "Ally McBeal."
Fox waited way too long to bounce this ill-conceived series, which notched a paltry 3.1 average among adults 18-49, down 20 percent from "Hill," which had the slot last year. Putting "Malcolm" there for two weeks will also help alleviate the stress being put on "'70s," which has performed well, despite the weak "Ally" lead-in.
Fox has been aggressively promoting "Malcolm" on TV for months now, which may give it an edge other new series lacked: Canceled Fox programs like "Ryan Caulfield: Year One" and "Harsh Realm" received little promotional push.
It should be noted that "Malcolm" has actually been received quite warmly by most TV critics. However, that approval could well turn out to be the kiss of death: Fox's buzz-heavy "Action" died halfway into the season, despite being embraced by critics all over the country.
-Andrew Wallenstein covers TV programming for Media Life.