LOS ANGELES, May 7 (UPI) -- It's hard to imagine a series more anointed than "Malcolm in the Middle," a.k.a. "The Show That Saved Fox." The sitcom benefited from months of almost entirely positive word-of-mouth before its debut three years ago -- it had originally been scheduled to premiere in the fall of 1999 -- and was almost immediately elevated to the status of savior.
At the time, Fox execs were hardly able to mention "Malcolm" (which enjoyed the biggest ratings for a series premiere since "The Simpsons" in 1990) without a figurative chorus of angels bursting into ecstatic song.
Alas, the show dipped markedly in quality last year, becoming broad to the point of vulgarity. But creator and executive producer Linwood Boomer has made an effort to get things back on track and he's mostly succeeded.
"You know if you work in comedy, you never have a fight with a network censor that you're particularly proud of," Boomer said at the Fox news conference.
"It's always like, 'Yes, we need this dick joke here in Act One.' Or, 'We absolutely have to say "butt" not "rear-end,"' he added. "I do think that toward the end of last year, we weren't quite as cautious. But this year we've addressed that in a way I'm really proud of."
Even from the beginning, though, "Malcolm" was sometimes like a cartoon family (think "The Simpsons") come to life. But what is unremarkable in a cartoon character can be rather grotesque with a real actor.
Take the body-hair-shaving scene of Malcolm's father in the kitchen, for instance, which I never can think about without gagging.
"That's actually something from my real life," said Boomer. "And after we filmed the pilot, a lot of people came up to me and said, 'You know, I do that with my boyfriend.' So there's some kind of secret network out there of clandestine body shavers that I tapped into."
OK, now I'm gagging even more.
"Malcolm in the Middle" has inspired a host of imitators -- most not nearly as good -- with its single-camera, no-laugh-track technique. But the heart of the show is the personal story of a brawling family of boys drawn from Boomer's own background.
Malcolm, appealingly played by Frankie Muniz, is a constantly exasperated boy genius who lives with his mom, dad and older and younger brothers in Anywhere, U.S.A. The town and the family's last name are never specified, nor are the boys' ages, because Boomer wants to keep his options open.
Malcolm seemed to be around 11 when the series began (Muniz was then 14) but now looks about five years older although only three years have gone by.
"Every year the boys go away for three or four months and come back a foot taller, and I'm just horrified," Boomer noted. "We just sort of write to it. We didn't want to try to keep Frankie in overalls or something, with a little hat."
Still, this is a show built around the sitcom possibilities of early rather than late adolescence, and the aging of its teen actors has been a problem.
It's probably no coincidence that the youngest character, Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan), is now the most consistently funny. And the stories that revolve around the eldest son, Francis (Christopher Masterson), are often strained.
"Every time you say what something is, you are also saying there's a hundred other things that it isn't," Boomer explained about the "Malcolm" characters' mysterious lack of any particular hometown, ages, or even last name. "It's actually turned into this intriguing little secret for people quite accidentally, but it just seems like a fun thing."
The family originally did have a last name -- Wilkerson -- but that was quickly dropped. "Wilkerson just sounded a little white bread, and the family seemed a little more ethnic," Boomer said. "But if we made them Italians, then we couldn't do Irish kinds of things, or East European kinds of things, and so we just kept it amorphous to give ourselves more freedom."
One of the show's strengths is the joking rapport the cast enjoys.
"They're real normal kids, which is great, because they're not calloused and business-savvy," said Bryan Cranston, who plays Malcolm's dad, Hal. Cranston was probably best known previously as Jerry's dentist on "Seinfeld."
"It makes it a lot more enjoyable to be with them. And then once we finish a scene, contractually they have to go away from us. That makes it more tolerable," Cranston noted.
"Linwood fondly refers to children as 'life shorteners,'" he added. "He'll say, 'How many life shorteners you got?' 'Oh, I've got three.' 'Oh, really? I've got two.'"
"Malcolm" is based heavily on its creator's upbringing. "A lot of it is from my own childhood filtered through self-serving lies and distortions," said Boomer, a former actor (he played blind Adam Kendall on "Little House on the Prairie") whose writing credits before "Malcolm" include "3rd Rock From the Sun" and "Night Court."
He showed "Malcolm" to his agent basically as a writing sample. "It never got pitched, never got developed. I had one meeting with Doug Herzog (then Fox entertainment president), who said, 'I love this. Let's shoot it.' I said, 'OK.' That was really the whole sales process."
"I wrote the script for myself, really," Boomer added. "I had a couple of months off, and I just wrote it, and really thought it was going to end up in a drawer for a couple of years."
Like that of "The Simpsons," the "Malcolm" view of school is deeply cynical.
"Oh, Malcolm, this is wonderful," a teacher sighs at Malcolm's artwork, in an early episode. "I'd have to say this is the high point of my day. Isn't that sad?"
Also, Malcolm's family are all harried slobs. "Two of you can have slices of pizza for lunch," says Malcolm's mom, Lois, staring into the fridge, "and the other one can have, I don't know, peas."
Expertly played by Jane Kaczmarek, Lois is such an archetype of the overworked, bossy modern mother that political pundit Andrew Sullivan once suggested that candidates ought to consider her -- rather than some vague soccer mom demographic -- as the voter they most need to win over.
"She is regarded in the show's universe as a force of nature, a woman of such unsentimental common sense that you'd trust her judgment on virtually anything," Sullivan wrote in the New Republic during the 2000 election.
Sullivan noted presciently that Al Gore is "funny and relaxed in private with elite buddies and so wooden in public with the Loises. With Lois glaring at him, he panics. He checks the polls. He tenses up. He does what others tell him Lois wants. But Lois can see through this in a split second, and she's not buying any of it."
Well, we all know how THAT campaign turned out. And it's not too soon for 2004 candidates to start paying attention to Lois.
For her part, Kaczmarek takes issue with the stock description of the "Malcolm" family as dysfunctional.
"I've said this many times before - I think this is one of the best-functioning families I've ever seen," she said. "Dysfunctional has become such a wastebasket term for any kind of eccentric or loud family. We eat dinner together every night, which I think very few families in American could say."
"There's an honesty about the family that a lot of people relate to," Kaczmarek added. "There's something about it, and I think it has to do with the chaos and the lack of means, the dishevelment of the house, and yet this incredible bond and love between these people."