Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 2002 / 14 Kislev, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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Consumer Reports

The Marriage Movement has a Sitcom! | The Fox network-home of "Looking for Love: Bachelorettes in Alaska," "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?", and "I Want a Divorce"-is the last place most people would look for a show that updates the humor of the World War II era. After all, even Marge Simpson once commented, "You know, Fox turned into a hardcore sex channel so gradually, I didn't even notice."

Yet "Malcolm in the Middle," a sitcom that just started its fourth season, translates a strongly pro-marriage viewpoint into one of the funniest shows on television. "Malcolm" stars a fractious family-exasperated mother Lois, who's something like a loving Tyrannosaurus rex; nervous father Hal, who's almost frighteningly devoted to his wife; rudderless, impulsive Francis; bad-boy Reese; awkward genius Malcolm; and little Dewey, a quiet kid with a streak of sheer gleeful destructiveness.

"Malcolm" manages a trick that used to be commonplace, but is now almost exotic-it is bawdy without being vulgar. The show touches on some of the humor inherent in sex--your parents had sex! Under our clothes, we're all naked! Teenage boys like to see girls in bikinis! But "Malcolm" places sex within the context of a loving and (relatively) realistic struggling middle-class marriage.

This is the exact stripe of humor described by George Orwell in a 1941 essay on picture postcards: "When one examines [Donald McGill's comic postcards] more closely, one notices that his brand of humour only has meaning in relation to a fairly strict moral code. Whereas in papers like Esquire, for instance, or La Vie Parisienne, the imaginary background of the jokes is always promiscuity, or the utter breakdown of all standards, the background of the McGill postcard is marriage. The four leading jokes are nakedness, illegitimate babies, old maids and newly married couples, none of which would seem funny in a really dissolute or even 'sophisticated' society."

Orwell notes that the picture-postcard world is full of jokes about honeymooners who don't get out of bed for weeks: "Its implication--and this is just the implication that Esquire or the New Yorker would avoid at all costs--is that marriage is something profoundly exciting and important, the biggest event in the average human being's life." This is all over "Malcolm"-there are many laughs about Francis's whirlwind marriage, as he slowly learns that his new wife has a psycho streak that rivals his mother's, but all the humor is based on two facts. One, he's stuck with her; two, they still love each other and they have to make it work. No assumptions could be more alien to a divorce culture. Even the idea of a "whirlwind courtship" is alien to a culture of cohabitation and fear of commitment.

"Malcolm" is actually more pro-marriage than the 1940s postcards, in which impassioned newlyweds typically devolved into grim hammer-and-tongs middle age. After four children, Hal and Lois are still silly, blissed-out, sexy, and forgiving. And it's clear that their happiness requires that forgiveness. Several storylines have revolved around forgiveness: Lois has to admit that she can make mistakes; Hal admits that her engagement ring was originally meant for another woman (Farrah Fawcett--no one ever accused Hal of grim realism!); Lois accepts Francis's wife as part of the family. Although the show sometimes relies on the sitcom cliche that sex is the glue that holds marriage together, its plotlines demonstrate that forgiveness is what really keeps marriages going. Love is portrayed as an act, not an emotion. Love is something spouses do for one another, not a mysterious, magical force that sustains or saps their marriage without their consent.

"Malcolm" follows "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill," two more Fox shows built around strong marriages. But the humor in "Malcolm" is strikingly different from the humor of the other two shows. "The Simpsons" shows the strain of a sitcom trying to have it both ways, pleasing both the cultural left and the mainstream. Many vignettes on the show provide biting criticism of pretty much everyone, left, right and center; but some episodes (especially when Lisa is the hero or Homer is portrayed as a complete idiot) are so condescending that we're reminded that many of the show's writers are Harvard men. "The Simpsons" can also be startlingly cruel. Some of its funniest characters are meant to be laughed at--never laughed with. (Ralphie Wiggum is probably the most obvious of these losers.)

"King of the Hill" is kinder, but it lacks the "Simpsons" satirical edge, and it's much more preachy about its conservative cultural sympathies. (Hank Hill is surely the most famous sitcom Reaganite since Alex P. Keaton.) "Hill" sometimes hits the viewer over the head with its family-values message, as when Hank interrupts a co-ed slumber party--and the preteen partiers think he's cool because he kept them from kissing each other!

The two shows exhibit some of the difficulties of creating humor that is not purely negative--humor that is for some things and not merely against others. "Malcolm" strikes a better balance. There are no laughed-at characters on the show: Even the socially inept often get the last laugh. The show's scriptwriters practice the same generosity of spirit that animates Hal and Lois's marriage.

"Malcolm" never mentions politics. It doesn't need to. The show demonstrates that the "marriage movement," a bipartisan effort to strengthen marriage, is based not on nostalgia or reactionary politics but on common sense and an understanding of how promises, community, and commitment sustain and deepen love. "Malcolm" is like a sitcom version of Maggie Gallagher's "The Abolition of Marriage'' -inspiring, sensible, romantic, and utterly free of self-righteousness.

Oh, and it's hilarious, too.

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© 2002, Eve Tushnet