When I try to figure out what I like about the past season's best comedy, Malcolm in the Middle -- which has earned a welcome retrospective on Fox and Global nightly this week at 8:30 -- my thoughts go back to a press conference in California over the summer.
Malcolm in the Middle's specialty is the delightful ordinariness of everyday reality -- a reality, admittedly, that treats parent-child relations as a highly evolved form of modern warfare. Press conferences with actors, on the other hand, aren't usually the place to be if you want to stay in touch with the real world. Hollywood, to its eternal discredit, still insists on hawking glamour and fantasy to people who have neither.
When you ask the beautiful young stars what they've been up to on their vacation from TV work, the answer's usually about the film they made with Gwyneth Paltrow or the house they rented in Tuscany to recharge their creative batteries. But the old pros on Malcolm in the Middle wanted no part of these dream-factory illusions.
"I potty-trained my two-year-old," said Jane Kaczmarek, who plays the lovable harridan of a mother. "And I did a jigsaw puzzle."
"You know, laundry, wash the car," added Bryan Cranston, who plays her cowed husband."
At last, normal people on TV. And it shows. Even the child stars of Malcolm, generally a race of people insulated from the wider world, showed a satisfying sense of priorities. Erik Per Sullivan, who plays the vacant-eyed youngest child Dewey -- famous for dancing the tango with Bea Arthur in the season-ending episode -- announced that he spent time with his Swedish cousins. Prodded further, he remembered a trip to Disneyland. And after one very strong push, he allowed as how he'd also made a movie with David Spade.
It's true that Frankie Muniz, who plays Malcolm, the boy genius trying to fit into a frighteningly normal household, off-handedly mentioned that he had just finished a film with Scorsese. But Cranston brought him back down to earth with the triumphant words, "I was cutting a ribbon at a Target store."
The sitcom was dying, drowning in its own phoniness, until Malcolm in the Middle came along to celebrate the wonders of normality. And like anything that rouses the TV industry out of its periodic stupor, this hyperrealistic comedy about the messiness of family life almost didn't get made.
The vain and vacant father's greatest enjoyment is having his back-hair shaved in the kitchen on an endless Saturday morning while the kids destroy their minds watching wrestling on television. The mother answers the front door half-naked, too distracted to notice and too much of a slob to care. Malcolm, the genius who's the unlikely product of this liaison, revolts against the idea of being special. Stuck in a high-IQ class for his own good, he spends most of his time dreaming up schemes to help his sheltered wheelchair-bound friend break free from the suffocating grip of his perfect parents.
The show's creator, an unusually self-effacing man named Linwood Boomer, never thought that his vision of a family in open revolt against all the rules of modern parenting would ever make it onto the screen. He wrote the script of what turned out to be the show's first episode purely on spec, hoping to find work on a network sitcom.
That Malcolm caught on is probably a happy accident -- Fox desperately wanted a live-action sitcom, and wasn't being too picky. And so it ended up with that rare show acclaimed by both critics and viewers: For once, we can recognize ourselves, in all our glorious imperfection. Talk Shows CounterSpin with Avi Lewis.How to spend a multibillion-dollar surplus. (CBC Newsworld at 8 p.m. ET.) Studio 2. The Globe's Jeffrey Simpson. ( TVO at 8 p.m.) David Letterman. Sylvester Stallone. ( CBS at 11:35 p.m.) Bill Maher. Jay Thomas, Mary Louise Kurey, Elmore Leonard, Summer Altice. ( ABC at 12:05 a.m.) Dates and times may vary across the country. Please check listings.