Malcolm in the Middle: Malcolm and the Self-quest

 Malcolm in The Middle stars Frankie Muniz in the head role of Malcolm, a gifted teenager who is in constant conflict with himself and with the others. Despite, the familial and the friendly love, conflicts are omnipresent around Malcolm  The  main character and the credits illustrate the American philosophy of self-quest ,through self-questioning, extra and self-conflicts which are beyond a simple teenage crisis. mzlcolm in the middle

Television series have become a real society phenomenon. By offering divers genres, TV series succeeded, and is still succeeding, to capture a various audience. From the fantastic series, to the police series and , then to action and adventure series and many other genres, the viewer is faced to different panoramas where he/she can settle according to his/her centers of interest. American TV series invaded the world’s televisions particularly the French television. Malcolm in The Middle, the center of the following study, is a good case in point of this proliferating phenomenon. The series has proven popular worldwide and has been syndicated in 57 countries.

In order to solve the previous problematic, the analysis of Malcolm in the Middle will be divided into three parts following a climax from general to particular. The first part, indeed , is a general background of the series where Malcolm is defined in his social milieu. Then after,we shall move to a special projection on the main character’s mental state and behavior in his milieu, and the techniques used by direction to draw Malcolm’s profile. And finally, a deep analysis of the series analysis would be carried to underline its outputs and its relationship with our problematic and the American philosophy of the self-quest.

General Background

Malcolm in The Middle is an American series created for the Fox Network by Linwood Boomer. After seven seasons and one hundred fifty one episodes, the series was first broadcast-ed on January 9th, 2000 and ended on May 14, 2006. The series won a Peabody Award, seven Emmy Awards, one Grammy Award and was nominated for seven Golden Globes. In addition, it received critical acclaim; a Facebook page, for example, is dedicated to Malcolm with more than five hundred thousand fans,r:75,s:0,i:309

The series follows the daily life of an “out of the box” family of six that later enlarge to seven then eight members. Malcolm in the middle stars Frankie Muniz in the principle (leading) role of Malcolm. Malcolm is a genius boy who dislikes taking special classes for gifted children; because these latter are  mocked by the other students who call them “krelboynes”. Jane Kaczmarek is Malcolm’s overbearing, authoritarian mother, Lois, and Bryan Cranston plays his disengaged but loving father Hal. Christopher Masterson plays eldest brother Francis, a former rebel who, in earlier episodes, was in military school, but eventually marries and settles into a steady job. Justin Berfield is Malcolm’s older brother Reese who tortures Malcolm at home even while he defends him at school. Erik Per Sullivan portrays the genius younger musician, Dewey. Throughout the seasons, the focus will move from the protagonist to all the members of the family. This shift on focus, from the individual to the community, suggests an psychological evolution of the central character.


Malcolm is shown as an egotistical teenager who always blames his family for everything wrong in his life. His selfishness pushes him to put himself on the first place of the podium. He is the one who “can”, who knows everything and the one who is never guilty; but he is also the only character who asks questions to himself about the course of events and about himself. Malcolm is the only character who talks directly to the viewer giving his opinion and commenting on a specific act or situation.

malcolm-in-the-middle-ifc-frankie-munizThis ability of breaking the story addressing directly to the interlocutor reminds us of the third person omniscient narrative mode in literature. According to the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory, the third person omniscient narrator is a narrator with a global point of view, “seeing and knowing everything that happens within the world of the story, regardless of the presence of certain characters, including everything all of the characters are thinking and feeling”. In other terms, the narrator tries to manipulate the reader in his interpretation.

The all-knowing perspective of the third omniscient allows the narrator to tell things about the main character that the reader does not know previously and things that, even the characters do not know. In our series, it is the protagonist himself who tells the viewer about himself and about his surroundings. The ego-centrism of Malcolm and his private intervention toward the viewer, and the several questions that he asks, actually, to himself are tokens of psychological troubles and of personal identity search.

Eric.T . Olsen says that: “Personal identity deals with questions that arise about ourselves by virtue of our being people…. Many of these questions are familiar ones that occur to nearly all of us now and again: What am I? When did I begin? What will happen to me when I die? Others are more abstruse”( S E F). there is a kind of instability both in behavior and in thinking. Malcolm has had five jobs in the series. His first was as a babysitter for a rich family to earn money to buy a robotics kit, but he quit after learning that the family’s parents were spying on him. Later, in the middle of the series, Lois forced Malcolm to take a job with her at the Lucky Aide to have him under her control. He hated the job and tried to quit many times but Lois would not let him. He finally quit at approximately the time he graduated. In the final episode he gets a job as a janitor at Harvard to help with his tuition. At some point, he also worked as a tutor. He also had a job betting on horses which he shared with Reese.

The pilot episode of the Pilot, Malcolm introduces us to his world, dominated by omnipresent schoolyard bully students and made worse by his enforced friendship with Stevie, an asthmatic wheelchair genius, and by a strange family ruled by a commanding mother. When a battery of tests reveals that Malcolm has an IQ of 165, he is moved into Stevie’s special accelerated class, despite his protests that « around here being intelligent is exactly the same as being radioactive. » According to him, his world is a world of tyranny that he has to fight. This need of fight and the feeling od oppression explains farther , the fact tha Malcolm currently addresses himself to the viewer. The , speech , in fact, becomes a kind of confession and a kind of attraction to Malcolm’s person as if he is saying/ “ look at me; I am here, I am talking to you and the rest is not important”.

At a certain level, the viewer has the feeling that Malcolm’s interventions are the main story which  is interrupted by the events running around him. Malcolm is in constant conflicts with his schoolmates, his brothers, his mother and with himself and in a constant exploration of new experiences. This is called, in psychology: an identity crisis. According to Erikson, an identity crisis is a time of intensive analysis and exploration of different ways of looking at oneself. This is often seen in young people such as Malcolmn.

The credits 

The credits of Malcolm in the Middle implies the idea of self-quest and identity troubles both by the video, the music and the lyrics. The video starts by showing three young quiet young brothers in white clean pijamas watching television in which three young men fight against a monstrous enormous tortoise. Then, extracts of some of the children diabolic exploits are put into evidence, including Francis the elder. Dewey is nearly entirely momified and hooked behind a door as a vulgar coat. Right after, a scene of the parents, Lois and Hal, romantically dancing breaks fr a second the anarchic décor of the sons’ maneuverings. The video continues by juxtaposing extract from the series and extract from cartoons.

Malcolm appears alone three times in the generic. At the eighth second , Malcolm is at home in the dining room among his family looks at the camera ( at the viewer) amazed and puzzled.  Later, he is at school looking afraid . and finally, the last symbolic picture of Malcolm comes at the end with his two hands covering his face and opening slightly his fingers and his eyes in order to see what is going around. This picturesque scene is very symbolic because it summarizes the whole series and supports the problematic of our paper, that is to say, the evolution of the character of Malcolm psychological state from introvert to extrovert.

As the generic moves, the video the colors of the American flag (blue, red and white) serve as a transparent filter. Obviously, the colors of America is the signature of its culture and certainly , the signature of its philosophers and great thinkers such as Thoreau and Emerson. Emerson and Thoreau had given to philosophy a new sense dedicated  to the elevation of consciousness and the improvement of the self.  The moral reform and the self –esthetic participate in the sculpture of an awake person. In other terms, un conscious person ( the awake person) is different from an ordinary one in a positive way. Malcolm constant self-quest and questioning is path toward glory despite the course of the events.

Now let’s put focus on the music and the lyrics of the generic. The show’s theme song, « Boss of Me », was written and recorded by rock group They Might Be Giants:

Yes, no, maybe

I don’t know

Can you repeat the question?

You’re not the boss of me now

You’re not the boss of me now

You’re not the boss of me now

And you’re not so big

You’re not the boss of me now

You’re not the boss of me now

You’re not the boss of me now

And you’re not so big

Life is unfair

Apparently, there is no relationship between the first group of verses and the second one and certainly none with the last verse. A kind of persecution deliria is felt.   There is a kind of  paranoia Malcolm in The Middle ; a maniac depressive person who is accusing the world of being the source of misery .Malcolm, in fact, always accuses the others as being the responsible of  the unhappiness of the universe.


During the first season, the writers decided to keep the family’s last name a mystery. It has been revealed later through the progression of the series. Similarly the focus on Malcoln diminishes throughout time as an affirmation of his personality. Everything evaluates progressively in this series through seasons. Malcolm in The Middle embodies once again the American ideology and philosophy of self-quest , by passing by identity crisis, to reach a self-affirmation and better existence.


Cuddon, J.A. The Pinguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory. 4th ed. Pinguin: London, 1999

Olsen. Eric. T. “ Personal Identity”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Thu Oct 28, 2010


Shusterman, Richard. “La Philosophie comme vie Eveillé chez Emerson et Thoreau ». La Philosophie comme Manière de Vivre. PDF.  29 Oct 2011. <;

Cliquer pour accéder à 120_shusterman.pdf


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