Malcolm in the Middle is a Dom Com which seemingly set out to outdo all existing "dysfunctional family" sitcoms — and did a pretty good job of it.The titular Malcolm is the frustrated and eternally-perplexed "middle" child of a middle-class home who is discovered to have a genius-level IQ. The show follows his attempts to keep his head down and get through life despite the social stigma of being "smart" and the rest of his family: his sociopathic brothers (whose behaviour has rubbed off on Malcolm himself), his emotionally-immature father, and his overbearing and perpetually-stressed mother Lois.Malcolm had the advantage of being shot film-style rather than in front of a studio audience, and the added freedom allowed it to achieve a tighter pacing and surreal tone more reminiscent of an animated cartoon (although at the worst could also create a frantic, confused mess). Like manymorerecentsitcoms, it contains no Laugh Track; in fact, Malcolm is considered (along with British sitcom Spaced) by many critics to be the Trope Codifier of the high-quality, single-camera, laugh-track-free sitcoms that viewers take for granted today.This show is not to be confused with The Middle, a 2009 ABC sitcom with a very similar premise.
This show provides examples of:
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Abusive Parents: Lois, aside from her well known case of Financial Abuse towards her kids (well, Malcolm anyway), was also shown to be physically and emotionally abusive as well. For physical abuse, when Dewey was scared of letting go of the rope swing into the lake while the family was on vacation, Lois just threw rocks at him in order to get him to come down to dinner, and going by the next scene, she threw a lot of rocks at him either before he let go, or she threw a few rocks before he let go, and she threw the rocks even after he let go — and that's not even getting into some of the stories Francis talks about in regards to her (of course, seeing how this is Francis we're talking about, it's unknown how much of them are true, although the ones he listed in Red Dress were implied to be true given what happened). Lois is emotionally abusive because her only methods of parenting are through punishment and belittlement. Doubles with My Beloved Smother for Lois in regards to Malcolm. She can also be very childish—of her bad relationship with Francis, she claims "he started it", because of a time he misbehaved when he was a baby, though she grudgingly acknowledges this isn't a very good reason.
Lois' mother, Ida, was implied to be even worse, and probably much of the reason Lois is not the ideal mother. Ida is a racist, small-minded, controlling lunatic who constantly belittles her daughters and holds lifelong grudges for trivial offences, including against nearly everyone in the family. She is obsessed with "the old country", which seems to be some lawless part of Eastern Europe, and once tries to make Reese marry a foreign girl after going through trials, one of which was beating up Malcolm, who she has a low opinion of because she is anti-intellectual. Every Christmas, she buys the presents for the family that they all wanted just so she can not send them, making Francis when he finds out say he used to think she was evil, but now he thinks she's insane. The family hates her so much they generally stop their infighting whenever she comes around in order to focus on getting rid of her.
When left alone with the kids, Hal's constant attempts to make Lois' night a peaceful one get him in a state of paranoia in which he wavers all the way between being the best dad ever and a horrible troll.
Hal's father was almost not a very good parent, though mostly because he was unintentionally neglectful and not out of malice. He is an eccentric millionaire and Man Child who didn't spend enough time being a father to Hal, instead engaging in a number of wacky schemes and shenanigans.
Though averted when the kids are actually behaving, where Lois was genuinely nice to Dewey when he figured this out. Several episodes see the kids deliberately cause trouble for their mother, including Francis even long after he's left home. Dewey even tried to explain to Reese and Malcolm that the reason Lois wasn't punishing him was because he wasn't doing anything wrong to make her mad. They didn't understand, and assumed Lois had just turned him against them.
Adults Are Useless: Played with. On the one hand, rarely are the show's various authority figures (Lois, Commandant Spangler, Mr. Herkabe, the police...) able to keep the boys in check. Then again, occasionally the boys manage to manipulate an adult into being useful after all (one memorable example being when they guilted Caroline into paying for Malcolm's hospital visit).
Almighty Mom: Lois has her moments, the best example probably being her reaction to Reese joining the army and getting sent to Afghanistan. She manages to bully the details of the mission out of a general, and the next we see of her she's set herself up as the leader of a gang of Afghan militants, who seem to be terrified of her.
Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: Hal and Lois both have their moments when they embody this perfectly. For example, in the bowling episode, Lois insists on being the chaperone of the group of kids bowling with Malcolm and Reese and she even forces Malcolm to use a kids' ball. Hal once yelled to Malcolm to get him out of sexual harassment charges when he was talking to a hot girl.
As bad as Hal and Lois are on this front, Stevie's parents go just as far in the opposite direction, especially his mother. Exacto Knives are 'no-nos' for her, they smother Stevie all the time and never let him grow up or do anything fun, conditioned him to go to bed at 6:30 when he's 12 (Malcolm notes not even 4 year olds go to bed that early). Ultimately, Stevie's mother broke when Stevie showed he could be independent, and she left the family.
Ambiguously Gay: Dabney and Lloyd - the two effeminate classmates. Also, Reese - in a later episode, a girl convinces both Malcolm and Reese that the other is gay. For Malcolm, she uses a detailed argument noting Reese's spotty interest in women, his collection of men's bodybuilding magazines, and his love of cooking. When the brothers confront each other about it, both deny it but Reese says he bought Malcolm some gay porn - making sure to go through several collections thoroughly for the best stuff.
In another episode, a group of neighboring siblings that have been bullying them edit a gay porn video placing Malcolm's, Dewey's and Reese's faces on the guys from the video. Reese is enraged about it - but only because the guy his face was placed on has less toned abs.
Technically, Reese would more qualify for Ambiguously Bi, seeing how he was constantly trying to get into a girl's skirt, had an emotional breakdown when his girlfriend left him (for Malcolm), and once even dreamed about a stripper billboard coming to life.
An Aesop: In the last episode, Lois reveals that her plan all along (and apparently that of the whole family) was to make Malcolm miserable so he would stop being such an Insufferable Genius and use his talent to help people. "Adversity builds character" is a running theme throughout the show, it's just easy to ignore.
Aesop Amnesia: It seemed like Francis was finally going to become responsible when he started working on the New Mexico Dude Ranch, yet come Season 6 with his being fired, he returned to his old, psychotically irresponsible self.
By the finale, though, he'd been holding a steady, well-paying job for several months, and was keeping up the delinquent charade just to piss off his mother.
An Arm and a Leg: Commandant Spangler, the head of the military academy that Francis was exiled to, lost a lot of his body parts. Ironically, none of his body parts were lost in actual combat, since he never served in a war in the first place.
Angrish: Hal is reduced to furious incoherence on a few memorable occasions.
Armchair Military: Commandant Spangler, the head of the military academy, has never served in war even once. How he managed to get the military to allow him to run a military academy despite this is anyone's guess.
Balloonacy: Reese sends himself up in a lawn chair. He eventually crashes through a church window.
Batman Gambit: Lois and Dewey use this on occations. For example then the 3 boys climbed up a advertisment sign to vandalize it and got caught red handed by their mom, they quickly resorted to some scheme igniting a protest. Though Lois did get them back down, by faking Dewey was gravely ill while protesting, thus making the media that were encouraging the children to stay there to get ratings, to take them down so there wouldn't be repercusions if something happened to Dewey due to being there.
Malcolm did a minor one to Reese in one episode. The episode opens up with Malcolm making the most disgusting sandwich imaginable (containing jam, relish, mayonnaise, and bits of gum scraped from the bottom of his shoe, amongst other things). He sits on the couch and prepares to take a bite, when Reese swipes it out of his hand and starts eating it. Then he tastes it, and runs to the bathroom to throw up. Malcolm grins at the camera and says, "It never gets old!"
Beware the Nice Ones: Every once in a while Stevie gets fed up with someone messing with him and outwits/gets sweet karmic revenge. Here it's a case of people assuming that just because he's crippled and polite it doesn't mean he can't get mean when he wants to. The time he got revenge on Reese using his secret weapon comes to mind.
This actually backfires in a later episode where he screws around with Malcolm during a street luge competition, trying to run him off the road. They wouldn't have a crippled kid injure himself horribly during a sporting event, would they? Oh yes they would.
Both Dewey and Hal also pull this off.
Big Bad Wannabe: One bully who bothered Malcolm pushed him to the breaking point and got beat up...only to start crying for his Telletubby doll. He turned out to be an overdeveloped 7-year old, Malcolm got detention, and the bully would forever be referred to as "Mopy Dick".
Big Breasts, Big Deal: Malcolm's friend Cynthia fit type 2 of this trope in the episode "Cynthia's Back".
Big Brother Bully: One of the better examples of this trope. Francis is away from the family nearly the entire series, and he's more of a Big Brother Mentor during the series, but still has moments that fall under this trope.
Reese fills this role for Malcolm & Dewey for the majority of the series, although Malcolm gives as much as he receives and joins in (to a lesser extent) with bullying Dewey; and after the birth of Jamie, neither one bullies him & both assume similar roles to what they share with Francis.
Dewey, being the youngest for most the series, doesn't fall under this but gets a few The Dog Bites Back episodes; and after Jamie's born, complains that it's not fair that Reese & Malcolm got the Cool Big Brother Francis when they were kids, but Francis left for military school before Dewey formed any memories of having a cool big brother - Francis then reveals that he has no idea why Reese and Malcolm idolize him so much since he was way worse to them than they are to Dewey. He even admits he shot Reese once.
They actually don't do this to Jamie, since the boys want to be better big brothers.
Big Brother Worship: All of the other boys towards Francis early on. They do mellow out about it a bit as they grow up, though.
Latter on, Dewey begins to look up to Reese a little on some occasions.
In one episode Dewey, following Reese's example of trading their crappy stuff for the better stuff Donated for the Poor, trades a Game Boy for a Yo-Yo, when Malcolm points out that its an unfair trade, Dewey offers up a "Mighty Man", and holds up a Toa Gali without its mask.
Book Ends: Both the first and last episodes end with the song "Better Days (And The Bottom Drops Out)" by Citizen King.
Also, in the first episode Malcolm claims that being a krelboyne casts a symbolic force field around him that prevents anyone from getting near him (He even moves in the bench he's sitting on, showing how the "forcefield" pushes people away from him). The very same thing happens to the whole family, Piama and Ida included, in the last episode when Reese's putrid bomb explodes in the family's car on the way to the Graduation, making them smell so bad that they repel people away.
Brainless Beauty: Reese's girlfriend Alison (her introductory episode is even titled 'Stupid Girl').
Breakup Breakout: While the rest of the cast has faded into obscurity, Bryan Cranston (Hal) would go on to star as Walter White on Breaking Bad, a role that he has won three straight Emmy awards for. In fact, at this point Cranston is probably better known his role on Breaking Bad than his role on "Malcolm".
Break Them By Talking: Dewey shows a frightening skill for this, especially in later episodes. He breaks up Hal's acapella band by asking a series of seemingly innocent questions and makes a Sunday School teacher question her faith by comparing God to a kid frying ants with a magnifying glass. He never seems to take any advantage of this other than his own amusement.
Brick Joke: Repeatedly, the hamster Dewey sets free in a hamster-ball will appear in the background. It was last seen in Alaska.
BrotherBrotherIncest: In the episode Pearl Harbor, Jessica convinces Malcolm and Reese that the other is gay. When she reveals her lie, Reese's first idea to get back at her involves him kissing Malcolm's neck so hard that a huge hickey is left.
The Bully: Reese, though he gets some character development later on.
Bumbling Dad: Made much more palatable by the fact that Lois, rather than being Closer to Earth, is considerably flawed in her own right.
Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Reese eventually develops into this. He goes from being a brutal thug to a brutal thug who is very good at cooking.
Hal: Oh, he's talking? I was getting creeped out by that whole "one blink yes, two blinks no" thing.
Lois: No, it's two blinks yes, one blink no.
Hal: Oh... so the soup was too hot...
The whole family, especially Malcolm, Reese, Francis and Hal.
Callback: Rather subtle, to the point of likely being unintentional. At the beginning of Carnival, Hal mentions that Dewey had been keeping his goldfish in the toaster, which it likely did not survive. At the very end of the episode, Dewey shows the new goldfish he got from the man with gills.
In Stilts, when Hal and Lois begin revealing some of the nasty things they've been keeping from one another, Hal says he burned a hole in her favorite dress. This is a callback to Red Dress, where Lois discovered her favorite red dress burnt and hidden in the toilet and thought the boys were responsible.
Calling the Old Man Out: Frequently. Hal against his dad. Francis against his mom. Malcolm against his mom. Dabney against his mom. Dewey against both his parents. It's even implied that all of the boys do this often against Hal, though they usually get along with him in the show itself. Most everyone gets called out on the things they do at one point or another.
Cassandra Truth: When Malcolm and Reese ask why Dewey hasn't been getting punished like they are, Dewey tells them that the reason Lois hasn't punished him like them is because he hasn't done anything wrong to upset her, and it's their own fault they are getting punished. They are unable to understand this concept and accuse him of lying.
Cheek Copy: Hal frets over meeting his new boss because he never makes a good first impression. The scene cuts to previous disastrous introductions including one in which Hal is caught by a new boss copying his backside while being cheered on by his co-workers.
Chew Out Fake Out: When Hal goes to visit Francis's military school, he's at first appalled that all Francis is doing is goofing off, playing pranks, and getting into all manner of trouble while every other cadet gets awards passed out to them like candy. But when he learns that Francis' "insubordination" consists of things like standing up for a fellow cadet being unfairly bullied by the commandant for hugging his father, he's incredibly proud of him.
Ditto for Malcolm's previous teacher, Caroline. She had a baby and got Put on a Bus in the form of extended maternity leave.
A girl who Reese likes in "Cheerleader" appears to never show up again. She even liked him too, which was pretty impressive.
Cloud Cuckoolander: Dewey. When his brothers are each imagining what they'd do with a motorbike they found, Dewey is meanwhile imagining having six arms to eat six cookies at once. Just to name one of manyImagine Spots he's had.
Sleepytime Herbie, talking to Dewey out of the TV (in "Cheerleader"), in that spooky Ed-Wynn voice: "Hi Dewey. I can make you happy. I can make your brothers be nice to you. I can get you out of school. Your parents WANT to buy me for you..."
"Why haven't you bought me yet, Dewey? I didn't want to tell you this, Dewey... but if you don't buy me, you will die."
Reese too. They get it from Hal's side of the family.
In the very same episode, Hal imagines a gigantic cookie from a TV ad is telling him that if he eats enough of the cookies he advertises, he will become president.
Clear My Name: Subverted in the episode Red Dress, Malcolm, Dewey, and Reese claimed they weren't responsible for burning Lois's red dress, but she doesn't believe them, so they instead, under Francis's advice, made themselves immune to every single punishment she could issue instead of attempting to clear their own names, thus forcing her to (ironically under Francis's advice) take them to the anniversary dinner with them. Turns out it was actually Hal who burned her dress (albeit by accident), as revealed when he accidentally set the house on fire while plastered, and in a way was responsible for having to wait several hours for Lois.
Cool and Unusual Punishment: After Reese had sabotaged every other contender in a cooking contest that he could have easily won otherwise, Lois and Hal realize that he's going to keep creating trouble since their punishments never teach him a lesson. They then decide that the best punishment in this case would be prohibiting him to cook anything for an extended period of time. Reese breaks down.
Another episode has Lois try to get a confession out of the boys by torturing them with obnoxious children's music (actually provided by They Might Be Giants in Stylistic Suck mode). They try to feign enjoyment of the song and start dancing and singing along - which backfires when Lois breaks out a video camera.
Crapsack World: Let's see, the main premise of the show involves a severely dysfunctional family that is implied to be abusive in every way except sexual abuse, the school definitely doesn't help with that, and Francis was implied to have done horrible things to his neighborhood just to spite his own mother. One of their neighbors has a strained marriage, with the wife eventually abandoning her husband and handicapped son, causing the latter to fall into a deep depression that leaves him even more crippled to the point of needing a machine to speak. The military school that Francis was sent to for his behavior is run by a rather sadistic Drill Sergeant Nastywhom Francis eventually places in a retirement home as a caretaker so he can commit all the Elder Abuse that he wants, and apparently the higher board doesn't catch on until after Francis quits school. The list goes on and on.
Also, it turns out in one episode that nearly everybody in their neighbourhood are a bunch of liars and Jerkasses (and in one case, criminals) who throw a party every year when the family is out of town because of all the trouble they cause....except in many cases the family was innocent, and everyone else was framing them for their own behaviour and mistakes. The public revelation of this triggers a civil street war.
Also notable is the time in season 7 where he saves a person's life while telemarketing by convincing them to not commit suicide. He handles the situation very well into the end until he shouts at the guy to make him buy ten air purifiers.
Malcolm inverts this, by being really smart and cunning all the time but when he screws up, he screws up pretty big. He's been outfoxed by all his brothers except Jamie and constantly overthinks things.
Dewey is a Cloud Cuckoo Lander, but he is the most subtle at screwing over others and goads his older brothers into doing stupid stunts for his amusement.
Jamie is too young to tell, but at one point he gives Reese a green marker as an apparent truce offering after Reese was feuding with him... just as Lois walked through the door to see that someone drew all over the walls.
Lois manipulates EVERYONE, is rarely outsmarted, and tries to shape Malcolm to her will. Hal at one point when Lois is gone, builds a robot from scratch with no designs that saws clean through a chair and has a LASER-GUIDED BEE CANNON.
Even Hal has his moments, despite being One of the Kids. In one episode, Lois' parents show up uninvited, criticize everyone (except Reese) and generally drive them nuts. It culminates in them offering to pay for a new fridge, then welshing after it's already purchased. Then Grandpa gives Reese a live grenade left over from WWII, and Reese promptly pulls the pin. After a bit of Grenade Hot Potato, Malcolm tosses it in the new fridge. After getting everyone out of the kitchen, Hal confronts them alone and asks them for $3000 to pay for another fridge and the damage to the house.
Grandpa: You want us to loan you $3000?!
Hal: Oh, no. Let me be clear. *stands up menacingly* One phone call to the police and I could have you put away for child endangerment. So when I ask you for $3000, it's not a loan. It's blackmail.
In one episode when Lois and Hal couldn't have sex for two weeks, he turned into a model of responsibility, fixed up the entire house, landscaped the yard, impressed his boss at work... then the two weeks ended. It's implied that he's actually pretty smart, just so foggy with lust for his wife that he can't think of much else.
Cucumber Facial: Dewey and Lois. The former tries to eat the cucumber, but Lois tells him not to.
Cutaway Gag: When Malcolm gets a head injury and Francis takes him to the hospital, the clerk say "Oh, for God's sake, you kids again?" and Malcolm turns to the camera and says "We kind of have a history here." Cut to each of the brothers getting injured in funny and idiotic ways. Reese pounding a nail into a spray-can, Francis flipping a large knife high into the air, Malcolm leaning over an open pair of scissors while Reese sneaks up behind him with a balloon and a needle, and Dewey getting ready to bite the spinning wheel of a bike.
However, in later episodes Dewey actually does look out for Jamie, so he might have taken Francis's advice to heart.
Dawson Casting: Averted, there is some variation on the exact ages between child actors and their characters but generally its teenagers playing teenagers. What's interesting is that Frankie Muniz (Malcolm) is actually a year older than Justin Berfield (Reese). Not that obvious early in the series (It's likely why he was cast as Reese), but Berfield remained taller than Muniz throughout the series run.
Does This Remind You of Anything?: Malcolm's relationship with his car gets a twofer; it's treated like a drug addiction (complete with an intervention with the help of a man from AAA) and like an abusive relationship with Malcolm quickly saying 'It's my fault!' after the car gives him a black eye.
Also, in the episode Houseboat, Malcolm ends up trying to go after a girl named Tracey and her friends at a Cheerleader camp, with disasterous results for him and his close ones (Reese and Dewey had a horrible time, Malcolm stole the speedboat and left Hal behind, which resulted in Hal being mistaken for a sex offender due to holding pants (belonging to Reese) and mistaking a lady for his wife, and Lois, learning of this, exploded at Malcolm.). Brooke Anne Smith, the actress who played Tracey, also played Jenna in Max Keeble's Big Move, where a similar scenario happened involving her and the protagonist that also resulted in similar disasterous results.
Don't Split Us Up: A mild example is the climax of the episode 'Clip Show'. The boys are sent to a psychiatrist who determines Malcolm masterminds all of their bad behavior because he's mentally unchallenged in school, and implies to the boys that he's going to tell Hal to send Malcolm to a special school. The boys freak out, but they have nothing to worry about; Hal brushes the psychiatrist off entirely.
To elaborate, the reason why the boys got sent to the psychiatrist was because the family car was wrecked the previous night, and they were to blame. However, near the end, it's conveniently revealed that the accident occurred because Hal forgot to set the parking brake.
Dramatic Wind: Used in the episode where Hal and the boys visit Francis at the ranch.
Drill Sergeant Nasty: Reese joins the Army and meets one of these, who quickly warms up to Reese when he discovers that he literally doesn't have to think anymore. He does absolutely nothing unless he's ordered to (including chewing his food) and follows all orders without question. The Sergeant is ecstatic that he's found the perfect soldier and swaps tips with Lois when she arrives to get him back.
And subverted, when the CO breaks protocol on the sly and allows Lois to read classified documents showing where Reese was deployed.
Dysfunction Junction: Almost every character, no matter how big or small, will always have some sort of defect. Even if they have just one line, you can bet they'll mention their particular dysfunction in it.
Francis' mother-fixation/victim complex is arguably one of his biggest character traits in which he, no matter the situation or how much of a stretch it is, will find a way to blame it on Lois. In "Cheerleader", Commandant Spangler after Francis asked if he had problems with his own mother says to him "Name one thing wrong with your life that you don't blame on your mother." Francis, of course, is stumped.
Embarrassing Slide: Francis put some embarassing photographs of Spangler into a slide show about STDs. However, Spangler actually bothers to check the slides before the show, and changes the ones that Francis put in with embarassing pictures of Francis.
Epic Fail: Two instances. The first is the dual stories episode of the family at bowling night. In Lois's version, Malcolm fails to get a single strike, even with a lighter ball (labeled Connie). In frustration at Lois's attempts to motivate him, Malcolm walks down the lane, right towards the pins, and tosses the ball at them. Knocking over none.
In Hal Sleepwalks we're treated to a montage of all the crappy anniversaries Hal has screwed up. In the first, he hired a marching band to play inside their bedroom, seriously freaking Lois out. The second, he knocked her unconscious when he emerged from the closet naked with champagne (the door whacked her in the head). And in the third and final scene, he's showing Lois two biplanes creating a heart in the sky, which then crash into each other and spiral to the ground. When we cut back to present day Hal, he mentions that wasn't even the low point of that day.
This actually happens a lot to the kids, but specially to Reese later in the series. These fails include being trapped in the roof while receiving a rain of putrid projectiles from the Krelboynes, ending up sleeping in a friend's dilapidated basement and almost losing an eye, being trapped under debris with fireworks exploding in their face, burning horribly in the sun, being attacked by wild animals, entering a military field during bombing tests and the list goes on and on.
Escalating War: An entire episode starts in the middle of one. Every time one brother does something to the other, a flashback is shown to an earlier prank in the war. Ultimately, the two boys are in full body casts, and then the viewer is shown what started it all. Malcolm ate Reese's blueberry after Reese told him not to. "What's the worst that could happen?"
Even Evil Has Standards: Reese may be a violent psychotic bully but he makes it clear that the wheelchair bound Stevie is off limits to anyone. When he was going to fight Stevie, he put his legs in ice water until they were numb so it would be a fair fight.
Lois may be abusive to her sons and be the reason why their lives are hell, but she doesn't take kindly to anyone who bullies Reese ("Lois Strikes Back"), called out her new neighbor for berating the lawn-care man while he was doing his job, called Kitty (Stevie's mom) out for abandoning her husband and son, and freaks out whenever someone crosses the property line.
Everyone Knows Morse: In a season 2 episode the family are playing March and Conquer without Malcolm (as Malcolm is in the hospital with appendicitis). Lois finds out Hal and the boys where ganging up on her when Hal accidentally taps Morse Code into her foot.
Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Malcolm and Reese confront Dewie when he's spent several days not being yelled at by Lois, suspecting some kind of conspiracy. Dewie tells them flat out that he hadn't been getting into trouble because he hasn't done anything wrong. To Malcolm and Reese, its like Dewie is speaking a foreign language and they can't even comprehend the link between getting in trouble and getting punished. Malcolm sort of seems to get the idea, but then goes into immediate denial and looks for another answer.
Financial Abuse: Malcolm's parents repeatedly and deliberately deny him financial opportunities he's earned, use credit cards he's offered because their own credit is terrible, and take most of the money from his paychecks for themselves. While they have their reasons for this, making Malcolm a president who understands being poor, they're also truly terrible with their own money and waste an extraordinary amount, particularly on Hal's frequent and short-lived obsessions, making is a bit of a Broken Aesop.
Flanderization: Malcolm became more of a whiny jerk as he got older. Justified as he is going through puberty.
Somewhat reversed with Reese in that he got a bit nicer when he got older. Also Truth in Television as Reese is most likely exiting the pubescent phase.
In addition, there actually was an episode that dealt with the tiny voice in his head that usually tells him to do all kinds of stupid things fading away, replaced by the voice of reason. Not that he stopped doing stupid things after that episode, but still.
Lois goes from a hair triggered tempered parent who uses Tough Love to keep her boys in line to a borderline-psychopath living vicariously through the only son who's smart enough to succeed in the world (Malcolm) as shown in some later episodes (i.e. Lois Strikes Back and the series finale).
The Freelance Shame Squad: All the kids sitting on the benches at the water park start giggling derisively at Reese after Malcolm yanks down Reese's trunks in front of them.
Free the Frogs: One of Francis' many escapades at the military academy.
Freudian Excuse: Hal is given some for his terrible indecisiveness, hatred of kites, and fear of snakes and clowns.
Gender Bender: In one episode during Lois' pregnancy, she has an extended Imagine Spot where instead of three boys, she had three girls. Eventually, it's revealed that the episode would have had the same end result, no matter what the gender of the children.
It actually seems worse with three girls. As boys the three are blunt, obvious and have a sliver of fear and respect of their mother. As girls however they are manipulative rather than destructive, cruel, and know how to deal with her because they neither fear or respect her. Hal is also fat from having no male children to bond with.
Francis' choice of spouse, and the kind of relationship he has with her, closely resembles his dad's.
Lois' relationship with her own mother is shown to be just as dysfunctional as the boys' relationship with her.
On several occasions, we see that whenever Lois isn't around to curb Hal's wild streak, he basically devolves into Francis. Similarly, after getting married to a wife than can rein him in, Francis slowly begins to morph into Hal.
Genius Ditz: Reese is a moron, but has an incredible talent for cooking. Dewey turns out to be a fantastic piano player and is able to improvise musical instruments from quite anything with awesome results (once, he plays a classic piece while washing the dishes).
During an emergency (a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed) the town was stuck in the school's gym. Reese immediately began a black market and by the end had all of the toilet paper, blankets, and a number of assorted goods (he started an auction for the insulin between two diabetics). So it appears that when he works at it Reese can be smart.
It's not an isolated incident, either. Reese hatches a new scheme to make easy money every few episodes in early seasons, and all of them are initially successful, until one of his family members inevitably screws it up for him or if Lois finds out and forces him to stop because of how immoral or illegal it is.
"Son, if you could just put this kind of work into your school... daw, that ship has sailed." Hal to Reese, after Reese has hijacked a dump truck, knocked out two guard dogs to steal bio-hazardous waste, and is about to take glorious revenge upon the Garbage Man. And then it all goes to hell.
To expand, someone reads his Credit Card number to Malcolm, and he does math with it. Up to Eleven, he takes crowd suggestions and churns out the answer within a second flat, and everybody looks at him like he's on fire.
Grail In The Garbage: In one of the show's cold opens, Reese accidentally breaks a cheap painting's frame. Before he glues the painting back down, he gets the chance to laugh at the name of the artist who painted the one framed beneath it: "Pic-ass-o".
The Mayor, AKA Harry Groener, taught Lois to dance.
Sheriff Carter used to be a Deputy in a small jail that Francis was locked up in on his way to Alaska.
Hilariously Abusive Childhood: Interestingly, it borders on this for the younger boys, who simply gripe about their mom lightly, but with Francis it's almost always averted and he has deep-seated hatred for her, acknowledging that psychological abuse is serious and long-term. Lampshaded in the episode "Reese's Apartment", when Lois and Hal kick Reese out. Francis finds out and is trying to convince his brothers and his parents that this is abuse, but they don't believe him.
Somewhat subverted in that Francis has a serious victim complex and somehow convinces himself he's a alcoholic and joins AA in order to feel better about about himself and blame Lois.
It should be noted however that whenever one of the kids move out (and thus away from their parents) their lives and personalities become MUCH more pleasant. Francis took a while but he ends the series Happily Married with a stable job and an implied kid on the way (although he frequently lies about having a stable job [or lack thereof] to his mother for what is implied to be for his entertainment at Lois's irritation). When Reese moved out his teachers congratulated Hal and Lois on the complete turnaround in his academic performance, he lives in a nice apartment he can actually afford and becomes an overall nice person to be around. His only problem is buying expensive appliances on credit cards he can't pay for so Hal and Lois chastise him for being so irresponsible with money and make him move back home.
Honor Before Reason: Susan would rather die than allow Lois to donate one of her kidneys to save her, because it would mean giving Lois "the power to give her life". Subverted in that Susan, begrudgingly, accepts said kidney in the end.
Human Mail: Reese wants Dewey to mail him somewhere. Dewey packages him up and pretends to mail Reese by simulating movement and sounds. Reese falls for it.
Hypocrite: Lois adopts a very "people will think what they want to and you can't change that" attitude in regards to others attitudes towards her, but if someone does something she doesn't like she will not hesitate to yell at, berate and/or demean them and then tell them why and how everything they do or say is wrong.
Hypocritical Heartwarming: Every member of the family seems to pull this at least once (see Mama Bear for Lois' examples). Most triumphantly, when Lois is systematically humiliated by Hal's Obnoxious In-Laws to the point that she locks herself in the bathroom to cry, all four boys wordlessly agree to wreak revenge, trailing a bemused Hal and Piama in their wake. And it is epic.
I Ate What?: Done as part of a Briar Patching stunt. Malcolm is shown making the world's most disgusting sandwich, taking crud from the fridge, from the sink drain, from under the couch, and so on, putting it all between two slices of bread. He sits down to eat it... whereupon Reese immediately swoops in to steal it, and takes a bite before he realizes he's been had.
Hal eating a can of olives the family got as charity after Lois got fired from her job at the Lucky Aide. The "olives" were actually rotten peaches.
I Can't Believe It's Not Heroin: In one episode, Hal wins 1000 bucks in a scratch off lottery. He then proceeds to buy a steam roller. Cue a hilarious montage, where he steamrolls anything he can find, and getting progressively more unhinged with each use to the point he was considering smashing cars in a car lot. Dewey eventually has an "intervention" when he stands in front of the steam roller, and Hal is forced to choose between the steam roller and Dewey. He chooses Dewey.
Ironic Echo Cut: A good portion of the show's humor is derived from this trope, for instance suggesting that Malcolm has just come up with a brilliant idea only to reveal a cut later that it was actually a disastrously bad idea.
In "Red Dress", she tortured the boys just to find out who burnt her red dress from her wedding anniversary. By the time she forces them to hear the song "Nice is Good, Mean is Bad", you can tell that she's gone too far.
In the series finale, Lois, along with Hal, force Malcolm to work extremely hard in college to help him understand about financial struggles. To elaborate: As soon as Malcolm finishes High School, he is offered a six figure job working for a computer company. However, Hal and Lois refuse to let him take it, saying they have other plans for him. When he calls them out later on this, they reveal that they intend for him to work as a janitor while going through law school, to work his way up to become District Attorney, win a place on the senate, and then become President of the United States, while at the same time knowing that despite all of this, he will never be respected for any of it.
That said, Malcolm concedes and decides to go along with it when they tell him, both because he's forced to admit that he might actually be able to do it and because he seems to agree that a President who looks out for the lower classes is something America needs. In fact the whole family was in on it and according to Francis, they assumed he knew as well. The janitor thing was probably just the only job he could get, since he's obviously at Harvard on a scholarship, and not actually something they intended (expected, perhaps, but not intended).
When in a position of power, Craig can be a gigantic dick. See his actions in "Watching The Baby", where he's forced people who couldn't afford purchases into slave labor.
Francis was also quite a bit of a Jerkass in the early seasons (and arguably even the later seasons), moreso than even Reese or in later seasons Malcolm, arguably. For one thing, he deliberately tried to break Lois's rules just to spite her (such as getting pierced four times even when only one would have landed him at Military School), not to mention got into a destructive mayhem, and apparently also tried to light a bear on fire with matches when he was very young.
Heck, Reese (who actually becomes less of a jerk in time), Malcolm (who becomes almost as much of a jerk as Reese) and Dewey too. One of their worst Jerkass moments has to be when they tricks Lois into believing she had cancer, just so they put wouldn't be in trouble for getting bad grades. Even Francis was disgusted about this.
Jury Duty: One episode had Lois being stuck in this for a case involving a stolen motorcycle. When everyone but her doesn't care about if the guy took it or not, and just wants to leave, she keeps changing her decision (all members have to agree on a decision) until they GIVE A DAMN.
Ultimately, she decides to leave after it's revealed that she's just being reflecting off of something similar Francis did in the past.
She does talk the judge into giving her a second chance, however, at the end of the episode. It's implied the case she gets put on next is Hal's, after being arrested for (what looks like) almost stabbing Abe.
Karmic Trickster: Dewey in the latter seasons, Malcolm in the early seasons, but less so as the series went on.
In "Lois Strikes Back", after Reese gets pranked by a band of Alpha Bitches, Lois briefly turns into a Vigilante Woman and torments the girls to the point that they lose the things they cherished the most, e.g. a girl named Kristin having her hair shaved off due to getting gum on her head. Malcolm wasn't pleased.
Keep Circulating the Tapes: The music to the show costs far too much to re-license, so DVDs haven't come out after the first season. It is available for streaming through Netflix and Amazon Prime, though, so presumably that legally counts as "broadcasting" under the original license.
Know Your Vines: After a huge fight and emotional breakdown with an unrequited love interest in a forest, Malcolm dries his tears with some leaves he found. The girl he is with tells him he's using poison oak. We see a rather disturbing shot of his face a little later, which resembles the character No-Face in Twisted Metal Black.
Large Ham: Spangler had his fair share of hammy moments.
Laser-Guided Karma: Francis ends up demonstrating how much of a disturbed toddler he was by trying to douse his teddy bear with lighter fluid and setting it on fire. After that, he ended up forcing his mother to become very strict, and frequently labels her as abusive and wants to spite her in any way in the future, not to mention her strict upbringing of her kids.
Less Embarrassing Term: Dewey carries a handbag that he insists is a bookbag. When a group of kids make fun of him for it, he hits them with it. This is quite effective as he had filled it with bricks.
Mama Bear: Lois, in her own, incredibly twisted way. She has openly stated she would sell Malcolm (her genius son) down the river to save Reese (her idiot son) because Malcolm could find his way out of it while Reese needed protecting.
Mr. Woodward: "I just don't think you'd throw away the son who achieves for, well, Reese."
Lois: "You don't think I'd sacrifice this one? Let me explain something to you. I would sell Malcolm down the river in a heartbeat to save Reese. Malcolm's gonna be fine no matter what happens. Maybe he'll have to go to junior college or start off blue collar, but he'll work his way up to management eventually. Reese is the one who needs saving."
Woodward: "I don't believe you. No mother could ever be that callous to her own son."
[Francis appears in the window, pressed against the glass, while rain pours down and lightning flashes.]
Francis: "Mom, please let me come home! I'm cold and I'm hungry! Please, I'll fix the roof, I'll paint the house! I'll do anything, Mom, please! Just let me live indoors, Mom! Please, I wanna be warm again! MOM, PLEASE!"(sobbing)
Woodward: "Maybe we can work something out."
Reese gets separated from his Army unit and captured by Afghani militants. They then drag him to a tent and prepare him to meet their leader, of whom they are visibly terrified. It's Lois.
Don't forget the infamous episode "Lois Strikes Back" where she does a revenge spree against four cheerleaders involving very cruel pranks due to mocking Reese, and the Principal did not do a thing about it.
Manipulative Bastard: Dewey is regularly shown (in later episodes) as capable of easily manipulating not only every member of his family but pretty much everyone he encounters. What keeps him from being a true Manipulative Bastard is, more often than not, his manipulations are either relatively benign or retribution for a wrong doing.
The point is really hammered when he tricks his parents into holding a birthday party for Jamie so he wont feel neglected like Dewey.
"Ladies and gentlemen, friends and family, esteemed colleagues of courtesy, you honor me. But I can't let this occasion pass without remarking that you all | blow. | Blow. | Blow. | Blow. | It means so much and requires so little to take a moment to | kiss | my | butt.| In conclusion, I feel that the evening would be incomplete without | telling the world that | I am actually | a | lady. | Thank you. | Go | to | Hell."
Middle Child Syndrome: Malcolm (and later Dewey) get this. On the one hand, they are frequently ignored/abused in favor of the older and younger siblings. On the other hand, considering the trouble Reese and Francis got into and the age of Dewey in the first half of the show/Jamie in the second, they're also the two who 'need' the least help, and all of the boys get neglected in one way or another so it might even out. Plus, both are child prodigies (in different ways), so it actually ends up being an inversion, and they arguably end up the two their parents are most proud of.
Mighty Lumberjack: Played with for a while, with Francis and his friend from military school believing they would be able to run off to Alaska and become manly lumberjacks relatively easily.
Misery Builds Character: In the last episode, Lois sabotages Malcolm's chance at getting a high paying position at a major corporation because she thinks he needs to lead a miserable existence in order to become President of the United States like she wants him to be.
Actually, it's so that he becomes a President who understands hardships because he's had to work for everything, and that he's only experienced misery, pain and drudgery.
Unfortunately this also carries several extremely negative connotations and potential consequences: pretty much ALL of the family's problems are self inflicted and they expect Malcolm to be responsible for their own selfish, self destructive behavior. What if he doesn't want to be President? Malcolm is smart enough to potentially realize how horrible his parents' treatment of him was at some point in his life. Not to mention that pressuring/forcing someone to do something like become President can be VERY bad for their mental and emotional health.
Missing Mom: Stevie's mom abandons her son and husband a few seasons in.
Money Fetish: Spoofed when Malcolm realized he was rubbing money against his face.
Mundane Made Awesome: All of Hal's shortlived hobbies and obsessions. Every episode that features one plays it for laughs for eighteen minutes, then ends in a small Crowning Moment of Awesome for Hal as the audience sees, that, yes, it's ridiculous, but Hal actually kicks ass at Dance Dance revolution/painting/RC Boats/Race-Walking/rollerskating...
Prior to the airing of the pilot, the show's working title was Fighting in Underpants.
Hal appeared naked but for a newspaper on the first episode while Lois was shaving him at the breakfast table.
There is something inherently hilarious about Bryan Cranston in briefs. The promoters of Breaking Bad are aware of this (and, yes, he did appear in his underwear — and lampshaded the previous appearances — on the recent episode of Saturday Night Live he hosted).
Not quite funny, but in the episode Houseboat, Malcolm, Reese, and Dewey stumble upon a cheerleading camp with some girls who apparently love taking tops off/skinnydipping, and Malcolm once hallucinates one of the girls, Tracey, inviting him to come with while fishing with Hal (Malcolm was hallucinating, right?).
Reese: "Don't untie me for any reason...I need to pee."
Noodle Incident: The show prides itself on these. Some of the more notable ones include:
Reese pulled off a prank so heinous in one episode that all we know is that it involved cats, required mass evacuation, and is done frequently in third-world countries.
Hal's third solution to the man in the coma in 'Living Will.'
The "apple turnover incident" Lois once mentioned to her obnoxious sister when she came to visit.
Mom's "best friend Jenny" in the finale.
The burning car behind Francis in the first episode. According to Malcolm, it didn't belong to anyone in the family and it's not known how or why the car was in flames, or how it was connected to Francis being brought home by the cops or having a girl in bed with him — unless they were isolated incidents).
Stilts had Hal and Lois revealing secrets they've been keeping from one another in order to anger the other, such as Hal having dropped a bowling ball on Lois's foot on purpose so she couldn't go her high school reunion, to Lois admitting that Hal's aunt died years ago and she forgot to tell him.
When Francis warns Dewey and Reese not to pull off a really stupid and dangerous stunt at a junkyard, he drops his pants and bares his ass in front of them and the other kids watching as he shows them his injury from a really stupid stunt he himself did years ago. All we see is the kids' reactions with Francis adding "only the middle one still works".
Not So Different: Francis' wife Piama is not all that different from Lois. And Francis loves her with the same passion and single-minded devotion Hal has for Lois.
Hal implies that this may be the only type of woman anyone from his family can get. When giving the boys the talk, he says that most women will say "Get away, you freak!" instead of the normal, "I love you, too," but that Lois carries some sort of antidote.
On the last episode, Francis is wearing a work outfit very similar to Hal's. Also, it is heavily implied that Hal, in his youth, behaved in a very similar fashion to Francis.
That's after Francis told Hal about his new job. He's talking about being another faceless employee in a cubicle. The exact same job Hal has. Unlike Hal, he seems to love it (although it pales in comparison to the joy he gets in lying to his mom about his supposed unemployment).
Obfuscating Stupidity: Dewey. While he has the potential to be the smartest and most cunning of the boys, this tends to be overlooked in favor of his Cloud Cuckoolander tendencies. He later purposely tests out of the gifted class to avoid Malcolm's fate... and ends up in a different kind of "special" class.
Dewey is also shown to be smart in a different way than Malcolm. Malcolm is smart around science and math, with some literature, Dewey is shown to be more smart around music and liberal arts, and certainly isn't afraid to show how musically inclined he is.
Only Sane Man: Malcolm played this role in the first few seasons, but then he became a Jerk Ass and as sociopathic as his brothers. Stevie, almost coincidentally, takes up the reins around the same time.
Dewey also seemed to change from socially awkward little kid to a very bemused onlooker who simply observes the insanity go by.
Properly Paranoid: When Reese claimed that one of his teachers was out to get him and was deliberately failing his tests Lois told him to stop making excuses and work harder. She has Malcolm tutor Reese and eventually Reese composes a passable paper that is at least 'C' level, only for that to get an 'F' as well. Ultimately, since it seems that there is no way Reese can get a passing grade, they decide to simply cheat and have Malcolm take one of his tests for him. That test gets an 'F," and this clues everybody in to the fact Reese's teacher really is out to get him (See also Because You Can Cope above).
Radish Cure: In an early episode Malcolm swears at his father, who is deeply hurt, and considers that it's hard to punish a child for swearing - 'if it was smoking I'd have him go through the whole pack until he was gasping for air'. This gives him an idea. Later, he hands Malcolm a long list of terms of abuse, and asks Malcolm to read everything on the list to 'the man who held you in his arms the moment you were born'. Malcolm gives up somewhere in the middle, but when Hal attempts to let him off, he quickly exclaims that he can finish the whole list. He does.
Raw Eggs Make You Stronger: Hal trains for a race-walking competition by drinking a shake mixed with raw eggs, plus raw ground beef and some supplement powder.
Really Seventeen Years Old: Malcolm beats up a bully, then gets in trouble when the bully turns out to be much younger than he looked. Hal then gets a visit from what appears to be the boy's father, and after he starts behaving abusively, Hal beats him up too. Turns out the "father" was actually a minor.
"The Reason You Suck" Speech: An old friend from Malcolm's past whom he's had a crush on give a pretty brutal one to him after he kept pushing her on why she didn't like him in return. To the point where she made him cry.
Running Gag: In one episode, Dewey has to take care of a hamster for a weekend, and instead of letting a thug in his class take care of it he puts the hamster in his ball and fills it completely with food. Over the course of the season we see the hamster ball rolling along, either in the background or as the focus of the camera, eventually ending up in Alaska shortly after Francis leaves.
Sadist Teacher: Herkabe. He seemed to want to be a (very) Stern Teacher in the beginning, but pretty quickly devolved. It culminated with him torturing Reese to the point of catatonic depression, saying he'd let up only if Malcolm let his grades slip so that Herkabe could keep the honor of having the school's highest GPA (which Malcolm nearly did in one of the few purely selfless acts he committed). However, he ends up bringing Laser-Guided Karmaonto himself when he let slip that he flunked P.E., which resulted in that honor being stripped and him being placed in P.E., and who would be waiting as a classmate (yes, you heard right, classmate, as he actually has to retake P.E. despite being an adult faculty member) but Reese, the very person he tortured, exacting sweet revenge by creaming him at Dodgeball.
Also Commandant Spangler, where it is heavily implied, and confirmed in his final appearance, that the reason he is so strict with his unit is because bullying those weaker than himself is the only real joy that he could ever hope for. Francis allows him to keep this joy by placing him as a nurse in a retirement home where he can terrorize the old folks all he wants.
Screams Like a Little Girl: Both Hal (frequently) and Francis (rather justifiably, when he's trapped under the floorboards as a swarm of rats engulfs him).
She's All Grown Up: Halfway subverted. A one-episode babysitter, Patty, had the younger three kids tripping over themselves trying to impress her because she was so attractive. She went to high school with Francis and remembered him as being rather nice to her. In a phone conversation she dropped some not-so-subtle hints about hooking up when he visits home. On the other hand, he only remembered her as an extremely fat 16 year old and politely dismissed any chance of getting together, not knowing how she had grown up to be a stunner.
Smug Snake: Mr. Herkabe and Malcolm in later seasons.
Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome: Averted with Jamie who was born at the end of season four. He aged like a normal kid would through the rest of the series.
The Scapegoat: The whole neighbourhood hates Malcolm's family, but only because if they didn't have someone to communnally hate they'd turn on each other. The second they realise they don't hate Lois and Hal any more, they start at each other throats.
The Sociopath: Francis and Reese, the latter with his inherent love of violence and destruction (once breaking Dewey's toy plane just to see the latter's reaction), and the former for various depraved actions he commenced, the earliest of which he tried to douse a teddy bear with lighter fluid and burn it in a manner similar to certain kidnapping organizations... while he was a toddler, as well as his hatred of his mother, and frequently commencing destructive revolts, rarely ever taking responsibility, and often hurting his brothers. Had this been real life, the first place Francis would have been placed in would probably have been a therapist's office or a psych ward.
Split Screen: Used on a season two episode in which viewers get to see what happens when Hal takes the kids bowling and what happens when Lois takes the kids bowling.
Standardized Sitcom Housing: Averted, as it was shot on location, Malcolm and co live in quite a small, 1 story bungalow. Coming in the front door, there is a large open plan kitchen/living room, and a hallway off that with Malcolm, Reese and Dewey's bedroom, the bathroom, and Hal and Lois's room branching off it.
Stand-In Parents: Reese finds some incriminating letters on his neighbour's old laptop. He uses this to blackmail the neighbour into doing his bidding. His last act is to get the neighbour to pose as Hal at a meeting with the principal. After this, the neighbour now has material to use against Reese, and he is certain that Reese is more scared of Lois than he is of his wife.
Straw Vegetarian: We find out that Malcolm's class is full of these at the Krelboyne picnic, since the kids all agreed "not to serve anything that had a mother." Hal becomes a hero to the beleagured non-vegetarian dads in attendance by sneaking in a cooler full of real meat, but chaos ensue when the Krelboynes discover that their "tofu burgers" are bleeding.
Stuff Blowing Up: Happens when Hal, Malcolm and Reese accidentally climb over an artillery range fence.
Take a Third Option: Combined with Noodle Incident, Hal is given power of attorney over a guy in a coma and is forced to choose between letting him live and pulling the plug. All we know about his choice is that it became clear to him (Hal) when he found out the guy in the coma was a birdwatcher.
Take Our Word for It: Hal completes his masterpiece, a massive painting that stuns everyone with its beauty. Unfortunately the weight of 2-inch thick half-dry paint causes it to slump off and smother Hal before the audience can see it.
During one early episode's Cold Opening, Hal asks and offers money for one of the boys to take the fall for him, while you hear Lois in the background repeatedly and angrily shouting "Oh my God!". What exactly Hal did is left up to the viewer's imagination.
The Talk: Subverted in "Cheerleader" (Talking about sex was easy for Hal, it was about the family gene of being crazy). Also done in the "Long Drive" where Malcolm is stuck in the car with his mother for six hours.
Too Dumb to Live: All four of the brothers sustain injuries this way at some point. It's gotten to the point where the hospital receptionist knows them, isn't happy to see them, and is genuinely surprised when any of them get injured in new and inventive ways.
The Tooth Hurts: Hal hurts his tooth while eating some snacks during a poker game, and one of his friends who works as a dentist treats it. However, after getting a huge bill (when he assumed it would be free because the friend said something along the lines of, "I'll take care of it"), Hal eventually rips out his tooth as protest, but passes out. He spends the rest of the episode swallowing his food whole.
Tough Love: Lois's approach to parenting (which, like Christopher Titus' father's approach, borders on soul-crushing, self-esteem-obliterating sadism).
Tranquillizer Dart: Subverted in one episode, where trapped with a pair of tigers, Malcolm shoots down the zoo personnel's idea of tranquilizing them on the grounds that the beasts would have just enough time to get angry and tear them apart (the show puts it at three minutes, which is almost certainly selling the tigers short, but it's the thought that counts).
Trash the Set: Reese makes the world's greatest mess in the finale so he can get work as a janitor.
Un Duet: Hal ends up performing his Barbershop Quartet routine on his own, despite the fact that he mostly only dances in the background and makes the occasional backing vocal.
Unfortunate Implications: A rare in-universe example. In the episode Malcolm Defends Reese, Hal discovers that Dewey has a crush on Gina, and attempts to do everything he can to have Gina and Dewey meet, even trying to offer her candy to get her into the car. Unfortunately, one of their neighbors saw this and thought Hal was a child molester trying to lure his latest victim.
Similarly in-universe in another episode, Reese claims that all women are jealous of their current positions, and that they all want to be like the stripper on the billboard, while Malcolm and Dewey attempt to preach feminism (namely to get themselves out of trouble from their mom), causing them to call Reese out on it.
Unintentional Period Piece: The show itself does fairly well to steer away from pop culture references and the like which usually dates these sort of shows, but the actual show soundtrack (consisting of bands like Sum 41 and similar era bands) grounds it into the early 2000s.
The Unreveal: The family's last name is never given at any point throughout the series. The rumor among fans was that it would finally be spoken in the final episode. In the finale, Malcolm's principal introduces him as valedictorian and says his last name...but a microphone whine makes it impossible to hear.
Francis' ID badge in the finale shows the surname "Nolastname" as a deliberate joke for sharp-eyed viewers.
This was also done with Jamie's gender initially, with "It's a beautiful baby..." (ambulance siren). A later cold opening reveals that Jaime is a boy.
Vandalism Backfire: Malcolm and Reese get into Escalating Wars of breaking each other's things on an almost daily basis, and Reese has been known to break his own things by accident. And Dewey's, of course, but who cares about that?
Viva Las Vegas: With all the associated tropes: Malcolm the card-counter, Hal's gambling problem, Lois the housewife falls for David Cassidy, etc.
Walk On The Wild Side Episode: Malcolm turns his brain off for one episode in an attempt to get with a ditzy girl. It works fine until he gets into a situation where his brain would have come in handy.
Reese when he turned nice, as it turns out the only reason Malcolm's smart mouth hasn't gotten him beaten up yet was because Reese was the school bully. Better still, the power vacuum created when he left resulted in dozens of wannabe bullies jockeying for his position.
Also when Reese finds religion. Dewey goes to confront the Sunday School teacher, saying "I want you to release my brother", and that since he (Resse) joined the class, he'd been all nice to him, and that it was creepy.
Inverted in another episode, when Malcolm decides to just hold everything in and become completely agreeable, which everyone actually likes. Malcolm, during a big game (he had joined a sports team) is being talked to by the coach, and the screaming in his head eventually becomes demonic. When the coach finally finishes, and asks him if he understands everything he just said, Malcolm says yes... and spits up a huge amount of blood. Turns out he's developed a really bad ulcer ("the doctor said you have the stomach lining of a sixty year-old air traffic control officer.").
Wicked Cultured: Dewey is clearly the second most intelligent member of his family, the most cultured and sophisticated, and arguably the most devious.
Wild Teenage Party: Subverted in "Home Alone 4" — Francis tells his hoodlum friends, Richie, Donnie, and Circus that they can come over, but they can't invite others over and have a party. The next shot, the house is trashed and the police are outside, but there was no party. Turns out that Francis' hoodlum friends are so destructive, it only takes three of them to do the work of what a group of wild partyers would do to a normal suburban house. Francis even says so ("Huh, you wouldn't think only three guys could do that much damage.")
"World of Cardboard" Speech: "Flashback", in which Lois and Hal attempt (and succeed) to figure out why they still bother to raise a family.
Worth It: Francis' reaction to learning that their vision will return in two days after witnessing the Komodo 3000.
Writer on Board: Dewey's telling off of his Sunday School teacher over her belief in God was probably an attempted Crowning Moment of Awesome for him, but it absolutely smacks of this because it was totally unprovoked and no one in the church had exhibited any of the typical straw religion stereotypes that normally earns such a scolding in TV land (and expecting someone using your church for free child care to actually attend the services is perfectly reasonable and does not count).
You Look Familiar: Merrin Dungey, who plays Stevie's Mom, played Malcolm's teacher in the pilot.
And the loser dinner show host was reused for Chad's father in the ep where Dewey got Chad to have a sleepover with him.
Also, Jennette Mccurdy, who played Penelope, one of Dewey's Busey classmates, also played the female Dewey in "If Boys Were Girls".
Younger Than They Look: Malcolm beats up an obnoxious bully who looks his age or older... and soon finds out he's seven. Hal later understands his son's predicament when a large guy in who looks to be in his 20's, who he assumes is the boy's father, threatens him. It turns out he's the boy's 15 year old brother.