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Series: Malcolm in the Middle

Malcolm in the Middle is FOX's first live-action Dom Com of the 21st century which seemingly set out to outdo all existing "dysfunctional family" sitcoms — and did a pretty good job of it, something that hasn't been done since the days of Married... with Children and Roseanne, as live-action suburban dysfunctional sitcomsnote  started to wane in popularity with Unhappily Ever After being critically panned and shows like Seinfeld and Friends (which focus on wacky characters living in the big city) gained popularity.

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 consisting of oldest brother Francis (who was shipped off to military school and often has his own B-plot in an episode), another older brother Reese (dense and violent school bully) and Dewey (who is almost unflappable amongst all the chaos). Their behavior has rubbed off on Malcolm himself, and a newborn Jaime was born later in the shows run (with hints he may become the most conniving of all the kids). His parents include his emotionally-immature father Hal, and most stories involve the kids doing battle against their 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 many more recent sitcoms, 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 are so prevalent today.


This show provides examples of:

    open/close all folders 

    #-B 
  • 0% Approval Rating:
    • The entire family tends to be this to their entire neighborhood at different points in the series. The fact that everyone throws a block party while they are on vacation should be a definite clue.
    • Grandma Ida is this to the family, with Reese being the only exception.
  • Abusive Parents:
    • Lois's only methods of parenting involve punishment and belittlement, with a side of Financial 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 that's not even getting into some of the stories Francis tells. Of her bad relationship with Francis, she claims "he started it", because of a time he misbehaved when he was a baby.
    • 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.
    • Lois' mother Ida is a racist, small-minded, controlling lunatic who constantly belittles her daughters and holds lifelong grudges for trivial offenses 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, whom 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 consider her to be 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.
    • Hal's father was mostly 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.
  • Acme Products: Episode 4 has the kids and Hal dump a box of confetti supplied by ACME Party Supplies into a woodchipper..
  • 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).
  • The Alleged Computer: Exaggerated. One of the family's neighbors gives the boys his "old laptop" in exchange for Malcolm helping him set up his new computer. His old laptop turns out to be one of the luggables from the 80s.
  • All Just a Dream: Dewey convinces Malcolm that his 'perfect bed' was this. Additionally, Hal once ate too many deep-fried twinkies and had the weirdest dream...
  • 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.
  • Always Someone Better: Child prodigy Barton appears in Malcolm's class for a while — his brain is "like a beehive, and every bee has a brain like yours". However, Herkabe's pressuring him causes him to quit at the end of the episode.
  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents:
    • Hal and Lois both have 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.
    • Stevie's parents, especially his mother. Exacto Knives are 'no-nos' for her. The two of them never let him grow up or do anything fun and even 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 / Ambiguously Bi:
    • Dabney and Lloyd - the two effeminate classmates.
    • In one 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. Seeing how he showed interest in girls, he might be more Ambiguously Bi than Ambiguously Gay.
    • 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.
  • 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. 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.
  • Apple of Discord:
    • Dewey: This sort of behaviour is his modus operandi throughout the series with the younger brother being generally quiet but interjecting the right line at the right time so that everybody else will react according to his plan. Dewey is one hell of a Magnificent Bastard.
      • He does it to Hal's barbershop quartet group, asking the members why each of them has his own specific role within the group. They do make up (in the middle of a performance, no less), but presumably have problems again at the end, when Dewey starts in on them again.
      • He also works on a couple that performed. Five minutes after Dewey started in on them, they were in a gigantic fight.
    • Malcolm, Reese and Dewey once pose as political demonstrators to avoid being sent to their mother after an act of vandalism. When someone decides to send each of them a cupcake, Lois removes the cherries from two of the cupcakes so they'll fight over the remaining one. The boys eventually wise up to her plan and merely send the cherry back.
  • 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.
  • The Artifact: Malcolm talking to the audience felt more organic in the early seasons when he was the clear main character and the show was told from his perspective. In later years his role and importance was reduced so that he was often just part of the ensemble, making the (less frequent) instances of this seem a little random.
    • Artifact Title: Somehow both played straight, as said above, and inverted - Malcolm stopped being 'in the middle' of the show around the time the family's fifth baby was born, thus making Malcolm the actual middle child.
  • Aside Comment: Malcolm delivers a lot of these.
  • Asshole Victim: The four girls that pranked Reese qualified once Lois "struck back".
  • Babies Ever After: Confirmed with Hal and Lois.
  • Bad Bad Acting: In "Ida's Boyfriend," the Francis subplot has Otto hiring an acting troupe to perform a murder-mystery weekend drama at the ranch. Unfortunately, the acting troupe painfully stands out from the rest of the guests: they constantly yell their lines, act too over-the-top, and annoy all the other guests, to the point where Otto has to hire an audience to please the acting troupe leader (whom is oblivious to the audience's obvious reciting of their praise.)
  • Bad Boss: Laverna.
  • Balloonacy: Reese sends himself up in a lawn chair. He eventually crashes through a church window.
  • Batman Gambit: 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!"
  • Because You Can Cope: Lois' justification for her neglect of Malcolm compared to his other brothers. See Mama Bear below.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Francis' once fat, now gorgeous former classmate still loves him just because he once said to his bullying friends "she isn't that fat".
  • Bee Bee Gun: "Picture this: A laser guided bee cannon!" Hal, after he obsessively takes over the Krelboynes' Battlebots project. It doesn't end well for him.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Lois's is motorcycles.
    • Lois's sister's is the apple turnover inci-"DON'T YOU DARE BRING UP THE APPLE TURNOVER!!!"
    • Don't bully Stevie. Reese will not like that.
  • Best Years of Your Life: Lois said this - most of the time.
  • Beware the Nice Ones:
    • The time Stevie 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 differently abled 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 Brother Bully:
    • 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. It is also implied that he bullied Reese much worse than he or Malcolm ever did to Dewey, even once stabbing Reese with a bayonet.
    • 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 stabbed 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.
  • Big Screwed-Up Family: Basically the level of dysfunctionality that exists in this show's family.
  • Bits of Me Keep Passing Out: When Hal has to choose whether or not to pull the plug on someone in a vegetative state, he shuts down under the pressure.
    "...apparently, he's paralyzed from the waist up."
    "The waist up?"
  • Black Comedy: Not as hilariously cruel as Married... with Children or utterly heartless as The Simpsons when it started to change from light-hearted satire to South Park-cum-Family Guy Comedic Sociopathy, but the show makes it clear that, to quote the theme song, "Life is unfair."
  • Bland-Name Product:
    • Hal and Craig join a "Jump Jump Dance Party" competition in one episode.
    • 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.
    • Lois works at 'Lucky Aide.'
  • Bombproof Appliance: When Lois' father gives Reese a live grenade, the game of Grenade Hot Potato ends up in the fridge. It's decidedly, but nobody dies.
  • Book Dumb: Reese.
  • Book Ends:
    • Both the first and last episodes end with the song "Better Days (And The Bottom Drops Out)" by Citizen King.
    • 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 for 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 a capella 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. It seemed Dewey is by far the smartest and most subtle of the brothers. He pretty much never loses a battle of wits with anyone.
  • 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.
  • Butt Monkey:
    • Craig.
    Malcolm: I'm gonna visit Craig later, he's finally getting his cast off.
    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, though Lois and, in later seasons, Dewey manage to avoid this for the most part.

     C-D 
  • 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.
    • The finale has two to the pilot. In the pilot, an aerial shot shows everyone standing several metres away from Malcolm due to his intelligence. In the finale, we see everyone sitting several seats away from the family due to a barrel full of horrible things exploding on them. Also, both end with "Better Days" playing over the footage.
  • 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.
  • Cathartic Scream: Hal is so frustrated over an expensive dental bill that he asks Lois for his "scream box". He screams and thrashes about after putting it on.
  • 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.
  • Chalk Outline: In the episode Malcolm vs. Reese, Francis is bored and asks what there is to do. Reese says that he has some chalk and that they can draw "dead guy outlines" outside, but Francis says this is boring too.
  • The Chessmaster: Dewey shows shades of this in later seasons.
  • 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.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome:
    • Cynthia, then the rest of Malcolm's Krelboyne friends save for Stevie, and finally Mr. Herkabe.
    • 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 many Imagine Spots he's had.
  • 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, 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.
  • Coffin Contraband: In a first season episode, Reese planned on disposing of Dewey's broken birthday present by hiding it in his great aunt's coffin.
  • Cold Opening: Each episode started off with a small story with a punchline that had nothing to do with the main plot.
  • Commissar Cap: Commandant Spangler wears one. In one episode Spangler takes away the cadets' TV, to which Francis encourages them to protest by having a hunger strike. After a few days without food, Francis is too weak to remember what they were protesting, negotiating a deal with Spangler to end the strike in exchange for his "magic hat".
  • Control Freak: 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 sexually), 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 Nasty whom 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 neighborhood 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 behavior and mistakes. The public revelation of this triggers a civil street war.
  • Creator Cameo: Linwood Boomer appears as a loan shark in the finale.
  • 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.
  • Cycle of Revenge: When Francis reveals to Dewey that, despite the Big Brother Worship Malcolm and Reese have for him, Francis was a Big Brother Bully when they were kids. That explains why Malcolm and Reese are Big Brother Bully to Dewey. Then they converse about this trope:
    Francis: Yeah... It’s true.
    • However, in later episodes Dewey actually does look out for Jamie, so he might have taken Francis's advice to heart.
  • D-Cup Distress: In "Cynthia's Back," Malcolm's friend returns from living in Europe for a while. She's mysteriously sullen, snappish, avoids people and she's taken to wearing big, baggy jumpers and hunching over. It's revealed the reason is that She Is All Grown Up and she doesn't like the way it's changed how people (especially adolescent boys) act around her.
  • Dawson Casting:
    • Averted, there is some variation on the exact ages between child actors and their characters but generally its teenagers playing teenagers. Frankie Muniz (Malcolm) is actually a few months 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.
    • Played straight in one of the last episodes, where Malcolm organizes an alternative prom with a high school character played by a 26 year old actress.
    • Emy Coligado was in her 30s when she started playing 19 year old Piama.
  • Demoted to Extra: Francis in the last two seasons, very noticable in that he goes from appearing every episode to only appearing every few episodes despite Christopher Kennedy Masterson still being in main credits. Notably Francis only appears in 5 episodes of the final season.
  • Disabled Snarker: Stevie
  • Discriminate and Switch: Hal, in a poker game among a trio of new black friends, thinks he's being discriminated against because he's... not a professional like the others.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Lois is by far one of the greatest examples of this. She once grounded her kids for ''two months'' just for lying to her and saying that Francis's friends stole Dewey's bike. In a later episode, Lois grounds Malcolm for being late home from STUDYING, and when the neighborhood is forced to evacuate to the school gym, Lois insists on keeping the punishment going even there. Thankfully Laser-Guided Karma finally reaches Lois when everyone there is upset at how she treated him and she—along with the rest of the family besides Malcolm himself—gets kicked out.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • Played straight when Francis was at military school; the Drill Sergeant Nasty headmaster was a total Jerk Ass who served as his Sitcom Arch Enemy.
  • Dysfunctional Family: Slightly deconstructed compared to your standard dysfunctional family Dom Com, given that a lot of focus is devoted to just how miserable the family tend to make each other.
  • 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.

    E-F 
  • Easily Forgiven: Kitty by Abe and Stevie.
  • 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:
    • 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, ripped her boss's hair off for insulting Dewey, 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 Dewey when he's spent several days not being yelled at by Lois, suspecting some kind of conspiracy. Dewey tells them flat out that he hadn't been getting into trouble because he hasn't done anything wrong. To Malcolm and Reese, it's like Dewey 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. However, Lois has also mentioned that she regularly treats one of her sons better then the other so that the other two don’t know what’s going on, and given her track record for punishing her kids even when they really haven't done anything wrong...
  • Evil Matriarch: Ida and Lavernia both. The boys see Lois this way.
  • Evil Power Vacuum: When Reese temporarily stops being the top-predator school bully, anarchy breaks out as several lesser bullies run rampant. Leads to We Want Our Jerk Back.
  • Evil Twin: Reese claims Dewey is one after meeting a kid that looks exactly like him, who goes around doing good deeds for strangers.
  • Expository Theme Tune: Though not as blatant as others, it's there, especially in the full version.
  • False Dichotomy: In one episode Malcolm struggles to choose whether to partner up for a dance competition with a hot-but-clumsy girl, or a good dancer he's not attracted to. Despite the fact that twirling away in the background of the class are several very attractive women who can clearly dance.
  • 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).
  • Flashback Cut: Happens a few times in the early episodes, such as a montage of the crazy things Francis did before he was sent to military school, or another montage of various ways the boys have been hospitalized. "We kind of have a history here."
  • Formerly Fat: One episode featured the boys getting a beautiful girl becoming their baby-sitter and she was a classmate of Francis and had a crush on him. Back then, she was overweight and Francis wanted nothing to do with her. When she phoned him trying to score a date, he rejected her, thinking she was still fat.
  • Fourth Wall Observer: Malcolm frequently turns to the camera and comments on his feelings or the events taking place, generally in the manner of inviting the viewer to observe the shenanigans unfolding or to explain things to them. No one else ever asks who he keeps talking to.
  • 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.
  • Frivolous Lawsuit: Grandma Ida against her own daughter's family. Over Ida slipping on a leaf in their yard, at that.
  • Funny Background Event: After Malcolm excuses himself from the lunch table, the Krelboynes debate amongst themselves whether to exclude him because of his new girlfriend. Behind them, Malcolm full-body tackles an exchange student who was talking to his girlfriend and whales on the poor kid until the faculty manages to pull him off.

     G-H 
  • Gag Boobs: Cynthia, once she got back from Europe.
  • Gay Moment: Hal with a new neighbour.
  • Gender Bender: In one episode during Lois' pregnancy, she has an extended Imagine Spot where instead of three boys, she had three girls. It's initially blissful, but soon she starts realising that raising three teenage girls would have horrors all of its own. Eventually, it's revealed that the episode would have had the same end result, no matter what the gender of the children.
  • Generation Xerox:
    • 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. He's also got a gift for exploiting people: 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 properly incentivized, Reese can be quite the evil genius.
    • 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).
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Reese is advising Dewey on how to make fun of a girl who's been harassing him:
    Reese: What's her name?
    Dewey: Regina Tucker.
    Reese: ...We'll come up with something.
  • Global Ignorance: Francis was once conned into exchanging his US currency for 'Alaska dollars'.
  • Godzilla Threshold: "Graduation" reveals that Malcolm, Reese, and Dewey have a system set up note  in place to keep them in mutual check and discourage them from screwing each other over too severely, lest the victim, having nothing to lose, decide to take all three of them down.
  • Gone Horribly Right: In an early episode, the boys including Francis are left by themselves for a weekend, and friends of Francis manage to trash the house, so the boys clean it up. After they're done, they realize the house is TOO clean, as the house had always had a recognizable mess. How do they fix this? Intentionally make messes in the house, just not to the extent that they were before.
  • Good with Numbers: Malcolm, incredibly so. His act at a talent fair demonstrates just how good he is: two audience members show Credit Card numbers to Malcolm who then memorizes them within seconds and does math with them. 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.
  • Graduate from the Story
  • 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".
  • Granola Girl: Polly, the nanny Lois hired for Jamie.
  • Gratuitous German: Otto and Gretchen Mannkusser, who occasionally lapse into Poirot Speak. Subverted from usual Teutonic stereotypes in as much as they're both quite kind and air-headed.
  • Grenade Hot Potato: It ends up in the fridge.
  • Groin Attack:
    • Ida pulls a particularly painful one on Francis when he attempts to remove her from the house after she forcibly moves in.
    • "The Play", the Dangerous Forbidden Technique the boys break out to beat Hal in their Down to the Last Play backyard basketball game.
    • Hal once declares, "What have I always told you boys? 'The nards are fair game,'" implying he pulled one of these on Francis.
  • Gross-Up Close-Up: "You have to eat 'American Stew', while I get pizza... Piiiiiiizzaaaaaa... Piiiiiiiizzaaaaaaa..."
  • Has Two Dads: Francis' friend Eric.
  • Heads Tails Edge
  • Heel Realisation: Lois isn't technically a heel. However, she does have a few of these, like when she realizes that she is indeed a control freak when she tries to hijack a crane to lift cars right off the road during a traffic jam, or when she realizes she always has to be right even after seeing video evidence of her making an error while driving and saying the tape must be wrong and in fact, it was. She also once has a breakdown after deciding to steal Christmas.
  • 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.
    • What makes it worse is that during the time they kicked him out, Reese was a model citizen and was getting perfect scores in all his classes.
  • Hollywood Dateless: Malcolm and Reese.
  • 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.
  • Hook Hand: The Commandant. Later becomes a double Hook Hand. Who thought it was a good idea to put a sword in Francis' hands?
  • How the Character Stole Christmas: Lois, of course. Only to discipline the kids (and it was revealed she was feeling like a monster for it).
  • 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.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Basically the level of cynicism of the series.
  • 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-J 
  • 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.
  • I Got a Rock:
    Dewey: Mom! Dad! Guess what! The tooth fairy came!
    Lois: He did!
    Hal: So what did he give you. A couple dollars?
    Dewey: I got a rock and half a stick of gum.
  • Imagine Spot: Pops up from time to time.
  • Incest Subtext: Reese unknowingly falls for Lois' high school self, reading her former diary.
  • Insufferable Genius:
    • Malcolm, of course.
    • And Mr. Herkabe, who makes Malcolm look downright humble in comparison.
    • Jason Alexander guest stars as one of these in Season 4.
  • Inter-Class Romance: Hal comes from a very rich family that openly hate Lois.
  • 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.
  • I Was Born Ready: The group attends Hal's family reunion and Hal's family is mean to Lois the whole time. After they trick her into missing the group picture, the boys run over the dinner table with a golf cart and drives it into the swimming pool. Before they start, Reese asks Dewey if he's ready and Dewey responds with "I was born ready."
  • Jerkass: Pretty much every character in this show is a Jerkass. Some get better, others get worse. And they all complain about not having any friends/nobody liking them.
    • Lois. Some of her worst moments are:
      • 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 "Lois Strikes Back", when she tied Malcolm to her car, just for trying to talk her out of pulling cruel pranks to the girls that psychologically ruined Reese.
      • 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.
    • 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 early on. As a young child he took a street cleaner for a joyride and even once tried to light a teddy bear on fire with matches. In one episode he buys an extra ticket to a wrestling show and pits Malcolm and Reese against each other to try and earn it, but ultimately winds up taking a girl he'd just met instead.
    • 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 trick Lois into believing she had cancer, just so they put wouldn't be in trouble for getting bad grades.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Francis is a borderline example.
  • Jumping on a Grenade: The 'grenade in the refrigerator' variant.
  • 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, but she winds up excusing herself because issues with Francis are clouding her judgment.

    K-L 
  • Kafka Komedy
  • Karma Houdini: The entire family with respect to Malcolm:
    • Reese can steal Malcolm’s girlfriend and nobody cares but when Malcolm steals Reese’s he’s a horrible person.
    • The family can get tired of Malcolm and exclude him from their activities but it’s not fair that Malcolm spends more time with his friends and takes their side over his own brother.
    • Lois forces Malcolm to do multiple extra curricular activities and extra work as well as help his brothers do their work but when all that work takes up his time he gets punished for it.
    • Lois and Hal agreed to stop smoking together. When she found out that he hid a bunch of cigarettes throughout the house she threatened that if she found any she would force him to eat them. Yet she smokes everyday during her lunch break.
  • Karmic Trickster:
    • Malcolm in the early seasons, but less so as the series went on, Dewey in the later seasons,
    • 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.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: The four girls that tortured Reese. And Reese himself.
  • 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.
  • Lampshade Hanging
  • Large Ham: Spangler had his fair share of hammy moments, as did Hal.
  • 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.
  • Let's Split Up, Gang: When the group gets left at the county fair after it closes, Malcolm points out it looks like the beginning of every horror movie he's ever seen. Reese suggests they split up.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: The bed that Dewey and Malcolm find in one episode. Dewey even claims that it is eating Malcolm's soul.

     M-N 
  • Mama Bear: Lois' overpowering personality is usually targeted at her kids, but that is her way of controlling them. If someone else slights them, they earn wrath even the kids don't see often. Among several examples:
    • 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)
    *Beat*
    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.
    • The point is really hammered when he tricks his parents into holding a birthday party for Jamie so he wont feel neglected like Dewey.
    • Jessica, the babysitter from Malcolm's class.
  • Manipulative Editing: When Stevie wins a Teen Courtesy award, Malcolm edits a recording of his acceptance speech to mask his speech impediment. Then when Malcolm and Stevie wouldn't help Reese rip off his skin, Reese retaliates by doing this to the speech. Then, on award night...
    "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."
  • Meddling Parents
  • Middle Child Syndrome: Malcolm (and later Dewey) get some form of this. They are frequently ignored/abused in favor of the older and younger siblings. However, 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), and they eventually 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 the best President of the United States like she wants him to be.
  • Missing Mom: Stevie's mom abandons her son and husband a few seasons in.
  • Moment Killer: Cynthia and Malcolm are plagued by this when she's first introduced, whether it's her offputting habits or his Digging Yourself Deeper.
  • Mondegreen: Reese's inspired version of Amazing Freaking Grace, sung as he takes to the skies on a balloon-lifted lawn chair; invoked
    Amazing Race! How sweet the taste! That saved a wrench for meee!
    I once was in the Lost & Found, was blind, but found my keys!
  • Money Fetish: Spoofed when Malcolm realized he was rubbing money against his face.
  • Moral Myopia: The family’s usage of this with respect to Malcolm is probably the biggest foreshadow to the final. Season 5 ended when Malcolm steals Reese’s girlfriend. Everyone repeatedly mentions how Malcolm betrayed Reese and likely killed him yet when Reese stole Malcolm’s girlfriend a season earlier, no one batted an eye. Also ‘Grandma Sues’ shows that the family can get tired of Malcolm and exclude him from their activities yet in Reese vs Stevie it’s not fair that Malcolm spends more time with his friends and takes their side over his own brother.
  • 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...
  • Opera Episode
  • My Beloved Smother:
    • In the case of Malcolm and Francis in particular, by the end of the series the psychoses their mother has caused them to develop inflects almost every action they take.
    • Stevie has an even worse case, to the extent that she has a breakdown and runs away when she realises he's not completely dependent on her.
    • Dabney is smothered to an extent that would creep out Norman Bates.
  • Naked People Are Funny:
    • 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).
  • Native American Casino:
    • Francis makes a casino out of half of his and his wife's house when he finds out that the one half is on reservation territory.
    • In another episode, the family goes to an Indian casino, and Hal and Malcolm are caught counting cards.
  • The Needs of the Many: According to Francis, in military school, he and his comrades learned that, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the guy who can't run fast".
  • The Neidermeyer: Commandant Spangler.
  • Never My Fault: Francis blames everything bad in his life on Lois, to the point where he convinced himself he was an alcoholic despite barely drinking.
  • Nightmare Fetishist:
    • Reese likes his summer job at the slaughterhouse. Especially the "people swearing in Spanish". And then he tells his baby brother where veal comes from.
    • When Ida was about to get married to a Chinese man in another episode and live with him in Hong Kong, she describes it as having "chickens in the streets, children in sweatshops, and everyone smoking", and calling it a dream come true.
  • No Matter How Much I Beg:
    Reese: "Don't untie me for any reason...I need to pee."
  • No Name Given: 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. Early in the series, we once see Francis wearing a 'Wilkerson' nametag (and it was originally Wilkerson in the pilot script), but they decided afterward to keep it secret. Francis' ID badge in the finale shows the surname "Nolastname" as a deliberate joke for sharp-eyed viewers.
  • 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" (though it's implied that Hal turned the man into a birdbath).
    • 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.
    • 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.

     O-P 
  • 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 shown to be more smart around music and liberal arts, and certainly isn't afraid to show how musically inclined he is.
    • Vicky, Malcolm's secret girlfriend.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws:
  • 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.
  • Paintball Episode
  • Parental Favoritism:
  • Pet the Dog: This often happens. Even Ida gets one! See the heartwarming page.
  • Parking Problems: Francis gets 16 parking tickets in Lois' van, causing Lois to be arrested after she is pulled over for a traffic violation.
    • In the episode where Stevie's parents arrange to meet Malcolm's parents at a restaurant, Stevie's dad apologizes for being late after someone without a permit parked in the handicapped stall. Hal's reaction indicates it was him.
  • Phone-Trace Race: Discussed — In one episode Hal is arrested for selling the donated goods that the boys stole while volunteering at a church. He calls Lois after being released and tells her that he and the boys are running away. When Lois attempts to dissuade him, Reese tells Hal to hang up, believing Lois is only stalling so she can trace the call.
  • Picture Day
  • Pitbull Dates Puppy: The relationship between Lois and Hal, though since both of them are terrible, awkward people individually and the two are more abusive to their kids than to each other, the relationship in a sick way works.
  • Popular Is Dumb: Malcolm gets paired up with a popular girl on chemistry class he already awaits with annoyance, thinking her silliness will burden him. However, she turns out to be smart, only Obfuscating Stupidity for the popular company. They even start a secret relationship which ends because of Jessica's scheming.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Ida's Amoral Attorney drops the lawsuit against her daughter's family when he finds out how poor they are. Not because Even Evil Has Standards, but because if they don't have anything to take, then there's no way for him to get paid.
  • 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).
  • Psychic Dreams for Everyone

     R-S 
  • 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.
  • Retool: The sixth season drops the "Francis B-plot" that was dominate in nearly every episode, and instead has Francis show up with the actual family a lot more, about every 3 or 4 episodes. While they tended to be perfectly fine stories in their own right, it made the entire show feel like it was about two unconnected groups of people (the main family and Francis with whatever group he was involved with that season) rather than one unified whole.
  • Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies: Malcolm takes a Sims-esque game's refusal to play out like he had predicted very, very badly.
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • The Scapegoat: The whole neighbourhood hates Malcolm's family, but only because if they didn't have someone to communally 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.
    • Hal often blames the kids to avoid getting in trouble with Lois for his mistakes. In one cold open he rushes into their room begging for one of them to volunteer to take the blame for a Noodle Incident. In another he knocks down an exterior wall when drunk and his first thought is how he can blame it on the kids.
  • 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).
  • Screwy Squirrel: Reese, occasionally Malcolm.
  • She's All Grown Up:
    • 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.
    • Also done with Cynthia, but with a focus on her Gag Boobs.
  • Shout-Out: One of the cadets plays the theme to Three's Company on glasses of water.
  • Shower of Angst: Lois, when Hal gets sued, followed by a scary Sanity Slippage.
  • Skeleton Key Card: Mentioned — When Reese and Malcom get locked out of their house, Malcom picks up a fake rock with a key hidden inside. Reese uses the rock to break a window, saying "that credit card thing takes hours."
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Extremely cynical to the point of misanthropy and nihilism, which a lot of people don't mind.
  • 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.
  • Soap Punishment: Lois goes the extra mile by putting dish soap on a toothbrush and reaming out her sons' mouths with it.
  • The Sociopath: Francis and Reese, the latter with his inherent love of violence and destruction (once buying Dewey a toy plane and breaking it 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.
  • 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.
  • Soul-Sucking Retail Job: The Lucky Aide drugstore where Lois works. Eventually Malcolm joins her.

    T-U 
  • 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.
    • He also managed to find everything he needed at Radio Shack except the hat.
  • 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.
    • Francis' aforementioned injury; see Noodle Incident.
    • 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.
  • Take That: While discussing ways to stop a new teacher's ranking system from turning the Krelboynes against each other.
    Stevie: What choice do we have?
    Malcolm: We have the choice people have had for centuries. We can choose to fail.
    Classmate: Like the French?
  • 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.
  • Teen Genius: Malcolm is a somewhat realistic one, in that he is not very stereotypically nerdy. He only hangs out with the nerds because other kids find him abrasive and condescending. This doesn't stop the show from playing it for laughs.
  • Theme Tune: "Boss of Me" by They Might Be Giants
  • Third Line, Some Waiting: Most of the subplots involving the oldest son Francis, since he was never living with the family during the series. Played with in one episode; about halfway through the family has dinner together, and all the characters spend the entire dinner commenting on the separate subplots.
  • Those Two Guys: Lloyd and Dabney.
  • 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.
  • TV Genius: Malcolm's classmates.
  • Two-Timer Date: Which is Lampshaded by Malcolm. "This is like that episode of... well, everything."
  • 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: This was done with Jamie's gender initially, with "It's a beautiful baby..." (ambulance siren). A later cold opening looks like it's going to continue keeping it a secret, until Hal starts to change a dirty diaper and narrowly dodges a stream of pee, responding "Nice try, mister."

     V-Z 
  • 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.
  • We Want Our Jerk Back:
    • 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.").
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In one early episode, Lois and Hal clean out a closet, only to find that it has a fully-functioning toilet inside. Naturally, they're ecstatic at the prospect of having a bathroom they can keep secret from the kids, but it's literally never mentioned again for the rest of the show, not even when they're desperate to find a place where Lois can test for pregnancy later that same season.
  • Where The Hell Is Springfield?: The city and state in which the show takes place is never revealed; the only clues we ever get are that it isn't in Alabama (the location of Francis's military school) or Alaska (where Francis goes after dropping out of military school).
  • Wicked Cultured: Dewey is clearly the second most intelligent member of his family, the most cultured and sophisticated, and arguably the most devious.
  • Wild Teen 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.
  • Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Francis, until said girl implies his mother cared for him. Then he knocks her out.
  • 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".
    • Rheagan Wallace played a character who married Reese also played a girl who took Drivers Ed. with Reese.
  • 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.
  • You Wouldn't Hit A Guy With Glasses:
    • Reese removes a kid's glasses and punches him when he tries this excuse.
    • In the first episode, a bully who tried to hit Malcolm ends up accidentally hitting Stevie instead. The fact Stevie wears glasses was one of the reasons the bully was berated for doing that.
    • When Reese reestablishes his status as school bully, one of his first acts is to grab a bully who had stolen and was wearing another boy's glasses, grab the glasses with one hand, and then punch him so hard that he falls back, with the glasses still in place where his head had been.


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alternative title(s): Malcolm In The Middle
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