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In the Hall of Dysfunctional Sitcom Family Fame, in the overcrowded Fox Network wing right between the Bundys and the Bluths, you’ll find the clan from “Malcolm in the Middle.” And among the more unique aspects of this family, like the show’s refusal to reveal their collective surname (although an errant name tag in the pilot revealed it as “Wilkerson”) and the title character’s frequent talking out loud to himself but never getting put on Ritalin, was the presence of the non-present brother, Francis.
Described by Malcolm as the brother who was so cool his parents had to send him away to military school, Francis was apparently banished for a childish prank that blew up a car. “And it wasn’t even our car,” Malcolm remarked.
It’s rather surprising that Francis was the only one punished thusly, considering the ever-mounting toll of physical destruction caused by all of the brothers, especially second-born Reese, over the course of the series’ seven year run. At the end of the fifth season, Reese lied about his age to join the army, and Lois, the same mother who kicked Francis out on multiple occasions, went to extreme lengths to get Reese back.
Still, the premise of having one family member away from home, experiencing adventures totally apart from the rest of the credited cast served the show well. The undersized family dwelling would’ve seemed even more claustrophobic without the opportunity to zing to a Francis side plot somewhere else.
"Malcolm" was always a show that reveled in its oddball secondary characters, and some of the most unusual would not have been possible without Francis. Take the very military Commandant Spangler (Daniel Von Bargen), a worthy adversary for the rebellious Francis and a device to compare and contrast with Lois. The Commandant’s hook-for-a-hand proved a valuable comic device long before “Arrested Development” recycled it. Then there was Otto Mannkusser, the hospitable but mostly clueless dude-ranch owner, played by Kenneth Mars, with the funny German accent Mars has been saddled with since his role as the Nazi playwright in the original film version of “The Producers.” The prodigal son’s travels also allowed for more appearances by Cloris Leachman’s hilariously obnoxious Grandma Iva, and to the credit of Christopher Kennedy Masterson, the young actor who played Francis, he held his own with all of these veteran scene-stealers.
Emancipation proclamationWhen Francis got himself “legally emancipated,” fans feared it would be the last they’d ever see of the rebellious brother. But, against all better judgment, he kept his family ties unsevered, although his appearances did dwindle.
Eventually, Francis visits resulted either in not-all-that-shocking family revelations (beloved teddy bears burn colorfully), or subversive life lessons, such as when young Dewey convinced him that a good job wasn’t going to just appear out of thin air, moments before a good job (rock-band manager) just appeared out of thin air.
One of the most surprising quotes from a “Malcolm” cast member discussing the end of the show came from Masterson, who claimed his character hadn’t grown over the run of the series. “He’s only grown older," the actor said. “He has the same point of view he’s always had — just with a little more facial hair.”
In fact, Francis showed serious maturity on several occasions, including his compassionate deception of Commandant Spangler after the military man missed the visit of his hero, Oliver North. Francis convinced Spangler that he had indeed bonded with his dubious idol, and that the only reason he didn’t remember was the large quantity of scotch they’d shared.
Otto’s mismanaged dude ranch forced Francis into a serious level of responsibility, but then he regressed with an off-camera firing explained in his words: “It turns out the ATM I was making all of Otto’s deposits into wasn’t an ATM. So sue me, right? Anyway, he’s suing me.” Of course, it was never explained exactly what the not-an-ATM actually was, just another of many details this show preferred to leave to viewer imaginations.
In the final episode (SEMI-SPOILER), Francis came up with a way to become a responsible adult while continuing to be a rebellious disappointment to his still-unreconciled mother. But one thing he remained for the run of the series was what little brother Malcolm called him right at the beginning: “cool.”
Maybe there was a genetic element to that cool — not among the fictional family, where every member was uniquely crazy — but in the actor’s real-life family. Christopher Masterson is the younger half-brother of Danny Masterson, who played Hyde, the coolest character of “That ‘70’s Show,” which ends its run May 18.
It should be noted, however, that Francis’ cool was tested far more often than Hyde’s, and that’s to the credit of “Malcolm in the Middle’s” writers as well as the actor. They certainly did justice to the brother farthest from the middle.
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