48. "Bowling," Malcolm in the Middle (2001)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
Sitcoms are often about the "one false move," or little mistake, that begins a chain reaction of unfortunate events. Take, for example, Lucy Ricardo's joke about her new hat in "Lucy and the Loving Cup," or Frasier's quick peek into "Daphne's Room." Maybe we like to be reassured that while our own missteps can make us feel stupid, they're rarely as catastrophic as they are on TV.
Exploring the ripple effects of different possible decisions — that is, alternate timelines — would seem to be a natural for sitcoms, if not for the difficulty of writing them. Community did it last fall with "Remedial Chaos Theory" (it aired too late to be considered for this list), which became an instant classic both because it was good and because sitcom fans appreciated the complexity that sci-fi fans take for granted. (Indeed, it became the first sitcom episode to be nominated for a Hugo Award by the World Science Fiction Society, unless you count the BBC's adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.)
But 10 years earlier, it was a "kidcom" that successfully took on the alternate timeline challenge. Malcolm in the Middle was something of a modern spin on Leave It to Beaver, in that its point of view was from children befuddled by the adult world. The big difference was that on Beaver, grown-ups were mysterious but presumed to be wise, while on Malcolm, the adults often were as stupid as they seemed. And they didn't have much to hide, as proven by the opening-credits shot of Mom shaving Dad's back hair in the kitchen.
"Bowling" is about the different parenting styles of permissive Hal (Bryan Cranston) and overbearing Lois (Jane Kaczmarek). Depending on the timeline, one takes brothers Malcolm and Reese to a bowling party (with girls!) and the other stays home with little Dewey, who's been grounded for unspecified actions involving a neighbor's parakeet.
Lois: (to herself, after she decides to stay as a chaperone) You could cut the hormones around here with a knife. What kind of parent would leave these kids alone with themselves?
Hal: (in the alternate timeline, going off to play by himself at the opposite end of the bowladrome) OK, kids, see you in a couple of hours!
The episode keeps alternating timelines, with Dewey having no trouble manipulating Hal but having to be more subtle with Lois. (In the end, he gets to stay up and watch TV, but only C-SPAN.) At the bowling alley, we see a different mob scene in each scenario, one cheering on Hal as he approaches a perfect game and the other jeering Malcolm, at his most Charlie Brown-like, as he throws gutter balls.
Malcolm: (holding a bowling ball with the inscription "Connie") Can't I at least use a boy's ball?
Lois: No! You've knocked down five pins since switching to that one!
At first, it seems more fun with Hal at the bowling alley, but Lois's discipline does prevent Reese from telling a girl a stupid joke that ends with him spitting in her face. And Malcolm does get his first kiss with a pretty classmate, even if Lois puts an abrupt end to it.
So there's no real "dark timeline" the way there is in "Remedial Chaos Theory," but to a teenager, practically every moment with your parents is a dark timeline. And as "Bowling" shows, no matter what they decide, you're going to be embarrassed.
•Hal's insistence on following a complicated good-luck routine every time he rolls the ball (taking a sip of soda, unzipping his fly, etc.) is a hilarious foreshadowing of Bryan Cranston's role as the routine-obsessed Walter White on Breaking Bad.
•On the other hand, I rarely find it funny when an adult beats up a child, as when a stranger thrashes Reese for accidently hitting him with a bowling ball, and this episode is not an exception to the rule.
•Malcolm in the Middle streams on Netflix, but I could find only the briefest of clips on YouTube.