Life is Unfair

By Conor Roberts

I can’t remember the exact episode, but it begins like any other. Malcolm, Reese, and Dewey are doing something they’re not supposed to, and their mom, Lois, comes into their room to unleash the fury only a stressed and overworked parent can. She lists activities that any child would be devastated about losing, and says they are grounded from all of them. Reese, the second to oldest of the four Wilkerson children, with the confidence of a thousand lions, looks his mom in the eye and says something along the lines of: “Joke’s on you, we’re already grounded from all of that.” 

Malcolm, the second to youngest, then turns to the camera and says, “The sad part is he thinks he got away with something.”

The intro to Malcolm in the Middle is probably familiar to anyone who grew up in the early 2000’s. It’s chaotic, and perfectly sets the tone for not only the show, but what it was like growing up during that time. There are cuts of cartoons and WWF wrestling, as well as Dewey tied up from his brothers, while the upbeat alternative rock song Boss of Me by They Might Be Giants plays over the flashing montage. It’s a simple song, but it captures the rapidly morphing stress of growing up and feeling like the world is out to get you.

*

I can only imagine that the anger that Lois so often exudes in Malcolm in the Middle comes from her own kind of stress — that of having to work long hours while also trying to raise four children. My parents also worked a lot growing up. My mom worked ridiculous hours at the school I attended, and at one point my dad was working two jobs, trying to provide for me and my five siblings. Like Malcolm’s house, ours was small for the amount of people it was home to. It was always messy. There were toys and game controllers laid out all over the floor, our one hallway was piled up with laundry, and there were always dishes that needed to be done. But it still always felt like a place anyone would be happy to call home, despite the clutter. 

Like Malcolm and his brothers, one of us kids was always doing something to push our parents’ limits, to see what we could get away with, only to later find out what a huge mistake we’d made, before then doing everything in our power to hide it before our parents found out. There was the time that my older brother Pete went into the garage and lit a piece of paper on fire, which led to other things in the garage catching on fire, which led to him trying to put it out himself, which led to the entire neighborhood showing up to our house to watch firefighters put out was apparently an exciting fire, which led to us living in hotels for a couple months while the garage was repaired. It was sick, at the time, being young and having a pool and hot tub I could swim in whenever I wanted, and getting to eat out every night. Now that I’m older, I can only imagine how much my parents had to sacrifice in that situation. 

The thing about my parents, though, is they’ve never held anything like that against us in the long run, which me and all my siblings should be eternally grateful for. Malcolm in the Middle was the only show I’ve ever seen that so perfectly captured the struggle of having so many siblings, but which also highlighted the importance of banding together. 

*

Being the second youngest, me and my younger brother got the brunt of torture from our siblings, just like Dewey. 

Our parents worked during the summer, leaving our older siblings in charge. One day, when me and my brother, Evan, were probably five years old, our oldest brothers, Sam and Anthony who were in high school, and Pete and Meredith, who were in upper middle school, were watching us. For some reason that I’m sure was unjustified, one of our brothers drew circles on a closet door in our bedroom with the words “your nose here” written just above the circles. He forced us to put our noses there as punishment. The circle was just high enough to be annoying, and they probably made us stand there like that for twenty minutes. It sucked. But just like Francis in Malcolm in the Middle, our older siblings seemed untouchable to us. They were cool, and we were going to do whatever they said, because it seemed right even when it wasn’t. 

We weren’t always so divided. There were also the times when we all banded together, in full force. When we were doing something dangerous we shouldn’t have, for example, there was always a silent agreement that we were committed to sticking together through whatever may come. My brothers would lay a couple of blankets on the floor and stick the “WWF Intro Songs” CD we owned into the stereo. We’d walk through the hallway to whatever intro song we picked and wrestle. I mean, we would jump from the top of the couch on to whoever was laying on the ground. It was so fuckin’ tight. We probably did this for entire summers when I was eight to ten years old.

*

When Malcolm wasn’t wreaking havoc with his siblings, he was hanging out with his friends. The so-called “Krelboynes” were a group of gifted, lovable losers. They understood the importance of sticking together and at the same time were completely unaware of how socially inept they were, despite their good grades. But even though they had classes together, they weren’t all the same. Malcolm is visibly uncomfortable anytime he goes to one of their houses, although not because of their weirdness, but because of their normal-ness.

I also had friends that had nice, clean homes, and when we’d arrive their mom would have snacks made ready for us. As a kid, I couldn’t help but wonder why we couldn’t have order like that, but I’m grateful to this day that we didn’t. My parents worked hard. My mom was working ridiculous hours while my dad was working multiple jobs to provide. They had no other choice. The last thing on their mind was making “ants on a log” for me and my friends. 

Malcolm never really “chose” the Krelboynes as his friends. It just kind of happened. He ended up in the “smart” classes and they fully accepted him. My best friend Nick came to be my best friend in a very similar way. It was the first grade and we were in P.E. class. We were playing a game called “doctor dodgeball,” which has the same rules as dodgeball, but there’s a doctor on each team who can revive people when they get hit. I was the doctor during a round and Nick was on my team. I don’t think I had ever talked with him, but he looked at me dead in the eyes and, I shit you not, said, “If you protect me, I will be your best friend for the rest of your life.” I did and he has been. 

The next week, I invited him to my birthday party, and the rest is history. Despite the fact that I live hundreds of miles away from him, we’re still as close as ever and talk every day. It’s just something that happened. I should say I don’t think I ever intentionally set out to watch Malcolm in the Middle. It was on every Sunday during the same block as Futurama and The Simpsons. But on Sunday nights, I was always just trying to get in every ounce of TV time I could before the school week started. So, I watched. And I still do sometimes, when I’m feeling nostalgic and want to laugh at how obnoxious growing up can be. Even twenty years later, it holds up. I still see myself and my brothers in Malcolm and his own. Our older brothers still roast us at family gatherings like it is their job, which I guess in some ways it is. Family life is still chaotic, but I’m grateful for it. Even when it sucks.

Conor Roberts is a writer from the midwest currently residing in Boston, MA. He hosted a weekly comedy show in Indianapolis, IN and looks forward to performing again in a post COVID-19 world. You can follow him on twitter at @chevybocaraton,


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