I’m very close with my mother. Not Gilmore Girls’ Rory/Loralei levels of bonding over men and broken dreams, but we get on very well. Despite the fact that, physically, we are chalk and cheese, we have exactly the same mannerisms, a penchant for Butterscotch Angel Delight and find inventive and well-timed swearing very, very funny. Long story short, we get on, and because of this, I’m fortunate enough to have never had to look for a mother figure elsewhere. That admission by itself makes for a very short Mothers’ Day article and, as previously discussed, I am a television addict. Therefore, if I were to have a surrogate mother, she would be from TV, and she would be Lois from Malcolm in the Middle.
For those of you who haven’t seen the show, go and watch it. Over seven seasons, it follows Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) and the lives of her four (then five, then six) boys and her husband, the affably useless Hal (Bryan Cranston). As the name might suggest, the boys are the real focus of the story: middle-child Malcolm (Frankie Muniz) has genius-level IQ, Reese (Justin Berfield) borders the other end of the spectrum, youngest Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan) is Tony Stark in the making, and eldest Francis (Christopher Masterson) starts the show as a teenage tearaway sent to military school and ends it as a 9-5 square. With an incredible cast, flawless writing and the theme tune of the early 2000s (Buffy counts as 90s, don’t make me choose), Malcolm in the Middle is undeniably a great show, but still it seems to me unlikely that Lois would be the character to whom I gravitated for a maternal role model. There are many more obvious TV matriarchs: Aunt Viv (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) had an aspirational intellect and grace, and Marge Simpson’s seemingly indefatigable kindness is something I try to emulate every day at work. But Lois was real.
Lois did things that every mother can only dream of, her actions make every parents’ revenge fantasy a reality. Her responses to her children’s wanton disobedience range from rapid escalation (a Nintendo ban quickly develops to include confiscation of her young children’s pillows) to the downright genius (banning one of the children from cooking for a month, despite his new found prodigious talent). How could you not have some form of admiration for a woman who reduces an army drill sergeant to an impressed silence with the sheer deviousness of her punishments?
I recognise that my admiration for this rigid disciplinarian could be considered something that I and/or medical professionals might need to be worried about, but the beauty of Lois’s character is that you are always on her side. Her punishments are never sadistic or rash: there is some kind of rhyme and reason, even if it’s difficult to admit this. I suppose that when your children consider creating a catapult that sends week-old nappies flying out into the unsuspecting neighbourhood fairly de rigeur, you too would become some sort of more feminine form of Judge Dredd.
The best example of this is in the episode “Lois Battles Jamie” (series 6, episode 8), where our aforementioned anti-heroine is battling through an only slightly-exaggerated version of the “Terrible Twos” with her youngest son. Doubting herself as a competent parent to this fifth son, her first is enlisted to restore her confidence in her parenting ability. Through a series of flashbacks, we see how Lois finally tamed Francis by burning his favourite teddy right before his eyes. This sounds unspeakably cruel, but hear me out: the toddler had doused the toy in flammable liquid and was trying to set him alight. After grabbing the bear and holding it in the lit fireplace with her bare hands, the flashback showed Lois telling her son how she will do anything to protect him, even if it means that he will later hate her.
Just like this one, almost every decision Lois makes stems from her unending love for her family; her wild-eyed and furious exterior masks her vulnerability. When it is discovered that Malcolm’s school-therapist sessions are not just an excuse to miss classes, but a legitimate way for him to deal with the pressure his family unknowingly puts him under, Lois goes from humouring him and plotting a suitable downfall to mortified and distraught that she was unable to recognise this in her own child. When Lois’s sister comes to stay, the two bicker like children, until Lois discovers that her sister has a fatal kidney disease. Lois then proceeds to donate her own kidney, despite her sister’s hostility and a lifetime of accusations that Lois never loved her. The fact that the character can even demonstrate this kind of selfless love is remarkable when you consider her family background: her mother Ida is a hateful, racist crone who systematically emotionally abused Lois throughout her childhood and adulthood.
However, the rest of Lois’s family match her utter devotion towards them through seemingly unending affection for her. Despite “Lois” being a four-letter word in her son’s vocabulary in more ways than one, they will always (eventually) be on her side. The year they ruined her birthday and she ran away from home, the boys and their father eventually find Lois at the baseball batting cage and pleaded with her to come home. This scene gets even more heartwarming (again, maybe this says more about me) when an errant birthday clown calls her a “Wide Ride” and the family give him a variety of knuckle sandwiches for his trouble. Perhaps the most recognisable and heartwarming moment for viewers like me who had their own “Team Sibling” is the boys’ reaction to Francis’s emancipation and the devastation it has caused Lois: as Malcolm says: “We’ve done a lot of bad things to mom, but we would never abandon her.”
Recent discussion of the series with other fans has raised some uncomfortable questions: Is Lois the ‘mama grizzly’ that Sarah Palin championed? Are her family the Trump voters that every one says they would be based on their race and socio-economic status? I don’t think so. The basis of this comes from all 151 episodes: the company the family keep (and more importantly, those they decide to part ways with), the continued emphasis on eventually doing what is right, and the final episode, entitled “Graduation”. This finale centres on Malcolm’s graduation (duh) but less “duh” is how it never fails to reduce me to tears. Lois (on Malcom’s behalf) has just turned down a lucrative job offer in lieu of college, but reveals that her ambitions for him have always been bigger: becoming a millionaire aged 18 would mean that Malcolm wouldn’t be a good president.
Lois goes on:
You know what it’s like to be poor, and you know what it’s like to work hard. Now you’re going to learn what it’s like to sweep floors and bust your ass and accomplish twice as much as all the kids around you. And it won’t mean anything because they will still look down on you. And you will want so much for them to like you, and they just won’t. And it’ll break your heart. And that’ll make your heart bigger and open your eyes and finally you will realize that there’s more to life than proving you’re the smartest person in the world. I’m sorry, Malcolm, but you don’t get the easy path. You don’t get to just have fun and be rich and live the life of luxury.
There are bigger antitheses of the current US administration, but maybe not in sitcom history. Not too bad for a TV matriarch from the early 2000s, and certainly worth celebrating on Mothers’ Day.