David Richardson worked as a writer most prominently for Two and a Half Men, with early contribution to Malcolm in the Middle, and The Simpsons. Here is a write-up on some of the episodes he’s written from the two latter shows in which I’m more familiar with. Enjoy!
3. Malcolm in the Middle “Shame” (Season 1)
Malcolm in the Middle always had this unflinchingly grubby charm to it where the kids are allowed to be kids, not just as characters but for the child actors who encompass these characters, which resulted in a more authentic performance of this single camera comedy. The first season alone where Frankie Muniz, Justin Berfield, and Erik Per Sullivan were at their youngest worked as a wide open template to test their chemistry, along with the tug and pull of what each of them can achieve with their characters. It’s through the mind of Creator Linwood Boomer, and his directing staff from the likes of Ken Kwapis (The Office), Jeff Melman, Chris Koch (Scrubs), and Todd Holland (Twin Peaks) that helped provide the freedom for these young actors to be awkward or stilted in delivering their lines and get comfortable at it to the point where it completely combats the overblown and manufactured superhero children you could find on some Disney Channel program if you tune in right now.
With that unique direction in mind, “Shame” throws Frankie Muniz into the role of a kid battling with his own moral dilemma, more specifically when he beats up an annoying school bully who turns out to be a 7 year old. What I love about this episode is how he’s the only person who is incredibly disturbed by his own mistake while the rest of the family is more preoccupied with a terrible tree with a supposedly ghoulish face that has brought the family misfortune for the last time after Dewey falls when trying to climb it. While Hal (Bryan Cranston) gets to play the scene-stealing cool dad who is full of giddy energy when marveling in what it was like to cut down the tree in Reese and Dewey’s absence, he asks “Where’s Malcolm?”, only for Reese’s reply:
“I don’t know. He said something about being evil and took off.” ( < Favorite line)
A couple of scenes later the three of them get to share in a fun montage of throwing random stuff in the wood chipper as Malcolm continues to wrestle with his problem elsewhere. Even when Malcolm calls attention to himself at dinner, the family in unison breaks into laughter over the utter ridiculousness of his unusual predicament and later begin to howl like monkeys (through a fantasy of Malcolm’s) when the neighbors come knocking to complain about the tree Hal cut down.
There’s an indifference towards Malcolm in this episode that is met with a seemingly convoluted resolution straight from a cheesy sitcom when he finds a random flyer for a marathon fundraiser in his classroom which he could partake in as a way to relieve his guilt. In the effort to raise donations, we get a funny montage of doors being slammed in his face before he uses Stevie’s wheelchair to win their sympathy. The montage ends in ironic triumph as he escapes an angry dog which attacks an innocent bystander instead of him. Appropriately enough after all that build up, when the marathon begins, Malcolm immediately trips over his own feet, proving this quick fix of soothing his inner-demons to be a complete wash.
In the end, he confides in his mother, Lois, who reassures Malcolm to be grateful because having a conscience to begin with puts you a step above the rest and stresses ,”You will feel bad about Kevin (beaten up 7 year old) as long as you’re meant to feel bad about him.” It’s simply a truly natural and human ending for the episode. As Malcolm bids goodnight to his mom after getting cleaned up in the bathroom, we’re followed by one last comedic punch as he bids goodnight to his dad when the camera quickly pans right to reveal Hal reading a newspaper on the toilet, establishing he’s been off-camera throughout this heart to heart the entire scene.
Meanwhile, the show’s traditional use of a parallel subplot with oldest brother, Francis, finds him in the show’s original arc setting of him rebelling within the military academy. As Commandant Spangler, played by the late great Daniel von Bargen (Seinfeld’s Mr. Kruger) shows the young men slides for a sex education course intended to promote abstinence, Francis later breaks into Spangler’s office with his disciplined, yet accommodating friend Stanley in order to throw a monkey wrench for the Commandant’s next slideshow. By discovering private slides of Spangler’s more intimate moments, Francis plans to sneak them into the presentation, only to become humiliated when it ends up being slides of Francis, himself, during moments he would have believed to be alone.
“A good soldier always checks the chamber.” – Spangler
It’s a snug little B Story of ‘cat and mouse’ and the lovable self-destruction that Francis brings upon on himself which most likely lead to him being thrown in military school to begin with. The most memorable line of the entire episode lies here during Spangler’s presentation to his cadets purely from the way Daniel von Bargen delivers the line. On paper, it doesn’t provide much justice:
“Pretty, isn’t she? Perhaps her name is Mary or Wendy or Becky Lou. It doesn’t matter because her real name is disease.”
2. Malcolm in the Middle “Stock Car Races” (Season 1)
Having premiered in 2000, Malcolm in the Middle was the spark for the single-camera boom for primetime network television. Within the next year, it helped influence an extensive array of new shows on other channels that ditched the studio audience. People criticize the multi-camera format for overuse or dependence on laugh track due to feeling insulted as a viewer for “being told when to laugh”. While that may be the case for a show like The Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men it’s still a necessary tool to keep a show alive. Seinfeld is funny and can hold its own without the track of the live studio audience, but then it’s a completely different mood from what the show is going for.
In place of a laugh track, single camera comedies like ‘Malcolm’ or Scrubs will use eccentric audio cues, original composition (which goes for every show), and quick moves of the camera in order to maintain an energy to keep the audience attention. Whether it’s through these techniques or a laugh track, and it’s done well, it becomes absorbed into a show’s DNA which helps set it apart with it’s own unique personality and presentation. A show like Seinfeld has proven that it’s not impossible to provide a sense of depth in visual style when filming a multi-camera sitcom (something that can be pretty limiting for a director). Malcolm in the Middle on the other hand showed how much freedom there is for the single-camera genre and I believe “Stock Car Races” is a great example of that.
It’s shooting on location or a studio lot that always excites me. I can’t tell if “Stock Car Races” takes place at a real Nascar track but the magic of single camera is able to bring me there. I’ve always enjoyed the pure spectacle of the episode. It not only becomes an exciting twist of a premise after you’re lead to believe that Malcolm is going to be dragged to a scenario where he’ll be forced to square-dance with the krelboyne kids for the entire school to see, but it’s also used as the perfect opportunity to allow Bryan Cranston to perform his overly giddy, comedic chops as Hal. In the very early goings of season 1, Hal is originally portrayed as a quieter, care-free drone of a dad, but as the season progressed he quickly proved to be an essential asset as the quirky, energetic character that he will be sooner known for. This was already demonstrated successfully in David Richardson’s “Shame” but this episode almost feels like a thesis statement to the evolution of his character. The beginning of the episode starts as a POV shot from inside the fridge. Hal opens it and asks Lois in a rather monotonous, dreary delivery:
“Honey, which juice don’t I like? Apple or grape?”
Lois: “You don’t like either.”
To go from that to the father who steals his children away from school in order to enthusiastically share in one of his never-before-mentioned childhood obsessions provides the free reign comedic relief that gives the episode a welcome, playful kick. I love Hal happily teaching his kids of his idol, Rusty Malcolm, accompanied by the instant 180 degree turn he takes when he sternly barks “Shut your filthy mouth” after the man behind him attempts to make small talk regarding Rusty’s divorce. The most brilliant sequence to me is when Hal daydreams about a stock car turning around the bend and pulling up to the pit stop. The driver is handed a water bottle and just when you’re expecting Hal to rear his face from the driver seat, the camera shifts to the right to reveal him as a pit crew member.
Rusty: “Great beverage work, Hal!”
Hal: “My pleasure, Rusty!”
Part of Hal’s intention in sharing one of Rusty’s last races with his kids is to show them what can be achieved through determination and persistence, which is what makes it initially disappointing when Malcolm, Reese, and Dewey wander off mostly bored with the entire event. Ironically, the lesson that Hal is trying to bestow upon them applies when Malcolm and Reese choose to trespass through a door that’s marked off-limits. You would think that their misbehavior would put a damper on Hal’s expectations of sharing a good thing with them, but just as Reese kicks the security guard in the shin (even when the guard was being nice and on the verge of letting them go ala ‘boys will be boys’), Hal exercises the same tactic followed by a hurried escape when the security guard confronts him about the damages they caused. It’s a story of determination and persistence not just getting you into good places in life, but also hilariously getting you out of the bad, and ultimately they all return home with an exclusive shared bond, all collectively satisfied with the day.
However, the episode is also about the boys (Hal included) getting in their own way. Even when Malcolm is rescued from the embarrassment of square-dancing for the whole school, he still can’t help but complain when having to sit through a Nascar race. Even when the security guard is understanding and about to let them go, Reese kicks him in the shin in order to make a clumsy escape attempt. Even though the boys were able to bond with their dad, Hal still will get his comeuppance for straying the kids away from school behind Lois’ back. Lois’ subplot of having the mundane task of trying to find a misplaced paycheck leads to her tearing the house apart only to find mountains of evidence that will put her family in hot water. It’s funny how she separates it all into different piles by name and I love how this thread of a story bookends the entire episode. But I also like how it gives Lois a chance to blow off steam with a rare, companion in Malcolm’s teacher, Caroline.
It’s pretty risque dialogue to hear a female teacher character talk about her only friends at home being her three howling cats and Bob, her shower head. Not from a censorship standpoint but from a creative one where it’s just interesting to see a female character not feel required to play the straight-forward, classy lady, especially in the face of her most shining student’s mother. A character like Lois is boundless when it comes to this, so I guess what I’m saying is I appreciate how the story ends up exploring Caroline from a more human perspective just by having a quick little oversharing line like that which the two end up laughing about through an unspoken understanding between two women. It’s rich and played so nonchalantly and I like it.
In one of my favorite transitions between act breaks, Todd Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day” is the song that plays to introduce the surprise of Hal and the boys arriving at the Nascar stadium directly after a venomous original score is played when a snake that Francis is keeping in his footlocker is implied to escape when the lock comes undone. The contrast is on completely different ends of a spectrum which mashes danger, misery, and toxicity with fun and joy. Francis who is the king of getting his own way is experiencing physical harassment from his fellow cadets and is under the constant watchful eye of Commandant Spangler, yet still refuses to follow the rules. Meanwhile Reese, Malcolm, and Dewey’s main conflict is to sustain boredom from a fun stock car race that got them out of school.
As Francis’s subplot pushes itself into a corner when the snake eats Spangler’s small dog, you are lead to believe he is about to endure the ultimate punishment from the cadets considering more of their privileges are stripped away due to Francis’ actions. Instead they applaud Francis, exclaiming how they hated the dog and give him a ‘thank you’ punch on the shoulder as a reward. It might not be much of an improvement, but this is much more hopeful outcome compared to what his brothers will face at home after their non-conflict (in comparison). Lois informs Francis how lucky he is that he’s as far away from her as possible when he contacts her as a quick fix to his escaped snake problem. For Francis, we follow his subplots as a show within a show, being the initial problem child who is deemed the most rebellious of his brothers (although they’ll have their fair opportunity to match him in their own ways), and yet he’s the closest one of achieving true independence and overcoming the recurring familial trait of getting in his own way. We’re far from it in this stage of the series, but as a standalone, this is the feeling I get in regards to the overall episode.
Side note: I find it hilarious that Commandant Spangler, as decorated as his uniform is, is host to an eye patch, a hook hand, a peg leg, and a missing finger, yet tells the cadets that he’s never seen any real combat. What the hell happened to him!?
1. The Simpsons “Homer Loves Flanders” (Season 5)
“Homer Loves Flanders” is an episode that modestly turns the tables on the iconic neighboring duo where Homer becomes increasingly appreciative of Ned as a friend, while Ned, usually kind and inviting, becomes gradually irked and regretful of embracing Homer closer into his life. It’s a carefully trekked character exploration between the two that doesn’t feel too hackneyed or trite by trying to be too meta or ‘bizarro’ with the shift in characterization.
This is one of the last episodes pitched by Conan O’Brien before he left, which was assigned for David Richardson to write and in my opinion, he did a great job at providing a plentiful batch of absolutely great jokes and parodies. A couple that come to mind is Ned going on a murderous rampage in the fashion of The Deadly Tower (1975)…
…and Homer, obliviously blank faced, while trying to chase Ned down, Terminator-style in the hopes to go golfing.
This is an episode that manages to be incredibly off-the-wall with humor and character actions but again, due to how masterful a classic Simpsons episode like this is at commandeering the nuance of character with utmost importance while being completely conscious of what the universe can allow, the final product makes for an especially unique, quality outing that blends humor and story near-flawlessly. On paper, the fact that Homer was prepared to knock Ned out with a lead pipe in the beginning of the episode sounds mean-spirited and out-of-character (a bad Simpsons episode would have actually had him do it), but for the sake of the joke and because deep down, Homer would never do such a thing, the notion of the very idea is funny, while still establishing that Homer traditionally is a jerk to Ned throughout the series. For Homer and Ned to go from said scene where Homer is arrogant and reluctant, while Ned is unsurpassably kind, (featured here…)
to culminate into such a heartwarming ending after each has undergone such a dramatically shifted outlook towards the other, within reason, just shows how much of an excursion occurred in the span of 22 minutes. And it was all fun in the process.
It’s not as cynical as season 8’s “Homer’s Enemy” and not as extreme as “Hurricane Neddy” (which still are both some of the greatest episodes) and because of this, “Homer Loves Flanders” manages to be a more organic and well-rounded experiment. Even though it’s hilariously called attention to that the status quo will inevitably come into effect by next week’s episode, the episode still ends boldly without providing any back-pedaling reason for Homer and Ned to resort back to their traditional paradigm. Instead, we just get a glimpse of The Simpsons family gearing up for another wacky adventure where they must spend a weekend in a haunted house. Ned stops by the window to say Hi-diddly-ho only for Homer to snap, “Get lost, Flanders!”
Ned: “Okily Dokily!”
And with that, all of American viewership can breathe again.
UPDATE: Rest in Peace, David. Clearly a true talent and contributor in the sphere of writing memorable sitcom.