Ralph Schroeder finds lots of men to admire on television, but only one surprising TV dad really resonates for him.
There are all kinds of heroes out there. Some that have no fear. Some that have endless energy and boundless intelligence. Some with unshakable integrity and honesty. Some with superhuman strength and amazing physical skill.
Television has invented lots of them, from Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke, to Perry Mason, to Jim Rockford on the Rockford Files. Detectives, doctors, lawyers, teachers, policemen, even politicians. I’ve admired many of these heroes, but in knowing my own failings, I don’t think I ever really related to any of them.
Then came Brian Cranston’s “Hal”—Malcolm’s dad—on Malcolm in the Middle.
Malcom in the Middle is a show about a family with extraordinary potential for self-destruction. Each member of the family finds hugely creative and highly dysfunctional ways of dealing with both their own shortcomings as well as those of their family. Most of which are extreme and highly entertaining, not to mention unexpected for television fare.
But what always stood out for me about this show is Hal. As a father, he is challenged by five sons with explosive personalities and a wife unlike any other. These two live a life where they’re constantly flirting with poverty, soul-deflating jobs, and other domestic disasters. On top of this, his own personality is amazingly unstable— he’s a real piece of work.
But the thing that most makes him stand out is his passion. Hal is wild-eyed crazy for his wife. He has no self control around her. She fills him with lust and desire and somehow manages to break any concentration he is able to muster. No matter what problems they have in their lives—and they are colossal—there is always the potential for instant passion when they’re in the same room. Passion that is instant, intense, often silly, and which makes little sense. It embarrasses the boys in its adolescent obviousness and simplicity. Right in the midst of the intense anger, fear, frustration, disappointment or despair that always seems present in life as we know it, there is the potential for fiery, unbridled passion. Hal’s eyes glaze over, his face grows slack then tightens. It’s like you’re watching the lower part of his brain seize control and force out all of the demands and stresses of this world, replacing them with simpler, more elementary needs and desires.
I suppose a reality check is called for here. Did the talented writers and director of the drama see this as one more element of dysfunction for this challenged family? Was this one more aspect of his personality that doesn’t work as is should? If he were in more control, would this have helped to stabilize this precarious situation? Was there a moral lesson intended?
After some deliberation, I choose to say… no.
There is always joy inherent in these moments. Intense, unreasoned, elemental joy. Not just pleasure. But joy. Joy that healed wounds, that cooled destructive emotions. That reaffirmed commitments and re-cemented bonds. Hal and his wife, Lois, are thrown from the tracks of their concentration and onto a path of a simpler sort. If it does nothing to correct the disaster of the moment, it certainly does no harm to let it rest for a time. Perhaps a new perspective is achieved for Hal and Lois from a more shared point of view. Perhaps it reminds them of how and why they formed this family in the first place, and why it’s worth the extreme effort it takes to maintain it. Who knows.
I am always refreshed and pleased by this potential joy. I see it as hopeful and positive. Affirming.
Humans think of themselves as the end of evolutionary trail, the final product. We think we are the most intelligent, complicated and sophisticated of all of the living creatures here on earth. We think that we have the biggest brains. We believe we have conquered the earth because of these big brains and our amazing tools and processes. We also ignore the messes we have made in our egocentric manipulations, the destruction that has ensued.
When I watch Hal in his distracted moments, I am reminded that most of our brain is controlled by emotions, not logic. That the logical brain, although important, is slow and fairly simple in comparison to the emotional and autonomic reactions that are crucial to our dealing with the world. And it seems to me that we suffer when we move to far away from the simpler, more elementary parts of our being.
Hal represents to me someone who is extremely fortunate in his great passion for his wife, and that this passion can overwhelm him and does so regularly and without warning. His passion for the rest of life is equally as strong, and includes disco rollerskating, harmony singing groups and high-stakes poker games, to name a few, as well as great love and admiration for his children. He pursues everything with gusto and dedication. He may be confused much of the time, and unsuccessful to the world at large, but he charges life full-tilt.
And he doesn’t just desire his wife. He admires her in many ways, and shares every aspect of the lives they live. She is so powerful that at times she intimidates him and he cowers in obedience, but eventually finds a way back to a balance. They are a true team, welded together by the forces that threaten them and the power of their desire for each other. They are hugely stronger together then they ever are apart. They are their own worst critics and best supporters.
They are fictional characters, I know. Their lives are entertaining because they are extreme and abstracted, concentrated to get the most enjoyment of this theatrical event. And I know we are in some danger when we confuse real life and drama, but risking that danger for a moment, I must admit to a secret: My most extraordinary moments are almost as passionate as Hal’s, and I believe that loving someone with a similar intensity is one of the greatest gifts we can hope to find—and hold onto.