‘Malcolm,’ ‘ ’70s Show’

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NEW YORK – Benjamin Franklin famously declared that houseguests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.

He had little specific to say about television, but when it comes to TV series that have passed their freshness date, he couldn’t have found better examples than a pair of Fox comedies finally taking their leave.

“Malcolm in the Middle” airs a half-hour adieu Sunday at 8:30 p.m. EDT.

Then Thursday at 8 p.m., “That “70s Show” has its one-hour farewell.

Between these particular fish, “Malcolm” is the lesser offender.

For one reason, it’s just seven seasons old, to the other show’s eight.

For another, it was genuinely funny when it began.

Back then, Malcolm was a scrappy, pint-sized 11-year-old with a genius IQ who was trying to mask his braininess and get through grade school under the guise of normalcy. He was further challenged by his catch-as-catch-can home life: three non-genius brothers, a non-genius father who resided in a zone of all-embracing detachment, and a fire-breathing mom who ran the household in a state of red alert.

Malcolm’s family wasn’t actually dysfunctional, insisted series star Frankie Muniz. “Just … different. There are real families like that. Not every family is like “The Walkens,’ or whatever their name was.”

Frankie was 14 when we spoke in January 2000, the month “Malcolm in the Middle” premiered. Small for his age, he sat, legs dangling from an office chair in his publicist’s conference room, as he laughingly recalled the very first scene he had filmed for the show: Addressing the camera, he asked the audience, “Wanna know what the best thing about childhood is? At some point, it stops.”

On- or off-camera, Frankie was adorable, and – along with being inventive and outrageous – so was his series.

But childhood must indeed stop, even on sitcoms. All too soon, Muniz hit a growth spurt. More time passed. Next thing you knew, he was Agent Cody Banks in a couple of movies.

By then, the sight gags, cutaways and overall comic edge on “Malcolm” were starting to dull. Even Malcolm’s new – fourth – brother couldn’t freshen things up. Frankie had outgrown the show, and the show had outgrown what made it special.

Now Malcolm (played by a 20-year-old Muniz) has been accepted into Harvard, as “Malcolm in the Middle” finally acts its age and retires.

Meanwhile, as the end nears for “That “’70s Show,” Fox is trumpeting how this sitcom, which began in 1998, lasted only two years short of the decade it celebrated. But many who lived through that decade believe even the decade itself lasted longer than it should have.

A sort of paint-by-numbers work on velvet, this sitcom portrayed suburban Milwaukee teens “hanging out, down the street; the same old thing we did last week” (per the theme song) set in an era it reduced to smiley faces, leisure suits and other token references. Certainly, “Same old thing we did last week” served as the writers’ credo.

Now to the finale. (Please stop reading here if you’re a ” ’70s Show” fan and prefer blissful ignorance, which may be two ways of saying the same thing.)

As this laughingstock decade lumbers to its final day, the gang of no-longer-teens engages in something vaguely resembling self-appraisal: Will these characters ever leave town and/or do something with their lives?

Back home to help ring in the ’80s is the flaky hunk Kelso, played by Ashton Kutcher (who bailed out of the show after last season, as did Topher Grace, who played spindly everylad Eric).

Fez, who has carried a torch for Jackie all these years, will at last win her over.

When “That ’70s Show” began, the concept of friends living out their teen years (and that ’70s decade) by getting stoned in Eric Foreman’s basement had its comic appeal. Not to mention a certain ring of truth.

“Nixon had just resigned and 8-tracks were changing over to cassettes,” noted Kutcher, an ad hoc historian when I interviewed the cast shortly after the show premiered. “It was a period of insecurity but optimism.”

“The show deals with the same issues teenagers deal with today,” proposed Laura Prepon, who still plays Donna, the towering redhead (now blonde).

“But kids in the ’70s didn’t have computers and CD players,” Kutcher said. “They had to come up with different ways to have fun. That’s what the show is about: finding different ways to have fun.”

Problem is, there weren’t nearly enough ways for “That ’70s Show” to stay fun this long.

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