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<i>Malcolm in the Middle</i>: The Show That Let Bryan Cranston Break Through

One of the many (nay, many) Breaking Bad series finale theories floating out there on the Internet in recent weeks was that Bryan Cranston's Walter White enters the witness protection and takes on his new identity as Hal, his character on Malcolm in the Middle. Of course, this theory is clearly a joke -- and as Cranston noted during a recent appearance on Conan, Malcolm in the Middle already happened (and as the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad showed us, Walter's hideaway isn't on a Fox sitcom, but a very cold, very boring shack in New Hampshire).

But then again, it's not entirely off-base to make the Breaking Bad/Malcolm in the Middle connection, and not just for the striking similarities between Hal and Walter's penchant for hanging out in their tighty-whities or their lingering revenge issues stemming from someone else enjoying their wealth (for Walt it was Gray Matter Technologies, for Hank it was confronting a man at a convention who allegedly stole an idea of his). No, it's that Malcolm in the Middle -- despite being starkly different in tone – was an early showcase for Cranston's incredible ability to play a middle-aged father who just wants to do right by his family.

Not unlike Walter White, Cranston's Hal always seemed like a man who was on the brink of going over the edge. And you would, too, if you had five ill-behaved children, constant financial struggles, a terrifying mother-in-law and a spouse who was also always on the brink of going over the edge. Of course, Hal never underwent any Heisenberg-ian transformations, but he did have some anger issues and something of a secret identity. (Well, if you count secretly smoking cigarettes and a surprisingly impressive talent for roller skating as having a secret identity.)

Then again, Hal was much kinder to his spouse, he dealt with cancer scares in a much healthier way and he, you know, didn't turn into a ruthless drug lord.

But, looking back at the sitcom after having watched Breaking Bad, you realize what Cranston's underrated performance as Hal (his co-star and on-screen wife Jane Kaczmarek always earned the accolades) really gave us: his staggering versatility. In a recent GQ cover story on Cranston, it's noted that the Malcolm in the Middle writers had an ongoing game called "What won't Bryan do?" inspired by his willingness to go the extra mile for the sake of comedy. It's one thing to play a cold-blooded meth kingpin with quite a few murders under his belt, but it's another to play a terribly uncool middle-aged man with an affinity for power-walking with total sincerity.

You could argue that Cranston's comic abilities trace back to his turn as perverted dentist and converted Jew Tim Whatley on Seinfeld, but Malcolm allowed the three-time Emmy-winning actor to show off one of his strongest suits: pure, unfiltered silliness. Comedy is often cited as the hardest thing an actor can do, and Cranston can do it all. While his comic timing and wry wit has been on display many times on Breaking Bad, it was Malcolm that allowed Cranston to show off his rubber-faced expressions, his hilariously high-pitched hissy fits and his knack for physical comedy (when he wasn't power-walking or roller disco skating, sometimes Cranston was dancing in his undies or killing it on Dance Dance Revolution). Making people cry or spooking them to their core is, no doubt, hard work for an actor, but getting to make them laugh and doing it with absolutely zero reservations about the way you look is only something a talented few will go the extra mile for. (Not to mention the fact the he worked with kid actors for seven seasons, an impressive feat in and of itself).

On Breaking Bad in its final episodes, Walter White has been a man seeped in loss and shame, while Hal was utterly shameless (for crying out loud, he stood naked at the breakfast table to be shaved), but both characters succeeded entirely because of Cranston's willingness to fearlessly "go there" for a performance. Go back and watch his turn on Malcolm as a goofy, energetic, sweet, working class husband and father and you'll realize how scary good is his ability to transform.

In fact, if you're planning on a Malcolm-viewing spree after Breaking Bad wraps up in order to cope with Cranston withdrawal, here are his much-watch episodes from that series: "Garage Sale" (where you'll meet Kid Charlemagne), "Health Scare," "Bowling," "Rollerskates," "Company Picnic," "Convention," "Red Dress," "Traffic Jam" and "Hal Coaches."

Think you've got game? Prove it! Check out Games Without Pity, our new area featuring trivia, puzzle, card, strategy, action and word games -- all free to play and guaranteed to help pass the time until your next show starts.

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