Frankie Muniz, <EM>Malcolm in the Middle</EM> Frankie Muniz, Malcolm in the Middle

This Sunday at 8:30 pm/ET, television bids farewell to the, um... er... what was the name of that family on Fox's Malcolm in the Middle? Whether or not it was, as lore has it, the Wilkersons, the clan was tirelessly overseen by Hal and Lois and populated by sons Francis, Reese, Malcolm, Dewey and Jamie. Has it really been six and a half years and 150 episodes since viewers first met the... bunch? Yep. And to think that a Fox rival took a pass on the promising series!

"UPN bought it," Malcolm creator Linwood Boomer recalls, "and it was over there about four months, where it went through the standard development process, which Larry Gelbart has likened to being pecked to death by ducks.

"No one knows what's going to be good or not, but it certainly didn't fit UPN's target demographic, so rather than try to force the show into being something it's not, they let it go." In short measure, Fox snatched up the comedy. "It was exactly what Doug Herzog, the new guy running the network, was looking for."

Frankie Muniz was barely a teen when he first filled the title character's forever-caught-in-the-middle shoes. "The fact that I was going to do a pilot was the coolest thing in the world," the actor remembers. "When it got picked up, we did the first 12 or 13 episodes before the show even aired, and we had an amazing time. And it just got better and better. The fact that we did go for seven years was just insane. Every actor dreams of having that."

Why did America relate to Malcolm the way that it did? Six-time Emmy nominee Jane Kaczmarek, who plays mom to the brood, has her theory. Though the series was ostensibly set in the present, she says, "It harkened back to a different time that I think people found comforting, a time when there were rules and you had to be really clever and work hard to get away with anything. Children now, they get away with too much. Lois said 'no,' which I find sorely lacking in mothers today."

Malcolm also forewent the typically sitcomy, glossy look at family life that was so prevalent at its premiere time. "It was about people with five children, doing minimum-wage jobs with no health care, and no housekeeper, no baby-sitter," Kaczmarek notes. "Yet Lois loved her family with a fierce, huge love. I think that Jane Kaczmarek might be pretty darn close to Lois Nolastname if I were in those circumstances."

Though one might remember Malcolm as an edgy look at adolescent tomfoolery whose content must have at times rankled the network and/or standards and practices, that wasn't the case at all. "We were always able to do pretty much whatever we wanted," Boomer says. "Creatively, we were never interfered with; that was sort of established right away."

Besides, he notes with a chuckle, "The thing about working in comedy is that the arguments you have with the network are never over anything you're terribly proud of. Like, we got to say 'butt wad' instead of 'butt munch.' Nothing you really go home and brag to your kids about!"

Talking up the final episode, Kaczmarek gets choked up just thinking about the script's first read-through. "It was so emotional," she shares. "I think it was just the finality of knowing that this was the last script we'd be getting, and the last time we'd be doing a read-through. Every day of it was excruciating."

Luckily the cast found support in crew and production-office members who, Boomer (the episode's director) says, "started gravitating onto the soundstage. By the time we were shooting our last scene, we had about 150 people standing around watching. It was like having a studio audience for the first time."

In a memorable juxtaposition of moods, the circumstances of one of Malcolm's final scenes put the goo in the cast's goodbyes. "There was this explosion of garbage," says Kaczmarek. "I don't know how to describe it, but we were literally covered in brown gunk while saying all these very emotional things to each other. That made it even more absurd and even more dear and just pure Malcolm."

What's next for everyone? Muniz, as you may have read, is trading shrieking siblings for screeching tires, as a professional racer for Jensen Motor Sports. "I'm trying to focus on that a little bit," he says, "and see how it goes." (His TV mom, still in protective mode, must quip, "He's planning on dying in a fiery crash. He's making all of us insane.")

Kaczmarek herself has been embracing the peace and quiet at home  although things could get a bit heated Sunday night as both her and her husband's (The West Wing star Bradley Whitford) series air their final episodes. "We have one television in our house, so we have the dilemma of which do you watch, and which do you TiVo," she says. "We've been leaning towards, of course, watching Malcolm and TiVoing The West Wing"  although the actress says she is torn about not having both shows digitally archived for posterity and repeat viewings.

Advised that TiVo does make a unit that records two shows at once, she remarks, incredulously and intrigued, "You're kidding?! Maybe I can get one before the 14th!"