I’ve seen Frankie Muniz in real life.
It was four years ago when I encountered the grown-up star of Malcolm in the Middle, a hugely popular family sitcom that aired on Fox from 2000 to 2006. Still new to L.A., I hadn’t run into many celebrities yet — although I’d eaten dinner at Little Dom’s on an evening when the Black Eyed Peas dropped by. Muniz, who is now 34 years old, didn’t appear within the scene of a landmark restaurant or local nightlife, but smack in the middle of a hot, blinding afternoon, on a forgettable block of Sunset Boulevard, in East Hollywood. He was walking the area (any pedestrianism is notable for this city, more so for a wealthy former child star who collects cars and motorcycles) hand-in-hand with a blonde woman who must’ve been Paige Price — then his girlfriend, and, as of recently, his wife. In his other hand, Muniz carried a rolled-up poster. The two were happy, laughing about something, slightly rushing down the sidewalk to get somewhere.
I clocked all this in a fraction of a second, because that’s all I got. I’d been walking the opposite way, scrolling through my phone and likely lost in serious thought. After a cross-country move, my short marriage was disintegrating — I’d fallen in love with someone else — and I had no understanding of the physical or emotional shores I found myself wrecked upon. I was a stranger in sunny, dirty paradise, wondering what came next. I looked up, instinctually, and here came Frankie Muniz, all smiles with his sweetheart. Our eyes locked for the instant that it takes a person of my status to recognize a person of his. I saw a former child star famous to a particular generation (mine), well out of the limelight and presumably doing as he liked with the money he made from his TV show.
I’d never read any gossip item or profile that suggested his post-Malcolm life was marred by personal tribulations; as far as I knew, he had just stopped acting. I’d yet to learn the extent of his physical trauma, “mini-strokes” and severe memory loss — or that he’d gotten rather serious about driving race cars and drumming in rock bands. I knew, however, about his oddball Twitter account, as his unfiltered observations on daily existence in the afterlife of young fame had now and then gone viral. Let me give you a notorious example:
For every tweet like this, Muniz has posted about his junk food habits or obsession with stuff like The Bachelorette; those of us too invested in Twitter are fascinated by that mixture of humdrum “normie” detail and glimpses into the pop-culture machine that has minimal use for Muniz anymore. You figured there was a nice (if sometimes weird) balance to being Frankie Muniz, with friends, connections, a considerable nest egg and a clear schedule — years and years in which to find yourself. Hard to complain, surely.
But when our glances met, Muniz’s expression slightly darkened, as if he worried I’d blurt out his name, or, even worse, “Malcolm!” We passed each other without comment, and I congratulated myself, as always, for leaving a celebrity alone. It was adequate to know we had crossed paths, and in such a meaningless spot of the infinite urban sprawl. The question habitually asked of child stars is: “Where are they now?”
For a certain, surreal moment, I had Frankie’s answer.
* * * * *
When Malcolm in the Middle debuted in January 2000, I was just shy of 15. My family loved it, and we were hardly alone: TV was still by appointment back then, and the show cleaned up in its Sunday night slot, easily drawing over 10 million viewers a week in its early seasons. The love-hate dynamic between Malcolm and his siblings rang true for me and my own brother, and my parents got a kick out of hapless Bryan Cranston as their dad, Hal, but adored Jane Kaczmarek as Lois, the fearsome and raging matriarch (she was repeatedly nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe).
But while this sitcom family held a funhouse mirror up to my own, I didn’t grasp that Frankie Muniz directly represented me. Malcolm is a suburban white boy too smart and sarcastic for his own good, steered onto the “gifted student” track at school. He’s expected to seize this advantage and surpass his background. Not only could I identify with the anxieties and pressures his alter ego faced (minus the bully of an older brother), but Muniz and I are the same age (I was born in March 1985, he in December), and even his hair and wardrobe approximated my dorky look at the time. Malcolm in the Middle at once affirmed the cultural values I was growing up with and fed me more of the same: It was my destiny, as a kid, to feel like a misfit when adults spoke of mysterious “potential” in me, and to yearn for a kind of “normality” well out of reach.
As a sitcom, then, Malcolm was the realistic foil to the cartoons I liked. Yet I was also old enough to acknowledge its artifice, and to ponder Frankie Muniz, the actor in the title role. His job was to portray an adolescent like me; off-camera, however, he was a separate person, a Hollywood star, already rich and famous in his mid-teens. I was jealous the way I’d previously been with Macaulay Culkin — why didn’t my parents take me out to auditions when I was 8? — and skeptical that his success had much to do with talent.
As such, I simultaneously imagined myself as a true Malcolm while coveting the experience of the boy who pretended to be Malcolm, the lucky child for whom this was all make-believe. And, however dimly this idea formed in a brain just awakening to capitalism, I wanted the money he made. The escape of being set for life.
Now, of course, like any adult in their right mind, I am horrified to contemplate the miseries of a childhood donated to the entertainment-industrial complex, grateful for the private and ordinary one I had instead. Speaking of ordinariness, I can also admit that my anointment as “special” in school had more to do with allocation of resources than some seed of greatness in me. The cliché of the gifted millennial burnout, now in their 30s, who never reached the heights of success once reserved for them, is so well-worn — in direct parallel to the “Participation Trophy” smear — that it’s gauche to invoke it for yourself.
So where would our Malcolm be now? Probably complaining on Twitter.
And that’s exactly where Muniz is, with the rest of us bitchy, miserable failures.
In this, Twitter may as well be that random block of Sunset Boulevard: a bizarre nonspace that, theoretically, allows Muniz and me to interact (but we don’t). Although I have replied to him several times, there is nothing to suggest he’s ever seen these comments. Again, we’re on a “shared” level that isn’t quite; our identical blue checkmarks notwithstanding, Muniz has a third of a million followers to my 14,000. Plus, he remains a widely familiar face, a millionaire with the option of logging on every two or three days to announce that he’s binging 90 Day Fiancé or “wearing kneepads” to an unclear purpose, and rack up hundreds likes for the effort. My account, for better and worse, is an extension of my professional voice, whereas Muniz’s gives him the opportunity to drop any curated persona and earnestly engage the Dunkaroos brand.
Dunkaroos, you notice, didn’t write back. And here you begin to suspect that Muniz’s adulthood involves a streak of disappointment alien to yours. While you’re nowhere close to the top of your field, he was nominated for a Golden Globe before he was 16; a couple decades later, there’s no reason he’d attend the ceremony, so he’s “just sitting here staring in the mirror at my balding head.” Yes, he retired at 19 with $40 million in the bank; we knew this in 2010, when he had Twitter beef that culminated in tagging a user with the handle @iHeartMtnDEW to share this information, along with a testy, veteran insult: “Good luck moving out of your moms house before youre 35 [sic].”
Stuck in the overpriced rental market, you dream of home ownership; in 2018, Frankie discovered his five-story Phoenix brownstone and everything in it destroyed. His kitten had turned on a faucet while he and Price were away in Europe for his uncle’s funeral.
Moreover, Muniz suffers burdens that money cannot lighten. On the 25th season of Dancing With the Stars, which aired in 2017 — he and partner Witney Carson eventually took third place — he recounted having nine concussions so far in his life and a broken back from a car racing accident in 2009 (his hands and ribs were injured as well). Muniz had previously disclosed a history of transient ischemic attacks, sometimes called “mini-strokes,” caused by a blockage of blood flow to the brain. All in all, he said, “I have the body of a 71-year-old,” with DWTS rehearsals leaving him completely drained and in need of extensive physical therapies.
Most shocking to his fans, however, was the admission that severe memory loss, perhaps brought on by his strokes, prevented him from recalling his years as the lead on Malcolm in the Middle. His heyday is a haze.
Muniz’s Twitter account is a tally of these chronic ailments, both literal and spiritual. One meme overlays his face on a tweet of March 25, 2014, that reads, simply, “Pain.” Two years prior, Frankie was stung by a scorpion. “I think I’m dying,” he tweeted. (His vendetta against scorpions is an Ahab-level fixation.) Not even in his subconscious is he safe. “I have about 4 dreams a week that I get shot in,” he’s tweeted, alarmingly. “Last night, I could actually feel the burn of the bullets as they entered my chest & heart.”
On and on, the catalogue of calamity unfurls. He splits his head open whitewater rafting. His feet hurt in a way that is specific yet unaccountable. He wrecks his cars and gets in motorcycle accidents going a mile an hour. He’s fond of the rather dated initialism “FML,” or “fuck my life,” which he’s appropriated as “Frankie Muniz’s Life,” a catchphrase that pertains equally to getting dicked around by the IRS, breaking a jump rope (and whipping himself) and oversnacking.
Yet in documenting these agonies large and small, Muniz reaches a philosophical equilibrium you might call peace. In February, he articulated this paradox with a gripe about golf: “The more golf I play, the more I realize I hate golf. I just spend money to be miserable and lose golf balls,” he wrote. “I still finished 4th today somehow though. So… I’ll play again tomorrow.”
To any shitposter who grew up with Muniz on TV and in movies, this is irresistible content. It’s the mixture of body horror and absurd defeats that we classify as relatable. Though none of us have Muniz’s exact background or troubles, he is a lightning rod for the millennial brand of misery, just on a far grander scale, since he technically “has it all.” That his misfortune strikes us as the cosmic echo of his early material success — the wins the rest of us were promised, then denied — compounds the indignity of it.
In his YouTube video on the ruins and renovation of his flooded brownstone, Muniz vents that people treated this tragedy as a joke, like he continued to inhabit the wacky world of his TV series. (A common Twitter reply to his tales of woe is “Life is unfair,” an apropos lyric from They Might Be Giants’ “Boss of Me,” the theme song for Malcolm in the Middle.)
You could say that his Twitter presence, by turns banal, self-loathing, misanthropic, yearning, vague, Wife Guy-ish, mystical and sexually forthright, is a committed exercise in asking the public to regard his pains and his pleasures as actual substance, and not an abstract comedy — only to have thousands laugh anyway.
So why keep it up?
Because, underneath the heartache, he thinks it’s funny, too.
* * * * *
I never got the chance to talk to Muniz for this piece. I can’t say I’m surprised. His media appearances are limited in number and scope. When I didn’t hear back from the publicist mentioned in his Twitter bio, I figured I’d try contact with his current business venture, Outrageous Olive Oils & Vinegars, a Scottsdale, Arizona, store he and Price bought in 2018 (he’s given interviews about it). But this modified request for a profile had to go through the same PR agent, and again, I received no reply. As for Twitter itself, Frankie wasn’t answering any @s of mine. Another unreachable celebrity.
But, from his tweets and other interviews, I have an idea of what Muniz might have said to me. In the clips I’ve watched, he often mentions the sheer pace of existence — that it’s hard for him to slow down and relax, to accept his limits or let ambition pass him by.
This isn’t the story of the child star we’re used to, nor is Muniz “washed up” in the usual sense of the term. He didn’t fall prey to abuse, bankruptcy or addiction. He quit acting on his own terms, more or less, and pursued his other interests with passion: His career as a race car driver lasted longer than Malcolm in the Middle. He did stints as the drummer for two bands, You Hang Up and then Kingsfoil, and he currently manages a third, Astro Lasso. He’s a beaming newlywed out to become “the olive oil king of the USA,” and the truth is, we’re rooting for him. Frankie has his nostalgic moments, though what makes him a figure of nostalgia for us — his run as Malcolm, from 2000 to 2006 — is a context apart from his daily grind. He cannot embody the stereotype of a faded Hollywood star who dwells in the golden past. So he defines himself by whatever’s next.
The emotional jags and confessional nature of his online voice is therefore closer to a platonic ideal of thirtysomething ennui — the manner of disaffection which mingles lethargy with perpetual hustle. Muniz is at once intensely bored and pushing himself too hard, unsatisfied with his best efforts, and hungry to improve. The lie of the millennial generation is that we were rewarded easily, flattered constantly and grew up sensitive narcissists; in fact, we were bred to be strivers and overachievers in thrall to the aura of accomplishment, ready to throw over any sentimental attachments for a chance at victory. Muniz had a childhood that put him atop mainstream culture and within a rarefied tax bracket, yet he is far from prepared to rest. Were I to trade places with him, I could well envision the multiplying projects designed to prove my worth.
We are not slackers, Muniz and I. We have considerable work to be proud of. Nevertheless, we are vicious in self-critique, and either of us can reasonably wonder, “How did I end up standing here?” and “What was I supposed to be doing?” and “Am I doomed to stay myself forever?” We battle the collapse of age, the infestations of our homes (mosquitos, scorpions) and the grief of car ownership (he’s too sentimental to sell a custom Jetta from The Fast and the Furious; my junky Jetta gets roasted by valets).
Muniz’s tweets paint such a hilariously mundane portrait of retired affluence — inching into territory staked by Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show I can’t believe he hasn’t guested on — that they curve toward enlightenment. Or, I should say, his search for enlightenment. It’s like he’s journeyed close to the sun to tell us it’s a stupid trip.
In the years that followed my fleeting run-in with Muniz on Sunset Boulevard, I cycled through several jobs and living arrangements. Occasionally, I forget the profundity of those changes, and why they mattered. I suppose I admire Muniz for stating, with brutal candor, the torment and lessons of advancing into the blank future, the sort where you are free to make an unexpected choice, and commit many ridiculous blunders. Almost every millennial sees themselves as a could-have-been child star, the young breakout or prodigy who wasn’t. Muniz took that ride, accepts that it’s over, eats at Outback Steakhouse and envies Zac Efron. He surfs the dissonance of his fate.
I saw him in real life one day, practically at my wit’s end, and in an exchange of glances, I was reassured — even amused. Frankie Muniz has a Twitter account; it’s for himself, but it’s for us, too. It is generosity, given in absence of regret.