"Malcolm in the Middle" is the freshest, funniest new comedy of the year.

That said, this is not an unequivocal recommendation. The show is a laugh-out-loud funny, skewed look at the American family that rings surprisingly true. But the pilot goes more than a bit over the top at times. Like when three young brothers try to eat breakfast while their mother shaves their extraordinarily hirsute father's back as he stands naked in the kitchen.

He is, at least, reading a strategically placed newspaper.

Or the scene when the frazzled mother, running around the house doing the laundry, answers the front door topless. Thank goodness for that strategically placed laundry basket.

That is juxtaposed with some wonderfully subtle humor, like when the boys walk down the sidewalk and the houses on either side of theirs are for sale.

"Malcolm" (Sunday, 7:30 p.m., Ch. 13) centers on middle child Malcolm (Frankie Muniz), a kid with three brothers who wants to be just like everyone else. That's made more difficult when his teacher (Catherine Lloyd Burns) discovers that he's a genius with an IQ of 165.

His parents, Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) and Hal (Bryan Cranston), are stunned and thrilled that Malcolm is placed in the gifted class at school. Malcolm isn't thrilled because that makes him a Krelboyne — a k a, a nerd.

And being a genius doesn't make it any easier to deal with his brothers, who continually torture each other, both verbally and physically. Oldest brother Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson) has been sent to military school after a series of misadventures, second-oldest Reese (Justin Berfield) loves to beat up on Malcolm and Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan), the youngest, is just trying to survive.

Part of what makes "Malcolm" such a delight is that it didn't just roll off the TV sitcom assembly line — its creator-executive producer, Linwood Boomer, said he never expected it to get on the air.

"I really was just sort writing sort of a very self-serving version of my childhood and the way I remember it," he said. "Probably 90 percent of it is exaggeration and outright lies. . . . I just think of it as sort of ludicrous and funny and harmless.

"The script wasn't written to get picked up. I had some free time. It was just something that had been rolling around in my head for a long time. I wrote the script thinking it was going to end up in a drawer for the rest of my life."

Boomer knows what he's writing, although he says that his family was "far more functional and far less entertaining that these people are." A former writer-producer on "3rd Rock from the Sun," he's also a former actor — he played Adam on "Little House on the Prairie" from 1978-81.

This promising show actually improves from its first to its second to its third episode. And the second and third episodes dial the tastelessness way back.

The casting is great, particularly 13-year-old Muniz — the best child actor on TV since Fred Savage in "The Wonder Years" — and Kaczmarek, who's nothing short of fabulous as the harried mother who nonetheless always seems to be on top of things. (She just lets a lot of it slide by, choosing to pick her battles in the child-rearing wars.)

"Malcolm" certainly doesn't present the ideal American family. But it is a comedy, and it does operate from a central core of those elusive family values.

"I don't think there is anything about the show that says, 'This is a good example of parenting,' " Boomer said. "I have so much sympathy for these characters, but I think the alternative is to trot out perfect parents that always do everything right and have all the answers. . . . I think putting a bunch of fake images that no one can live up to is just as harmful as saying, 'These people are trying. They screw up half the time. Their heart's in the right place.' "

And there are some truly uplifting, almost sweet moments — again, in a rather skewed sort of way. Like in the second episode, when the family has been stunned with a demonstration of just how smart Malcolm really is. How he's not like the rest of them, which is what Malcolm fears most.

After a few moments, however, Hal starts off a round of kidding and teasing that lets Malcolm and the audience know everything is going to be alright — that, despite his smarts, he's still one of the family. It's television magic.