Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the start of our series on the best episodes of Married… With Children (1987-1997, FOX), the first prime-time series to premiere on the fledgling fourth network, FOX. I’m happy to report that the entire series has been released on DVD.
A dysfunctional family coexists under one roof in the Chicago suburbs. Married… With Children stars ED O’NEILL as Al Bundy, KATEY SAGAL as Peggy Bundy, AMANDA BEARSE as Marcy Rhoades, DAVID GARRISON as Steve Rhoades, CHRISTINA APPLEGATE as Kelly Bundy, and DAVID FAUSTINO as Bud Bundy.
“We’re Not The Cosbys” was the working title for this revolutionary comedy that found both its premise and its humor in rejecting and mocking the stereotypes associated with domestic sitcoms of the 1980s. (Appropriate, huh?) As we’ve explored throughout this seemingly interminable year while covering works of the ’80s, the timing for this kind of comedy was exactly right, for audiences were beginning to grow tired of a televisual diet that included typical, conformist, and sometimes saccharine fare like Family Ties and The Cosby Show (the best of the bunch, and occasionally better than its genre), along with all their lesser cohorts. The backlash to this type of material, in which humor was too often subjugated in favor of unearned sweetness or bombastic moralizing, was past due; and as discussed recently in regard to the wave of anarchistic shows embodied by comedies like It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a cable (read: new frontier) series, the rut into which network creativity had found itself in the early to mid ’80s, along with the expanding number of avenues for content distribution, led to a collective desire within the industry to break way from all that seemed routine, mundane, and tired — for now there were places receptive to rule-breaking. A necessary element of this rule-breaking was the relationship these new comedies formed with television itself; considering that part of these shows’ modus operandi involved riffing and reflecting on categorized genres, there started to exist a mainstreaming of metatheatrics — rarely as extreme as the kind seen on Shandling’s show — but the kind in which a basic knowledge of television aided enjoyment. These shows gave that figurative wink to the audience as a prime source of their potency.
None of this is truer than in the case of Married… With Children, which decided, from day one, that it was going to be untraditional, non-conformist, and different from contemporary television comedies; it was going to be a rule-breaker, which would be the bedrock of its design. Of course, the interest in such material — by executive producers Ron Leavitt and Michael G. Moye, whose rebellious tendencies only progressed throughout their respective careers and who were already attempting to break free from “old ground” — was made possible by the upstart fourth network, FOX: another new frontier receptive to exploration and pioneering. Announced in 1985 and premiering in Fall 1986 with a late night talk show called The Late Show, this new network’s affiliate body then only consisted of UHF stations alongside a few top-rated VHF independents from the scant major markets in which FOX had gained clearance. Its reach, therefore, was not yet far and wide, although it continued to expand steadily in the years following its creation (much like the Wild West itself). Moving quickly, the new broadcast network made plans to roll out the beginning of a primetime Sunday lineup for April 1987, and programming launched early that month with both Married… With Children and The Tracy Ullman Show, the former earning the distinction of being the first original primetime series ever seen on the FOX Television Network. Of course, given the scarcity of the network’s proliferation across the country, few actually did see the premiere — or the first season, for that matter — but this was probably a good thing for Married… With Children‘s creativity.
Being a little dark horse show on a little dark horse network meant that the series didn’t have to face the same critical or social responsibilities as those felt by shows on the Big Three Networks. That is, the series enjoyed a greater freedom to be raunchy, subversive, and crude — and indeed, those elements came to help form its identity. Also, with FOX entering a game that had been for decades played only by three titans, the little newbie decided that by differentiating itself from the others, it could attract a niche audience that would eventually build and grow as more affiliates joined. So, as a means of brand differentiation, FOX rejoiced in being unique, and it took chances and risks to get there. In fact, the network’s early programming (Married… With Children, The Tracy Ullman Show, Mr. President, Duet, 21 Jump Street), while aesthetically varied, illustrates just how dedicatedly this new entity was trying to develop and decide upon a brand that was going to be “other” in some capacity, although the details of which remained unclear. As we now know, Married… With Children proved to be the most successful of the initial bunch and, as a result, got a power that the others didn’t – it came to define FOX’s early style: irreverent, urban, young, and reaching audiences that the other three networks ignored or couldn’t get (minorities and, in the case of sitcoms specifically, white suburban men — which flocked to Married… With Children and made it commercially desirable). This style was further honed by The Simpsons, which premiered in 1989 and became an even greater sensation, owing a lot to the network’s first dysfunctional family comedy. (And, of course, the other networks then took note of FOX’s success, choosing to create similar works, like Roseanne.)
So while Married… With Children‘s derisive sensibilities were as much influenced by the producers’ creative want to break free from regulation and trope as they were by FOX’s own need for a unique property, it’s important to recognize just how successful the show managed to be in enacting these intended objectives. The best way I know to explain why this proved to be such a creative success is by noting how different the show is from the trailblazing series we just finished discussing, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which also wanted to break free from regulation and trope, but concerned itself more with the mechanics of the sitcom genre (and television itself) than anything else. When it tried to play in the figurative sandbox with traditional stories and themes like a typical sitcom, the writing then couldn’t fulfill its own premise and inevitably disappointed. It had to be looking in from the outside (beyond the fourth wall and said sandbox). In contrast, Married… With Children, by staking a place for itself in that sandbox, could kick up all the sand it wanted (read: be rebellious and satirically mean-spirited) while interacting directly with the genre in a way that was fundamentally identity-cohesive. Tortured metaphors aside, I mean that because Married… With Children never constructed itself as an outsider to the sitcom (its existence on FOX made that alienation already implicit – there was no need to reinforce this within the text) and indeed fully intended to be a sitcom, this design allowed the series to roast and take down the genre by essentially “beating it at its own game.” In other words, it could use traditional ideas without rejecting its premise.
This required a wink, because the ability to recognize what was being spoofed necessitated that the audience be in on the show’s joke – although never would a wink undermine the characters of their increasingly surreal reality. No, the show’s surreal reality (in which television convention was trounced) was the source of the wink. And “reality” is the operative word here, because in the burlesque production that was Married… With Children, in which the writing moved increasingly further away from realism and towards a hyperbolic “cartoonism” as the run progressed, the show still never meant to deconstruct the fourth wall, as doing so would have robbed the series of its parodic, and eventually, comedic strength. The show would become a two-dimensional comedic sketch, but the campy and overly aware series (where in-jokes were common) still wasn’t interested in speaking to the audience like Shandling was doing; it just wanted to wink at us. This significant difference in the two’s sensibilities is reinforced throughout their designs, for form and function, always imperative to It’s Garry Shandling’s Show’s success, was irrelevant on Married… With Children, which decided to focus on its humor, and predicate its laughs on the content — not the construction. It was, one could suppose, more “traditional” in this regard, but success was therefore easier because, like a “traditional sitcom,” there was more upon which the series’ premise allowed the show to draw. It wouldn’t be confined to the self-awareness that was the source of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show’s appeal. Self-awareness was part of the identity; it wasn’t the identity.
But Season One of Married… With Children is a mold far away from what the series will settle into on its brightest days, and it doesn’t yet inspire uncapped celebration. In fact, much of the success of these initial 13 episodes is solely dependent on the novelty of the show’s still burgeoning tone — not a result of any character-driven comedy. Frankly, most of what works here does so simply because we’re happy to see a show give the figurative middle finger to ‘80s domestic comedy blandness, which as we’ve experienced throughout this year, really needed to be reputationally deflated and held accountable to an audience seeking genuine entertainment. Thus, Season One is idea-based. Now, don’t get me wrong: the season does an admirable job of formulating the show’s identity and establishing the characters (a process that will take three seasons) — heck, given the more comparably earnest nature of Season One, one might argue that there’s MORE attention put into character this year than in most of the ones that follow – but, nevertheless, we’re not yet at the place where said characters can be relied upon for stratospheric laughs – the kind that we’ll start finding in less than two years. And that’s why there must be some comedic qualification here. Part of the reason for this (comparably — against what the show will become) lesser comedic value can be attributed to the audience’s foreignness to the characters (we see this often; the characters become more comedically salient once the audience anticipates their points-of-view — a fact that can be explored in different ways), and another part of the reason is the writers’ foreignness to the characters, particularly with regard to this question: how far should we go?
That’s an important decision, because as with many of the broader shows we’ve covered here, Married… With Children begins much quieter, much more sensibly, and far less bold than it will grow in later years. In fact, with regard to reality, even though the show is designed to be rebellious and satirical, this is the most truthful the series will ever be. All the characters are modulated so that although the Bundys are not the TV-perfect Huxtables, they’re still closer to the average family of viewers than anyone before them. For instance, in Season One you’ll see Peg in the kitchen — cooking — and Al joining her in the bedroom of his own volition. There are jokes about their prowess in both places, of course, but the absence of such extreme characterizations strikes us as more truthful, and it’s a chore to reconcile against the heightened, over-the-top places where the characters will go in a short period of time… Of course, this isn’t a problem when the first season is removed from the context of the rest of the series, for when we examine Season One in a vacuum, we still get a show that’s unlike other family sitcoms from the ’80s, very often funnier, and truly an embodiment of an energy that is fresh and invigorating. So Season One did the right things in ’87 and probably still does them today – even if it’s not going to satisfy like the years ahead. (One good thing about the series, though: its ability to recognize structural errors; it had the good sense to drop the unnecessary Luke, a distraction whose relative ensemble isolation makes him unusable.)
Before we get to this week’s list, there’s one more thing I’d like to discuss regarding this first season: the difference in the series’ focus. In later seasons, Married… With Children will throw more material to the two children, centering most of its storytelling on the Bundy clan itself and their uniquely dysfunctional (but oddly relatable) ways – thus relying upon the audience to either laugh with them (the result) or at them (the intention). In Season One (and the few years that follow), the thesis is entirely different, as the show’s conflict comes from the juxtaposition of the nightmarish “Kramdens-unfiltered” Bundys with the newlyweds next door, the Rhoades, an upwardly mobile Reagan-era couple who seem to be everything that their depraved neighbors aren’t — except when they inevitably get sucked into the Bundys’ craziness. The degrees to which Marcy and Steve become like Peg and Al, and then fight against this evolution, is the crux of these early seasons, and even though the comedy isn’t heightened enough yet — at this point — to prove that this is indeed the more interesting concept for the series to explore (as opposed to the later design of merely presenting the Bundys in all their extreme glory), this substantive focus gives weight to the characters, and because it’s the series’ original premise, the best episodes here from this season (and the next few) will be directly a result of the dynamic of this foursome. When that’s gone, the show takes a narrative hit… In the meantime, I have picked five episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the five best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that ten of the 13 episodes this season are directed by Linda Day. Any highlighted entries not directed by Day will be noted below.
01) Episode 1: “Pilot” (Aired: 04/05/87)
The Bundys meet their new next door neighbors, the Rhoades.
Written by Michael G. Moye & Ron Leavitt
Although this is a rather tame debut when viewed in the context of what’s ahead for Married… With Children, the template for the series — particularly in these early seasons — is well-laid in the pilot. The kids are essentially a non-entity here (and Applegate and Faustino had to be inserted into the show after the bulk of the pilot was shot, when they replaced the original actors cast as the kids), but there’s early traces of dynamite in the relationship shared by Al and Peggy, with sharp lines and laugh-out-loud moments galore. (Again, we know the laughs are going to become much better in years ahead, but even if we didn’t know that, this would still be a pretty funny beginning.) The real meat of the offering comes in the scene with the Rhoades, thus establishing the two couples’ relationships with each other and introducing to the audience the conflict that will guide the show during the majority of Steve’s tenure. Great start!
02) Episode 4: “Whose Room Is It Anyway?” (Aired: 04/26/87)
Al and Peggy interfere in the Rhoades’ plan to build an additional room.
Written by Marcy Vosburgh & Sandy Sprung | Directed by Zane Buzby
The most powerful installments from this season (and the next, actually) contend directly with the core premise of the Bundys vs. the Rhoades, or as it often shakes out, the husbands vs. the wives. After this dynamic was first presented in the pilot, this is the first entry to really take the idea and apply it to a full weekly narrative. And there’s something fundamentally pure about the way these characters play off one another here, for while Al and Peggy are growing broader by the minute, Steve and Marcy are still definitively newlyweds, so the contrasts between the two couples are probably never as pronounced as they are here in Season One — even as these characters will embrace their extremes in years ahead. Thematically tight and distilled.
03) Episode 5: “Have You Driven A Ford Lately?” (Aired: 05/03/87)
Steve and Al bond over a classic mustang convertible.
Written by Katherine Green & Richard Gurman
This offering takes its place on today’s list for the same reason that its predecessor does — the relationship between the Rhoades and the Bundys. But even more than the last episode, this one goes further in illustrating what the series intends to explore with this foursome, for while the above installment narratively splits the husbands and the wives, this outing takes it a step beyond, and decides to form tangible bonds between the men and the women respectively, thus giving the Bundys even more of a hold over the Rhoades. The agent used to do so, in this story, is a classic car — and automobiles will be a frequent source of comedy on this series — and one could argue that the seeds of the Rhoades marital destruction are laid around this time. (Interestingly, this episode was produced before its predecessor, but broadcast in reverse order.)
04) Episode 11: “Nightmare On Al’s Street” (Aired: 06/14/87)
Marcy has an erotic dream about Al after they argue.
Written by Michael G. Moye
I think the funniest regular relationship in the entire series is the antagonistic rivalry that exists between Al, the exaggerated mysogonist, and Marcy, the exaggerated feminist. This is the first outing where that dynamic is a fundamental part of the weekly story (as opposed to just a tangential element in play) and also proven to be a deliciously bountiful source of comedy. And the best part: we’re only just beginning with Al and Marcy. But as a result of the enhanced exploration of their relationship, this is probably among the funniest installments of this abbreviated first season, with several memorable moments to offer — chief of which are the erotic dream sequences that the two have about each other. An early favorite.
05) Episode 13: “Johnny B. Gone” (Aired: 06/28/87)
Al and Peg keep getting delayed on the evening of their favorite restaurant’s closing.
Written by Katherine Green & Richard Gurman
Regular readers of this blog are probably not surprised at all to see this installment on today’s list, given that it’s a realtime episode with a unity of time and place that — naturally — taps into the multi-camera sitcom’s theatrical roots, and performed to the audience like a one-act play. Not only are these harder to write, but they’re much more reliant on character comedy, and I think what this episode proves is, while we still have a bit more to go in the development of these six regulars (particularly with regard to their collective individual heightening), there does represent — on behalf of the show — lessons learned about who these people are and how they can best be funny. So because these characters are indeed already so rich, this episode is hilarious — and all it has to do is rely on them interacting off of one another. It works, it’s surprisingly well-rendered, and it’s easily the year’s most cohesive. My MVE for the season.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “But I Didn’t Shoot The Deputy,” notable for the bold premise of Al accidentally shooting and killing the Rhoades’ dog, “Married… Without Children,” the season’s broadest episode, and the one that best utilizes the two children (and gives plenty to the Rhoades as well), and “Where’s The Boss?,” which capitalizes on the inherent comedy of Al’s job as a ladies’ shoe salesman.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Married… With Children goes to…
“Johnny B. Gone”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!