Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our series on the best episodes of Married… With Children (1987-1997, FOX), the first prime-time series to premiere on 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.
Season Two is often a series’ most difficult year for coverage-crafting because while debut posts usually warrant discussion about a show’s origins and the context with which we’re going to view (at least, the majority of) its run, the following year is often a continuation (and very frequently, an improvement) over its predecessor’s aesthetic charms, meaning that there are fewer original thoughts to share here — and more pointedly, less prior commentary than upcoming seasons upon which we can draw and reflect. Married… With Children fits this pattern perfectly, and as a result, discussing this series becomes more interesting and will also be (I hope) more insightful as the years unfold and we have more show in both our front and rearview mirrors to help inform the dialogue. I share this mild complaint with you — not to excuse the fact that I don’t have as many thoughts on the second year as I do on those that follow, but rather — to further reinforce what it’s like to revisit the second season when one already has a knowledge of the whole series’ scope and trajectory. You see, this year is inherently transitional, as the show continues to hone its characterizations and move itself into the broader, more baroque tone with which most viewers associate the entire series. Both of these developments are ongoing for, essentially, the entirety of the show’s run, but in both cases, there’s a sense of settling — or rather, establishing — that’s yet to arrive in the second season. In other words, the show is still finding itself and its characters throughout these 22 episodes — so much so that the desire to dissect and diagnose with authority what’s happening is irrelevant, because it’s impossible to shake the idea that we’re still seeing a work in continual progress.
But I don’t want to think solely in abstractions about this second season, particularly because every single sustaining television series is a work in continual progress. So let’s talk about what’s progressing… By the end of the short first season, we’d seen significant evolutions in each of the regular characters — coming to know them much better than we had at the start — and yet, we were still left with the same general conceits that had been in place from the beginning. That is, there weren’t any grand or significant discoveries with regard to narrative structure or the sources of these characters’ humors. There had been some subtle broadening in everyone’s depictions, but nothing ostentatious — at least, not by the standards with which the show will come to define its own broadness — although it was clear that the central issue moving forward was going to involve exactly how much bigger and more extreme these characters, and the stories they engendered, needed to become in order to reach a peak level of enjoyment. In Season Two, questions corresponding to this evident ascent had to be met in a more explicit manner, and indeed, there’s more of a crystallizing here about each of these characters and where the show is heading, in general. Specifically, this year lets us know that the series is going to become remarkably unsubtle as it progresses — setting the course, I think, upon which the entire series will continue. Additionally, this is a particularly important season for the characterizations, as this year contains probably the most growth we’ll ever see for these figures over the course of the next nine weeks. It’s the year where they, for the most part, become the characters you remember. Let’s discuss — briefly — what’s happening.
First, let’s remember that the show is still constructed to explore the differences when the Rhoades, the happy and TV-friendly newlyweds, are juxtaposed against the bitter and sitcom heretical Bundys. Extending from what we saw last season, the Rhoades continue to be drawn closer to their neighbors, as much as they’d like not to be, and the conflicts that exist within this scenario are starting to be played more frequently and more effectively for bigger laughs in Season Two. This is a result of the broadening of the series’ comedic intentions alongside characterizations that still play up the tension between these two couples (this gulf will dissipate in years ahead when the characters grow even closer and the broadening style becomes so overarching that, in spite of extremes, differences are nullified) and are thus still concerned with the show’s original thematic thesis. To this point, I would cite Season Two as the most narratively satisfying of the show’s entire run, for the strong satirical and structural aims with which the series was created are reinforced by an elevated (from the first year) level of comedy that will continue to increase in seasons ahead (during which the series becomes significantly more entertaining — to many viewers), but only amidst shifting story aims and at the possible expense of something interesting to “say.” (There’s a lot we’ll be unpacking here about said shifts in the weeks ahead; let’s leave this thought here for now and pick it up again soon…) Also, the kids are growing in prominence within the weekly stories. Kelly’s promiscuity and lack of intelligence made their way into the scripts at the very end of the first season, but this year sees the introduction of Bud’s trouble with the ladies as occasional fodder for laughs, thus moving them both into the characterizations that will prove permanent — although, in the latter’s case, it’ll take another year for the show to determine precisely how to utilize him.
Meanwhile, Al and Peg are both growing in extremes — more than anyone else in the cast — and given their position, they really set the tone for what’s to come. As Peg’s hair rises, her home ec. skills (not to mention her sex life with Al) diminish, bringing her closer to the image of the sex-starved sloth as whom she’ll be depicted throughout the rest of the series. Thus, Peg is, effectively, created over the course of these 22 episodes. At the same time, Al’s utilization points toward a few all-encompassing series trends that we’ll be exploring throughout these upcoming weeks, as the season moves away from the satirical depiction of a “typical, but heightened” working class father (there’s so much we’ll need to discuss regarding this premise in the weeks to come) into a singular representation of the American loser — a cartoon who fails at life time and again; this new characterization will dictate so many upcoming stories. But all these evolutionary movements, which again, become more effectively and confidently featured as the year continues, make for a season that’s not uniformly enjoyable, as such glaring progressions can be disorienting or, at least, difficult for the viewer to digest. Not surprisingly, this means that the second half of the year is undoubtedly stronger than the first, as we veer away from Season One and closer to Season Three (a significant improvement in laughs, due in large part to the characterization strides made here). Things really begin clicking for Married… With Children’s comedy around December of 1987 — to the point where every episode that follows both offers something worthwhile and is better connected to the series’ pending identity.
But the largest issue this season, shockingly (given all that we’ve discussed above), isn’t due to the ongoing transformations of the characters, but actually from the relationship between story and style. This is where the issue of logic-losing in the face of broadening satire initially becomes problematic — and perhaps the most problematic it will ever be, considering that it’s the first time we’re confronted with the conflict. (Yet stay tuned, because we’ll need to talk about “satire” in the next few weeks too…) I posit that because the show is still too connected in Season Two to common sense and the show’s grounded origins, the attempts this year to deal with larger-than-life or overly gaudy stories (like Marcy losing her ring down a stripper’s pants) that the show will often do well later in its life, don’t work here because the writing can’t yet support them; this’ll be less troubling when the logic barrier weakens and the show works in tandem with such silliness. Below, you’ll certainly notice stories highlighted that I would classify as broad, but as is often the case, they’re saved by proper utilization of the characters (like “Just Married… With Children,” which is contingent on the characterizations) and/or important comedic milestones that can’t be overlooked, such as the series classic “You Better Watch Out.” (In other words, we excuse when “the end justifies the means” — a subjective notion, but one that’s unimpeachable.) Next season, the bigger stories will play better, as the comedy quotient increases and the characters become even grander… In the meantime, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest. 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 ten best episodes of Season Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 19 of the 22 entries this season are directed by Linda Day. Any highlighted outings not directed by Day will be noted below.
01) Episode 17: “Buck Can Do It” (Aired: 10/11/87)
Al hesitates when the family decides to have Buck neutered.
Written by Ron Leavitt & Michael G. Moye
Although the beginning of Married… With Children‘s second season finds the show occupying a very liminal spot in its history, I think one of the elements that consistently separates the series from its contemporaries is that it’s always bolder. Even in these episodes during which the show’s tone is in flux, the writing’s desire and ability to push for bigger laughs, wilder moments, and stranger notions is a strength, even when they fail. In the case of this episode, which I find to be quite atypical and indeed strange, I’m drawn to the elevated sense of humor, the creativity of Al’s dream sequence, and the very utilization of this somewhat risqué subject matter: Buck’s pending castration. The show is cultivating its own offbeat brand — and it’s working.
02) Episode 20: “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (Aired: 10/25/87)
Al fights against a phone bill and a new street light.
Written by Richard Gurman & Katherine Green
Above I mentioned that this season begins positioning Al away from being a somewhat realistic, but exaggeratedly addled, working class husband and father and into a broader, simpler archetype: the classic American loser. From here on out, Al is rarely going to come out a winner, and this early episode is among the first inclinations (along with last season’s “Where’s The Boss,” an honorable mention) of his character’s grand, but perhaps more comedically salient, destiny. The construct of Al Bundy vs. the world — an unjust system — will become an easy template for the series to apply, and the more these stories are related to his character, the better they’ll be. This isn’t a stellar outing, but it finds the show moving forward in said direction.
03) Episode 23: “The Razor’s Edge” (Aired: 11/15/87)
A battle of the sexes emerges over Steve’s refusal to shave his new beard.
Written by Ellen L. Fogle | Directed by Gerry Cohen
One of the things you’ll notice about this series — and this is as good a time as any to mention it — is the diversity among the creative team (writers, directors, producers), something that may come as a surprise given the show’s reputation for being politically incorrect. Of course, I think the show’s overwhelming lack of seriousness mitigates any perceived malcontent: a quality probably attributable to this aforementioned diversity. But I bring this up here to note the abundance of female writers — again, somewhat of a surprise given the things that come out of Al Bundy’s mouth — which includes Ellen L. Fogle. One of my favorite writers during these early seasons, Fogle excels at writing to the core conflict involving the Bundys and the Rhoades, and this installment is the best embodiment of this dynamic we’ve seen thus far, as a battle of the sexes erupts when Steve refuses to shave his newly grown beard. An early classic.
04) Episode 25: “Earth Angel” (Aired: 12/06/87)
A pretty blonde visitor has opposite effects on Peg and Marcy’s sex lives.
Written by Ellen L. Fogle
Another Fogle script, we once again have a narrative interested in exploring the tension between the Bundys and the Rhoades — the ways they’re different and the ways they’re the same. Also, a smart but easy way to make a sitcom narrative seem tight is to parallel contrasting developments against one another. This offering does just that, for we see the different results that a hot female houseguest has on the married couples’ sex lives. As Al’s increased libido as a function of the young lady’s presence yields more action for Peggy, Steve withdraws from Marcy, leading the now sex-starved newlywed to try ousting the gal. A lot of this episode’s comedy also comes from its playing with opposites: Peggy satisfied in the boudoir and Marcy not. Easy, but reliable.
05) Episode 26: “You Better Watch Out” (Aired: 12/20/87)
A Christmas publicity stunt goes awry, leading to a dead Santa in the Bundys’ yard.
Written by Katherine Green & Richard Gurman
My choice for the year’s MVE, this may come as a bit of a surprise to regular Sitcom Tuesday readers, who know that I generally despise holiday outings, finding them overrun with undue sentiment in place of character and comedy. But Married… With Children is determined to NOT be a traditional domestic sitcom, and this rebellious sensibility is never more exercised than at Christmas, when most shows pull out the schmaltz. Married… With Children does exactly the opposite, delivering one of the darkest holiday episodes we’ve ever seen. The premise has the local mall doing a publicity stunt involving Santa, gift cards, and a parachute. But the gag takes a sharp turn when Santa is blown off course and crash lands in the Bundy’s yard — dead. The scene where the ensemble watches this development live on television is the funniest moment of the season. And while there are strong Christmas episodes ahead, I don’t think any matches the originality, subversiveness, or courage of this installment. Great comedy; this is why the series deserves to be seen, discussed, and lauded as a real humorous contender. Brilliant.
06) Episode 28: “Build A Better Mousetrap” (Aired: 01/24/88)
Al rocks the house trying to kill a mouse.
Story by Stanford Parker | Teleplay by Ron Leavitt & Michael G. Moye
In this reinforcement of both the “Al as the everyman loser” and “Al vs. the world” themes, we find a scenario that will be repeated a few times throughout this series. This particular installment involves Al’s feverish attempts to lay waste to a mouse who has invaded the Bundy home. We will see stories like this again — episodes that come to mind include Season Five’s “Wabbit Season,” in which Al goes after a rabbit who has invaded his garden, and Season Four’s “Who’ll Stop The Rain,” in which he tries to fix a leak in the roof — and while those entries are CONSIDERABLY funnier, there’s a distillation that I find quite appealing here. Also, this script is written by the two creators, so they have the characters’ voices down to perfection.
07) Episode 30: “Peggy Loves Al, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” (Aired: 02/14/88)
Peggy wants an “I love you” from Al on Valentine’s Day.
Written by Ralph Farquhar | Directed by Gerry Cohen
Aside from being among the year’s most comedically rewarding, this entry is notable for two specific reasons. It’s an important show for Bud, for it’s one of the first times that the series uses his lack of luck with the ladies as a source for story and comedy; by the end of the following season, the show will be committed to continuing this as a major part of his characterization. Additionally, this installment so beautifully sums up the season, for while the whole “I love you” storyline remains committed to the show’s desire to mock genre hallmarks, Al does eventually say those three little words, which indicates both a sense of groundedness that will soon be lost in years ahead and, because the viewers “voted” on the (forgone) outcome, it presages the growing relatability (the audience connects to these characters and wants Peg to get those words) that will eventually supplant the series’ satirical aims. (Stay tuned…)
08) Episode 32: “Impo-Dent” (Aired: 02/28/88)
Steve goes impotent after he learns that Marcy’s wrecked his new car.
Written by Sandy Sprung & Marcy Vosburgh | Directed by Gerry Cohen
There are three things that I want to note about this episode and why it’s included here. The first is the reason that I enjoy it so much: it’s Marcy-heavy and affords us another juicy scene between Marcy and Al, in which the latter gives her advice on how to resurrect Steve’s interest. It’s a great comedic centerpiece and it delivers. Second, I enjoy the plot because it sort of harkens back to classic sitcom stories — the kind we see on The Dick Van Dyke Show and, before that, The Hickelooper sketches from Your Show Of Shows — of the wife wrecking her husband’s car. This association allows Married… With Children to stretch its TV-satirizing muscle. And lastly, I think this episode is indicative of the show’s use of sex as a means of comedic shock and narrative differentiation, along with the network’s calculated pursuit of the male demo. More on this next week…
09) Episode 33: “Just Married… With Children” (Aired: 03/06/88)
Al and Peg pose as the newlywed Rhoades on a TV game show.
Written by Ellen L. Fogle
This is one of those comparatively broad episodes to which I alluded in my introductory comments on the season, for the premise is built around a classic sitcom gimmick — our regular characters appearing on a TV game show, this time a fictional one (thus allowing the show, again, to mock the television industry). But this is another Fogle script, and the real purpose behind this episode isn’t the easy comedy that comes from the scenario, but rather from the story’s use of the Bundy/Rhoades dynamic, as the couples face off against each other on the show, all the while pretending to be one another. It’s a convoluted way to get the couples to role-play their counterparts, but frankly, it turns out to be very funny and premise-appropriate.
10) Episode 35: “All In The Family” (Aired: 05/01/88)
Al’s day is ruined by a visit from Peg’s crazy family.
Written by Marcy Vosburgh & Sandy Sprung
While the above illustrates a broadening of premise, I think this installment, the season finale, represents a broadening in the very way the show is written. For instance, the idea of Peg’s family coming for a visit isn’t ridiculous in and of itself — what’s ridiculous is the way the show crafts these characters and builds the mythology of the Wanker clan (a future source of stratospheric comedy — and a great method of better defining Peggy’s character). As a result, I think this episode most points toward what we can expect next week in the exponentially stronger third season. One more thing to note is that this episode was originally to feature Divine as one of Peg’s uncles, but he passed away suddenly the night before the taping.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “If I Were A Rich Man,” a story-driven installment in which characters are still being built, “Alley Of The Dolls,” a broader entry in which the Bundys bowl-off against an old rival of Peggy’s (again, story-driven), “Guys And Dolls,” which delights mostly from a subplot (that will be re-used) in which Bud “tutors” Kelly, and the best of this bunch, “Master The Possibilities,” which is more a “Victory in Premise” than anything else, but benefits from a solid teleplay.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Married… With Children goes to…..
“You Better Watch Out”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the third season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!