Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our series on the best 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.
Season Three can best be described as Married… With Children‘s breakthrough year, both in terms of exposure and quality. With regard to the former, because the show’s previously earned reputation as the best comedy on this new FOX network (which was still an unknown quantity to many viewers) hadn’t yet been enough to make the show competitive alongside other Big Three network fare, comparable success couldn’t actually come until audiences were given a genuine reason to watch. In January 1989, that reason finally came in the form of Terry Rakolta, a Michigan housewife who caught the now notorious “Her Cups Runneth Over” (highlighted below), in which Al and Steve patronize a lingerie shop to find Peggy a special kind of bra for her birthday. The offering featured implied nudity, sex toy sight gags, and casual jokes about gayness (along with other “deviant” sexual behavior). Rakolta was outraged by what she saw displayed on a family program (I mean, after all, it’s an easy mistake — “with children” is in the title, right?) and arranged a letter-writing campaign that urged advertisers to pull their sponsorships and boycott the series for its irresponsible content. And in fact, many did initially pull their business, causing FOX to panic, but it was only for a short time, when — no surprise to us today — the press surrounding Married… With Children‘s reported salacity only made more people want to watch, bringing in new viewers who had barely known of the series’ existence and were delighted by what they now saw. As a result, the third season finished in the ratings with a nearly six-point increased average than in the year prior (the largest jump in the show’s history) and Married… With Children, which was now starting to beat some other big network competition, and always did remarkably well in the key 18-34 demographic (it was also very popular with males, a particularly targetable demo), became an even more desirable property than ever. By 1990, only one advertiser had not returned.
But while Rakolta’s campaign ended up being good for the show’s business, the network certainly felt the pressure to do a better job of censoring the series before more incidents like this could arise. FOX eventually moved the show from 8:30 on Sundays to 9:00 at the start of the fourth season (another decision good for business – putting it outside the unofficial “family hour”), but in the second half of their third season, everyone on Married… With Children was still trying to assess the extent of Rakolta’s potential damage. One episode taped in January 1989 and scheduled to air in late February, entitled “I’ll See You In Court,” in which the Bundys and the Rhoades discover that a sleazy motel has recorded their respective love-making sessions as a “visual aid” for future guests, was pulled from the schedule. Unbroadcast by FOX during the initial run, “I’ll See You In Court” became regarded as “The Lost Episode” when the overhyped and comparably tame installment was finally aired (with one small edit) on FX in 2002 and eventually released, in full, on DVD. (It had also been seen internationally during the show’s original run, but never in the states.) Additionally, the show was ordered to be less explicit with its frank talk of sexuality, and in watching the episodes following Rakolta’s stand, there does seem to be a concerted effort to keep anything overtly sexual to quick one-off gags and jokes (the kind that could be cut, if need be), instead of major premise-related story sequences. (This won’t last very long though.) Yet these frank, and perhaps shocking, attitudes about sex were always part of the show’s foundation, and the network had already been struggling with Married… With Children‘s content in November 1988, when an episode entitled “A Period Piece,” about the three women all getting their periods at the same time, was pre-empted for a month and given a less scandalous title, “The Camping Show.”
Thus, it was only a matter of time before Married… With Children‘s material became subject to a larger discussion about the medium and what was (in)appropriate. Now, boundary-pushing with regard to sexually explicit material could trace its origins back to Norman Lear’s shows, and then in the late ‘70s to ABC’s jiggle TV (Three’s Company, anyone?) and the progressive works of Susan Harris, such as Soap, and eventually The Golden Girls. But none of these shows used sex like Married… With Children; in fact, one could argue that the entire series is built around sex — Peg begs Al for it, Marcy manipulates Steve with it, Kelly oozes it, and Bud lacks it. What exactly are they trying to tell us here? In today’s TV landscape, comedies that over-rely on such material tend to bely a lack of substance in support; that is, they often use sex to distract from their inability or reluctance (because, it’s more difficult) to employ humor that’s motivated by multi-dimensional characterizations. But that’s certainly not the case for Married… With Children, whose characters, after a long second year in which the show was proactive in refining their definitions as a means of also establishing the direction into which the writing was stylistically moving (a.k.a. broadness), quickly proved themselves as both comedically rewarding and capable of supporting story – even if more tweaking was necessary. So I tend to view the series’ use of sex not as a crutch, but rather as an element of this burgeoning style, for Married… With Children is becoming a burlesque: a bawdy romp with the sole goal of entertaining its audience – free from other pretenses that one might find on a Big Three network comedy, including the recently debuting and quickly successful Roseanne, which also took aim at shattering the idealism of TV domesticity, but instead touted itself on realism (over the vaudeville that was Married… With Children). So, sex was a stylistic choice for this series — and one that gave the show both an audience (thanks, Ms. Rakolta) and a voice independent of the satire established in the pilot.
Now let’s talk about this season’s use of the characters. This is the year where the show’s focus first begins to shift away from the adult foursome and onto the Bundy clan, and this is directly correlated to the developmental strides being made in the kids’ characterizations. While Kelly was undoubtedly stupid and promiscuous in the year before, Season Three finds it being readily accepted as an inherent fact without any specific situational application. Bud, meanwhile, has the bigger year, as he doesn’t really become the character that we remember him to be until the tail end of this season, which is the first to feature several stories specifically about his difficulties with women – along with frequent jokes along these lines to cement it as an exploitable flaw that will be utilized in seasons ahead. So, with these two characters finally locking into mostly established identities, the show is able to slowly begin putting more emphasis on the Bundy family itself, moving away from its intense focus on the conflict between the Bundys and the Rhoades. Of course, Steve and Marcy remain major players in the stories (and still retain a discernable narrative prominence), but the tension stemming from their differences with the Bundys is starting to dissipate. This is both a natural excuse to focus more stories on the kids and a smart logical function of the evolution these two characters have endured (which began all the way back in the pilot and will really become fodder for story next year — stay tuned, lots more to discuss next week). Truthfully, I like this development as much as I dislike this development. Part of me is adamant that Steve and Marcy are substantially more interesting than Kelly and Bud (especially at this point), but part of me also appreciates the ambitious evolutions of the Rhoades, which necessitates shifts in the stories. I also think that Bud and Kelly’s growth is imperative to the series’ vitality and if they didn’t get the kind of exposure that this period affords them, the show wouldn’t have been able to continue for as long as it did.
Additionally, any sense of apprehension regarding this narrative drift — and the broadening up of the stories, which becomes more readily permissible with each passing season (but still must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, for we need logic that’s at least based upon these burlesque characterizations) — is rendered irrelevant given the high volume of outstanding offerings here. More to the point, Season Three is one of the few years in which almost every episode works; some are clearly stronger than others, and some operate with not enough common sense for my personal tastes (although, I’m not really blanching yet – I know what’s ahead), but the laughs are here and they’re worthwhile. The comedy is driven even more by the characters, as the satire is becoming less of a basis for story (particularly as the Rhoades are moving away from the image of the perfect TV couple), and the writers are getting bolder in their attempts to procure laughs – with an impressive success rate to show for it all. As a result, this is an excellent season of the show, and while some scripts themselves lack calibration, as a collective, they’re a delight – and I often go so far as to label this year my personal favorite. That is, even though the show will produce better seasons (by its own established standards – particularly in terms of comedy and narrative creativity – meaning I, as a result, do think they’re better) in the weeks to follow, I consider the third year to be the most aligned with my individual preferences, for the season’s elevated humor quotient is balanced alongside an enjoyable mix of parody, burlesque, and premise-fidelity, such that it’s my most ideal recipe for Married… With Children. So, with all this noted, 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 Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 20 of the 22 episodes this season are directed by Gerry Cohen. Also, “I’ll See You In Court” (not featured) is counted as the season’s tenth, based on its projected air date.
01) Episode 36: “He Thought He Could” (Aired: 11/06/88)
Al finds a library book that was due over 30 years ago.
Written by Michael G. Moye & Ron Leavitt
Season Three opens with another seminal entry in the “Al as the archetypical American loser” mold, as a never returned library book allows the series to explore Al’s childhood and the evolution of his being. The premise is reminiscent of a third season installment from another series coming up here soon, Seinfeld, but Married… With Children is more focused in its telling. Edan Gross makes for a well-cast Young Al, while the pride and joy of this episode comes from the mean ol’ librarian, Ms. De Groot (Lu Leonard), who labels Al a loser in 1957 and is there over 30 years later to do the same. Her scenes boast some of the biggest laughs we’ve seen thus far. Note that this is an interesting bridge between Seasons Two and Three’s broadness.
02) Episode 39: “The Camping Show” [a.k.a. “A Period Piece”] (Aired: 12/11/88)
The women tag along on a fishing trip and get on the same menstrual cycle.
Written by Marcy Vosburgh & Sandy Sprung
One of the somewhat controversial episodes mentioned above in my seasonal commentary, this is an early classic for the series and handily defines why Married… With Children became a hit when it did: its ability to offer storytelling that would be impossible to find elsewhere (even as the larger networks were attempting to embrace similar motifs). There are a lot of laughs here in this premise — they’re broad and cartoony — and any qualms about the subject matter and, in our collective 2016 view, its perhaps misogynistic nature, are totally undermined by the fact that this script was actually written by two of the staff’s MANY female writers. (Married… With Children had one of the most diverse staffs in Hollywood, and one of the more diverse audiences.) A fresh story with laughs in support. One of the year’s most memorable.
03) Episode 40: “A Dump Of My Own” (Aired: 01/08/89)
Al decides to build his own bathroom in the garage.
Written by Michael G. Moye & Ron Leavitt
I tend to think of this excursion as being another great character-builder for Al, and it’s no surprise that the script is credited to the two series creators, because there is a sense of authority and direction with regard to the characters and their voices. This is also an entry that points toward the show’s creep into outright looniness, as one of the more bizarre facets of Al’s character, his love of the toilet and specifically the act of relieving himself, is introduced and becomes a major part of the weekly story. And yet, despite the show’s evident moving into a broader place that’s less connected to reality, the masterful hand that seems to guide the script ensures that all the characters are starting to feel truer to themselves than ever before.
04) Episode 41: “Her Cups Runneth Over” (Aired: 01/15/89)
Al and Steve go to a lingerie shop to get Peggy her favorite discontinued bra.
Written by Marcy Vosburgh & Sandy Sprung
Ah, this is the episode that inspired Michigan housewife Terry Rakolta to launch an attempted boycott against the show’s advertisers. It’s definitely the most envelope-pushing of the entire (aired) third season, because the sexuality isn’t confined to one-off jokes that could potentially go “over the head” of a child watching. Rather, there’s an entire extended sequence with Al and Steve in a lingerie shop, where the bevy of sight gags, while in themselves funny, could be considered fairly graphic, especially in contrast to network fare of 1989. I feel that this is an important episode to watch for understanding the show’s history. It’ll be a while before they take as many chances as they do here, but this outing does mark the beginning of a sense of unadulterated boldness, even in the face of protests. And, what’s more: it’s funny too.
05) Episode 43: “The Gypsy Cried” (Aired: 02/05/89)
A psychic predicts misfortune for Marcy.
Written by Richard Gurman
If it’s not been clear in past weeks, I’m a Marcy fan. I think her character goes through a fascinating evolution, and in these early seasons in particular (before she gets too stereotypically rendered, like several of her cohorts), she gives the series believable contrast, which is vital to its comedy. This offering throws a lot her way, and that’s fundamentally meaty. The narrative is a little more story-heavy than I’d like, but it provides an excuse to get the Bundys and Rhoades on an airplane, allowing for some rewarding comedy (the end that justifies those means). Much of this episode’s greatness comes in the littler moments, like Peggy and Al singing along to Sonny and Cher while riding in first class, and a truly ribald joke about Peg’s vibrating “toy.”
06) Episode 46: “Eatin’ Out” (Aired: 02/19/89)
The Bundys go to a fancy restaurant but can’t pay the bill.
Written by Sandy Sprung & Marcy Vosburgh
My choice for the year’s MVE (it was an easy decision, but I do love a majority of the episodes highlighted here), there’s both an originality and a sense of character understanding — not to mention an awareness of the direction in which the series has decided to move — that elevates the results up to a place of near brilliance. As usual, there are some killer laughs here that always seem to hit their mark, like the final gag of Peg using Al’s shoes and socks as a weapon, and they’re all in keeping with the show’s now decided-upon characterizations and tone. I also think of this episode as unknowingly pivoting the series away from the Bundys vs. Rhoades construct into the general Bundy family design, as the Bundy foursome is treated here as the show’s primary focus. This then emboldens the humor and frees the show from any narrative half-goals — the kind that came from the responsibility of “arcing” Steve and Marcy (which’ll come next year, regardless of intent). Another classic and favorite — the year’s most sublime.
07) Episode 51: “The House That Peg Lost” (Aired: 04/09/89)
Peg inadvertently has the Rhoades’ house dislocated.
Written by Ellen L. Fogle
Despite employing an absurd premise that proves an initial hurdle over which the audience must willingly jump, the strong teleplay by Fogle justifies to us why this leap is worth making — for this is one of the easy, breezy funniest episodes of the year (and that’s high praise coming in this collection of outings). Fogle has always excelled at portraying the Bundy/Rhoades dynamic, and this entry, which clearly draws lines in the figurative sand between the two couples (and therefore reinforces their differences) certainly delivers in this regard. However, the installment is also a notable episode for the kids, who get a susbtantial B-plot that features an important utilization of Bud’s character, which is maximized in the installment featured below.
08) Episode 54: “The Dateless Amigo” (Aired: 05/07/89)
Bud tries to convince his friends that he has a date.
Written by Sara V. Finney & Vida Spears
Bud is the last to get an established source of his comedy, and I think this episode is the one that really confirms how he’s going to be written for the duration of the show’s run. While there were a few jokes in the latter half of Season Two about Bud’s greenness with members of the opposite sex, Season Three made the conscious effort to start using this as part of his story. In the above offering, Bud is already seen as pitiful and dateless (thanks to Kelly and her friends), and this episode takes that concept and figuratively runs with it. The comedic centerpiece involves Bud dressing up a mannequin and pretending it’s his date. With shades of Jack Tripper, it’s a fantastic bit of comedy for the newly minted character. Solid Bud entry — his first.
09) Episode 56: “Life’s A Beach” (Aired: 05/21/89)
The Bundys and the Rhoades spend a day at the beach.
Written by Ralph R. Farquhar
It’s obvious that Season Three is a wellspring of creativity, and I think a lot of this must have been a result of an increased budget. If you’ll notice, there are a handful of episodes here that place a considerable amount of the action on different sets (library, cabin, lingerie store, plane, restaurant), indicating the freedom of both an expanded universe and bottom line. This entry sets most of its action on the beach, or an indoor set that’s supposed to make us think they’re at the beach. As with many of the offerings highlighted above, the new location and fresh idea gives the script a lot of figurative meat on which to chew, and the characters once again get to do what they do best. It’s another third season classic from a show now living up to its potential.
10) Episode 57: “Here’s Lookin’ At You, Kid” (Aired: 08/27/89)
A Peeping Tom has targeted every woman in the neighborhood, except Peg.
Teleplay by Jeanne Baruch & Jeanne Romano | Story by Len O’Neill
Although this excursion was produced for the third season, it didn’t get its first broadcast until the very end of the summer — in fact, the week before the fourth season premiered. As a result, some might consider this the true Season Four opener, but because it’s included on the DVD releases as part of the third year, and really feels like a Season Three episode (or a bridge between the seasons), I think of it as belonging to this list. The script was penned by the duo that wrote the infamous “I’ll See You In Court,” but I think there are way more character moments in this outing, and not as much gratuitous shock value. In fact, this is an incredibly funny and underrated Al/Peg episode, especially, and a great place to end this strong list.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “The Bald And The Beautiful,” which works because of the Al/Steve dynamic (a close contender), “Requiem For A Dead Barber,” in which Al goes to a salon after his favorite barber dies (another close contender), “A Three Job, No Income Family,” in which Peggy tries to sell cosmetics and Al gets a second job at a burger joint (another close contender), “The Harder They Fall,” a terrific episode for Steve, who gets into an incident on the road (thanks to Peg), and “The Computer Show,” which has some memorable moments for Al.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Married… With Children goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fourth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!