Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our series on the best episodes of Married… With Children (1987-1997, FOX). 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.
Last week, I called Season Three the show’s breakthrough year, the one in which Married… With Children boldly identified itself and its characters once and for all. I consider Season Four to be the show’s breakout year, the distinction coming from the fact that now the audience knows the show and has an emotional allegiance, thereby granting the series freedom to break free from its narrative shackles (which is imperative, since the show’s premise is about to officially change anyway) while pursuing more ambitious comedic intentions. As previously explored, the show’s initial raison d’être emerged within a wave of late ‘80s dissident programming, hinging the crux of its humor on the long-due satirization of established images of TV domesticity, but as the country and medium were moving into the ‘90s, there was no longer as deep a need for such direct parody; the point had already been made. Now the show needed to officially transition the focus of its comedy onto the characters, their relationships, and the way this could all be explored and exploited in story – meaning that, more than ever before, the fruits of the series’ figurative labor (as the cliché goes) would now be dependent on the metrics typically used to adjudicate all sitcoms: character-driven comedy. What does this mean? If done well, better laughs (especially with the audience now on board). If done poorly, more disappointment (because there’s nothing to blame but the faulty use of character – usually caused by believability gaps). The timing for these shifts in intention was born as much out of an organic evolution – this course was already being undertaken (and it happens to every show with a narrative function that becomes fulfilled – Cheers, anyone?) – as it was a necessary reaction to the changes in both the television landscape and the show’s own ensemble structure.
We discussed the changing landscape briefly above – Married… With Children’s development occurred alongside these broader shifts – so let’s talk about the changing ensemble: particularly, the departure of Steve, which arguably alters the series’ entire premise; without him, the show can no longer be about the differences between the Rhoades and the Bundys. This effectively means that the latter couple has no direct image off of whom their absurdness can be contrasted – thus the audience, who’s now emotionally involved, has a harder time seeing the Bundys as satirical, choosing instead to find what can be relatable. (This shift is ongoing – I think there’s still a lot of satire here in Season Four, and there will be for a few more years. Stay tuned…) But I see Steve’s departure not as a single moment that alters the course of the series, because even though it structurally does, the story comes about through the actualization of a long-building character evolution – promised to us within the pilot – making it harder to view what happens here as one self-contained event. It would be more apt to regard this as the climax of the series’ original premise – the place to which we’ve always been building: could the Bundys corrupt the TV-perfect Rhoades? Well, a premise is a promise to the audience, and that promise wasn’t abandoned; it was fulfilled in Steve’s exit, thereby allowing the show, through the continued strength of its comedy, to press on with relative ease (save the bumpy two-parter directly following his leave) with its attention elsewhere: the Bundys. This actually doesn’t feel like much of a change, considering that the use of and focus on the kids has been elevated incrementally throughout the past few years. (This development has been cyclical: the more stuff thrown to Bud and Kelly, the better defined they become, and the more often they can be utilized for comedic stories.) So, the result is a fairly smooth transition – one that, also because it’s midseason, doesn’t allow time for the show or audience to ponder the evaporated premise…
But as someone who appreciated the series’ original conception — finding it a more fascinating and unique source of story (hence why I’m more drawn to what was presented in the third season) – even I have to note that the premise’s removal from the series’ list of objectives is part of the narrative unshackling that helps make this year – and especially the one following – among the series’ funniest. To this point, when I’m asked about Married… With Children’s “best” seasons, I’m usually going to cite Season Four, for reasons to follow, and Season Five, which represents a peak in hilarity: the show’s only super-objective (more to come next week). The case for Season Four is more interesting, though, and not just because of its ability to work in spite of the potentially destructive Steve removal, but also because the series is yet to be infested by an abundance of the campy self-reflexivity that starts to creep in during Season Five, which simultaneously throws the comedy up to stratospheric heights while corroding the integrity that still exists within the show’s textual objectives. In this regard, there’s a storytelling purity that exists in the fourth season, allowing for a truly fascinating blend of increasingly bolder ideas alongside a firm identity that is both recognized and invoked in support of the weekly excursions. Now, this all sounds a bit too lofty for Married… With Children, and I generally agree that this show’s success is simple: it works when it’s funny, and it doesn’t work when it’s not funny (again: often caused by lapses in logic/believability). There will indeed come a time when the show pumps itself with too much goofy air that the results are suffocating to the comedy, but we’re quite a ways away from that, and while many of these broadening elements I’d trace to this period in the show’s history (Seasons Three, Four, and Five), it’d be shortsighted to blame these years for what the show eventually becomes — particularly because they prove that broadening, as an evolutionary tool, is not destructive. (The key, as always, is moderation.)
However, the principal reason that Season Four remains more connected to its substantive sense of self (and the reason the year remains among the best) is obvious: the scripts, for the first two-thirds of the season, are forced to deal directly with the dissolution of the relationship between Steve and Marcy. This was an inevitability for which the writers had been preparing after the third season concluded and Garrison, a stage actor whose primary residence remained in New York, opted not to renew his contract, which, like the rest of the cast, was up in the middle of the season. With full knowledge that Garrison would be leaving 13 episodes into the new year, the writers began laying the groundwork in the premiere for Steve’s upcoming arc. Despite a shortage of seamless continuity in the presentation of the Rhoades between Season Three — which had a harder time attempting to play up their differences to the Bundys, but still showed them relatively happy and content in contrast — and the start of Season Four, where they’re clearly strained, I think the show does a genius job during the year itself of presenting the pair’s emotional alienation in ways that are surprisingly subtle (we can’t tell the prime motivation) and seemingly only in support of the weekly comedy. That is, we don’t realize that Steve and Marcy drifting apart is a behind-the-scenes tactic until he’s gone, which is sublime construction on Married… With Children’s part. And even better: it’s motivated by character. Steve’s dissatisfaction with his life, perhaps a mirror of Garrison’s own itch for something different, is a theme throughout the year’s first 15 episodes, but it’s the character’s abrupt firing from the bank, after a stupid Al Bundy scheme, that serves as the catalyst that eventually separates the Rhoades. Once a Reagan-era preppie, Steve becomes an aimless nature-loving bum, who doesn’t quite know what he wants anymore, but knows that money is irrelevant — a philosophy directly in contrast to Marcy’s. It’s Game Over for the Rhoades.
So, the Bundys have successfully corrupted the Rhoades; we’ve been watching it for years, even as it accelerated in Season Four, but happened (for the most part) organically – all stemming from character. Well done, show! And, fortunately, the narrative focus doesn’t subjugate either character, which is allowed to drive the arc, or comedy. In the case of the latter, the show knows its characters and itself so well that being funny seems effortless – and what’s more, the audience is on the same figurative wavelength. (There’s a symbiotic relationship that begins to form, pretty much at the start of this season, between the emboldened show and its live studio audience, as they feed each other’s enthusiasm. It’ll become more pronounced in weeks ahead – it’s invigorating, when justified.) Not surprisingly, there are some great episodes (highlighted below) in this gradually ongoing story arc, which concludes when Steve runs out on Marcy in the night. Thus, Season Four of Married… With Children sees a potentially tricky casting development well-motivated through the characterizations, which are all comedically on the ascent, and as the show fulfills its premise-obligation during the course of the season, classics are made and the writing is given a freedom that it’s never known – to handle any way it chooses going forward. Right now, it’s only clear that increased broadness is going to be inevitable (just take a look at the final part of this year), but all signs nevertheless point toward bigger, more satisfying laughs – as long as the characters are given the necessary attention; after all, as the satire reduces, their importance only grows… In the meantime, I have, as usual, picked ten 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 ten best episodes of Season Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 21 of the 23 episodes this season are directed by Gerry Cohen. Any highlighted episodes not directed by Cohen will be noted below.
01) Episode 58: “Hot Off The Grill” (Aired: 09/03/89)
The Bundys host a Labor Day barbecue.
Story by Gabrielle Topping | Teleplay by Michael G. Moye & Ron Leavitt
Season Four opens with one of the strongest entries we’ve seen yet from the series. As discussed above in my seasonal introduction, the audience has finally come to know the characters, allowing the show to invert expectations as a source of comedy. For instance, the story of Al suddenly becoming hot for Peggy wouldn’t have worked without the collective understanding that this is a major change in behavior for him. Also, the comedic centerpiece, of the group accidentally eating the ashes of Marcy’s dead aunt, is a wonderful dose of black comedy, and although it’s not fully original (we’ve seen ashes as fodder for similar stories in, on this blog alone, Night Court and The New Dick Van Dyke Show), it’s incredibly funny here. Additionally, the episode secretly begins the devolution of Steve and Marcy’s relationship, which is shown as much more contentious than it was in years past. My choice for this year’s MVE.
02) Episode 59: “Dead Men Don’t Do Aerobics” (Aired: 09/10/89)
Peggy wins the chance to exercise with a local TV fitness expert.
Written by Katherine Green
Here we have an excellent example of the show’s modus operandi during this period in its history: a comedically broad idea married to sharp laugh-heavy script that succeeds in obfuscating any qualms we might have regarding the story or the sometimes illogical plotting. You see, the idea of Peg turning Jim Jupiter from a fit TV star into a pudgy, cigarette-lovin’ couch potato is itself a very funny premise, but the whole act of corrupting him to the point of death is a stretch to the show’s remaining sense of realism. And yet, because the laughs are so fast and furious in Green’s script, we tend to overlook anything about this episode that might not work, because, let’s face it, ultimately it does comedically work. And if there’s any complaint, it’s that the death is the climax of the story, with the rest of the action paling in comparison.
03) Episode 61: “Tooth Or Consequences” (Aired: 10/01/89)
A toothache-ridden Al is reluctant to visit a dentist.
Story by Will Rogers | Teleplay by Sheldon Krasner & David Saling
This is an episode on which I tend to go back and forth regarding my personal sentiments. I think it’s another entry that works because of its concept, along with the type of comedy it affords to the characters, particularly Al, who struggles with a nasty toothache. The sequence at the dentist, with SCTV alum Joe Flaherty and adult film star Traci Lords is generally the reason why this episode tends to have such a broad appeal among the fanbase, and while I do think that the script sort of gets distracted by these side characters (never a good thing for Married… With Children, which had all it needed in the regulars, if used properly), the scene is funny. And that’s ultimately why this episode does find its place here — there are moments of really good comedy (especially for Marcy, who is starting to come into her own chicken-ness).
04) Episode 65: “976-SHOE” (Aired: 11/12/89)
Steve’s job is in jeopardy after he gives Al a loan to finance a shoe help hotline.
Written by Sandy Sprung & Marcy Vosburgh
I’m always pleased when an episode that has big narrative aims to accomplish, such as this one, is able to couch these show-inspired developments in a regular episode, particularly one that’s blessed with as many boffo laughs as there are here. Of course, this should come as no surprise, as the teleplay is by Sprung and Vosburgh, two of the show’s strongest and most comedically-driven writers during this elevated period. (Their other two — quite funny — scripts for the season are highlighted/mentioned below.) The installment’s mission is to get Steve out of his job so that he and Marcy can drift apart, and the means to do so, Al’s shoe hotline (for which he does a pair of unsurprisingly buffoonish TV commercials), is brilliantly amusing. Just a terrifically strong episode — a peak era classic — with relevance to the seasonal arc.
05) Episode 66: “Oh, What A Feeling” (Aired: 11/19/89)
Al’s hopes of buying a new car are dashed.
Written by Ron Leavitt & Michael G. Moye
With the series’ two creators behind this episode, there’s a palpable sense of connectedness to the characterizations as they existed (and still exist) without the gratuitously emboldening story constructs heaped upon them. Truthfully, this installment is often overshadowed by others from this era that are louder or simply more memorable in the stories utilized (and, by proxy, the places they’re willing to go in search of bigger laughs), but this entry — aside from being a perfectly strong episode in its own right — shows us exactly how the fourth season, unlike most of its successors, could craft an outing that still feels traceable to the grounded satire at which this series began. In other words, I wanted to highlight this solid episode as an example of a balance that this transitional and narratively loud season could still (and wanted to) achieve.
06) Episode 67: “At The Zoo” (Aired: 11/26/89)
Marcy is angry when she learns that Steve has been lying about his job search.
Written by Katherine Green
The next step in the extraction of Steve requires the establishment of his ideals as being contradictory to Marcy’s. Clearly in the midst of a mid-life crisis, Steve’s focus seems to be on animals and nature (he goes to the zoo and then tries to free a turtle), but he’s essentially uninterested in resuming the life he had previously shared with Marcy, in which material wealth was of paramount importance. Instead of searching for legitimate well-paying work, Steve has been spending his time hanging with Peg, the ultimate bump on a log, and this is the episode’s most fascinating development, for it scrambles both the Bundy/Rhoades and men/women construct, in favor of the breadwinners (Al and Marcy) vs. the spenders (Peg and Steve). There’s a lot of ripe comedy in this scenario that Green’s script does a good job of maximizing. (The breadwinners vs. the spenders will really come into play in the Jefferson years, but the Al and Marcy bond is never again like this unique episode paints.) A personal favorite.
07) Episode 68: “It’s A Bundyful Life (I)” (Aired: 12/17/89)
Al promises the family great Christmas presents.
Written by Ron Leavitt & Michael G. Moye
In Season Two, my pick for the year’s best episode was its Christmas excursion — a mild surprise, because I generally tend not to favor holiday-themed outings (because they often employ too much unearned sentimentality), but this show is GREAT on these gimmicky occasions, because a natural part of its identity calls for the inversion of expectations, and thus, a rejection of this yucky sentiment. This two-parter, which originally aired as one full-hour on its FOX broadcast, is one of the hallmarks of television Christmas episodes: the It’s A Wonderful Life parody. But that doesn’t come until Part II; Part I is the set-up, treating us to jokes about the typical Bundy Christmas, and building towards chronic loser Al’s failure to get the money he needs to buy gifts. The highlight is Al’s classic holiday poem to the tied-up kids.
08) Episode 69: “It’s A Bundyful Life (II)” (Aired: 12/17/89)
Al imagines what life would be like if he’d never been born.
Written by Ron Leavitt & Michael G. Moye
Part II is the centerpiece of the hour’s comedy, as the late Sam Kinison (one of the original contenders for the role of Al Bundy) turns in a memorable performance as the angel deigned to show Al what life would have been like without him. Many of the laughs in this entry come specifically from the juxtaposition of Kinison’s casting alongside the traditional image we hold of angels. Also, this is another entry where a knowledge of the show and its characters is vital to the comedy, as the alternate Bundy, or rather Jablonski, lifestyle is dependent on us recognizing how starkly different it is from the norm. And, of course, much has been made of the appearance of Ted McGinley, just about a year away from joining the main cast as Marcy’s new husband. (Get the Mill Creek release to see this well-liked entry, and six others, unedited!)
09) Episode 70: “Who’ll Stop The Rain” (Aired: 01/07/90)
Al tries to fix the leaky roof.
Written by Kevin Curran
Another seminal entry from the fourth season, this forward-looking episode is filled with so many of the things that make Married… With Children special. The primary story is within the “Al vs. the world” mold, as the exaggerated Everyman vigorously attempts to repair the leaky roof, to little avail and much personal pain. There are so many delicious bits that come from this story, including several far-out-there gags (Al’s falling off the roof, Al’s getting electrocuted — which is followed by a great Peg line) that presage the kind of material existing just around the figurative corner. Also, the Marcy/Steve arc is ratcheted up to heretofore unseen bold and broad heights as he takes a job at a pet store, resulting in Marcy getting a hump and a twitch. It’s wacky and disconnected from reality, but goodness gracious, the laughs make it soar. A favorite.
10) Episode 80: “Yard Sale” (Aired: 05/13/90)
Al decides that the Bundys should have a Yard Sale.
Written by Marcy Vosburgh & Sandy Sprung
If you’ve already looked at the honorable mentions below, you’ll note that there’s certainly no shortage of broadly rendered and easily enjoyable outings, much in the same vein as “Yard Sale,” that could have been added to this list; but this installment, the season’s last, has an elevated critical important in the series’ evolution. In my seasonal commentary above, I noted how the show will embrace elements of camp and utilize some self-reflexivity (all signs of a long-running hit) in the very humorous season to come. I highlight this episode here because I think it puts on display exactly what we can expect of next year (just like how the finales of Seasons Two and Three served as aesthetic bridges to their upcoming seasons). The script, by Vosburgh and Sprung, goes after its laughs and with an admirable success rate. A transition.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Buck Saves The Day,” which boasts two faulty stories but a strong material-elevating Sprung/Vosburgh script, “He Ain’t Much But He’s Mine,” which is amusing, but quite cartoonish, “Peggy Made A Little Lamb,” which is a perfectly enjoyable outing that suffers mostly from the logic-defying premise (Peg in Kelly’s class, really?), and “The Agony Of De-Feet,” which utilizes two amusing ideas, but doesn’t do anything to rationalize their pairing and suffers from an overwhelming energy problem. (I’ll also mention “Raingirl” for its prescient use of Kelly.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Married… With Children goes to…..
“Hot Off The Grill”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fifth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!