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 run 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 D’Arcy, TED McGINLEY as Jefferson D’Arcy, CHRISTINA APPLEGATE as Kelly Bundy, and DAVID FAUSTINO as Bud Bundy.
After having bid farewell to its original premise during the middle of the fourth season, Married… With Children enters its fifth year with a looseness regarding intention; no longer does the show have to satirize or mock (although it will continue to do so throughout this narratively transitional year) as part of its list of primary objectives – now it’s ready to play with the characters and soar to new comedic heights. Indeed, I consider Season Five the series’ peak of hilarity, representing the most effective use of these characters within the big laugh story template that the scripts will employ throughout the next several seasons – the show’s middle era. As you’ll soon see, I’m not one who’s viciously critical of said middle era, despite those upcoming years not working as well as the fifth, which occupies the space between two very different periods in the show’s history – the fourth and sixth years – and does not deserve to be less associated with one than the other. In fact, despite Season Five’s standing as a paradigm of big, consistent laughs (as part of the year’s baseline quality), I find it false to undermine the aesthetic continuity that exists between this year and the sixth. (Stay tuned…) Of course, even though we can acknowledge that the latter, along with its successor (the seventh season), operate within similar frameworks as the fifth (as least as far as the show’s sense of humor is concerned), those upcoming years are each marred by both bad macro decisions on a structural level and evolving characterizations that broaden alongside the narratives featured during this era, which sometimes ill-support said broad narratives. In other words, Season Five gets to represent the series’ peak because it not only introduces this new comedic identity (which is bigger and bolder than ever before, as preordained from the moment the show said goodbye to Steve and its premise), but because it doesn’t suffer from the mistakes made in upcoming years — when the show is still comedically on point, but fails to meet other metrics.
But let’s not delude ourselves into underplaying the continual broadening the occurs throughout this season, which again, sets the template to which the next several years will, comedically, adhere. Now, every season since Married… With Children’s first has endured progressive broadening throughout the course of their runs, with the premieres and finales illustrating a sometimes ambitious evolution; Season Five is no exception, as the year’s lunacy only heightens as the episodes mount. By the end of the year, the show has reached a place where absurdity is part of the show’s own reality, and like a live-action cartoon (more on this sentiment in weeks ahead), the show embraces a different kind of logic than one would find in most sitcoms purportedly based in our reality. (The Bundys and D’Arcys get Gold Fever? Really?) As always, when the show can humorously justify such ridiculousness, it’s easy to forgive and excuse affronts to common sense that otherwise shouldn’t be made (at least, not without a direct mission statement that makes explicitly clear to the audience the identity shifts necessary for this kind of storytelling– which are, here, still nebulous). Personally, as I’ve expressed in recent weeks, my preference remains for the years that boast some premise connectivity (not overbearingly so, but enough to focus the characters) and don’t require as many logistical leaps of faith for the audience. However, because the humor in this era is so strong, we, the audience (my skeptical self included) root especially loudly for the show to justify the hijinks (and even the gimmicks – this show was never above employing tropes from the shows it was once ostensibly designed to spoof). Season Five, Gold Fever aside, mostly succeeds. (But note my honorable mentions, which include some well-liked episodes saturated with leaps I just can’t make, believing them — based on where the show itself is and has been — to be unmotivated.)
So now that we’ve contextualized Season Five’s quality within both the series’ standards and my own personal standards, it’s time to discuss something of paramount importance: my feelings regarding the midseason introduction of Marcy’s new husband Jefferson D’Arcy (Ted McGinley), a pretty boy conman to whom she is drunkenly wed. Well, at the risk of evading a direct answer, I have to note that Jefferson doesn’t really have much of a character here in Season Five, so it’s difficult to properly determine whether or not he comedically works. He’ll always remain more thinly crafted in comparison to the other veterans (and that is probably my primary sentiment regarding his character: not enough individual definition), but there will be more of a characterization presented in the years ahead. In fact, most of what we come to know about his character will be supplied in the sixth season, some of which, ironically, will be invalidated as having occurred in a dream. (Stay tuned…) In the meantime, all we can tell here is that Jefferson, structurally, is a fine addition to the ensemble – Marcy spent almost a full season single (which had its laughs), and now she needs another scene partner and ally (as does Al). Additionally, and expectedly, we appreciate that Jefferson is different from Steve in physical appearance, background, and we suppose, temperament. He’ll be in the same position as Steve – the right-hand man to two people whose relationship will grow increasingly more contentious, Al and Marcy, but his laughs will be different (as they should be – especially since there’s no longer a premise that needs to be fulfilled through the use of the couples). Interestingly, Jefferson is as mercenary as Marcy, but as a mostly unemployed gigolo, he exists in that relationship with qualities equal parts Al and Peg, meaning that the two couples’ dynamic is complicated. The ensemble opportunities suggested by his necessary structural inclusion – although, not quite known in Season Five – forever overshadow the characterization issues.
However, another thing about Jefferson’s introduction is that it helps ratchet up the show’s growing sense of camp, as the writers mine humor, and even stories, from self-reflexive identity-based sources. I teased last week that Season Five finds these ultra-knowing sensibilities starting to creep into the episodic happenings, and although, as with everything, they’ll be more broadly felt in years ahead, they’re certainly present in a more obvious manner than in previous weeks. (Of course, one could argue they were always present; Married… With Children was always winking at the audience as part of its TV-related premise – only now the winks are about character and their utilization.) Generally, this type of humor is a gimmick, so I judge it by the same standards: does it hurt the characters’ integrity? And by integrity, I don’t mean our ability to see them as real. (They not only exist on a TV show, but exist on a satirical TV show, which never touted them as “real” – even when the show was more “grounded” as a result of being less extreme.) Rather, I mean the knowledge of the characterizations that the show has previously supplied to the audience; do these gimmicks destroy their necessary foundations? The answer here, once again, is usually “no” — and it will be for a while… but not forever. Frankly, most of the leaps made now are story-related, which comes as no surprise given the evaporated premise. Now the show is simply following comedic characters, and in this very transitional period, the scripts are almost ready to acknowledge and play to the fact that viewers are relating to the Bundys instead of seeing them as satirical; there’ll be more to discuss next week when the series’ identity-rooted satire is close-to-forsaken once and for all… In the meantime, Season Five finds the show at its comedic zenith, discovers the broadness that will persist throughout the durable (but less well-rendered) middle years, and isn’t yet standing in its own way. So, 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 Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 23 of the 26 episodes this season are directed by Gerry Cohen. Any highlighted episodes not directed by Cohen will be noted below.
01) Episode 81: “We’ll Follow The Sun” (Aired: 09/23/90)
The Bundys get stuck in Labor Day traffic.
Written by Michael G. Moye & Ron Leavitt
As was the case last year, Season Five opens with a Labor Day themed installment, but the difference in tone is obvious. Enthusiastic doesn’t even begin to describe the audience’s reception to the Bundys anymore, and while last season found this indelible relationship blossoming, this year takes us into territory best described as wild. The response eventually has an affect on the performances and the material, something starting to become evident in this very funny and very knowing season premiere. Scripted by the series’ creators, the characters are perfectly rendered and the simple theatrical premise makes a great excuse to get the four Bundys stuck in the same place at the same time. By now, the show knows exactly what the audience wants and it delivers — cartoon violence, TV satire, ribald sex jokes. It’s all here, folks!
02) Episode 85: “The Dance Show” (Aired: 10/21/90)
Peg meets a handsome stranger at a dance club.
Written by Arthur Silver
TV lovers rejoice! Sam McMurray, a regular on FOX’s then recently cancelled The Tracey Ullman Show, guest stars in this episode as a man who takes a shine to Peggy on the dance floor at a club. Little does Peg know that her boogying beau is a gay man, whose boyfriend, played by Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer Simpson, another FOX resident) is none too happy about the arrangement. The comedy in this installment comes from Al’s association with Castellaneta’s character, who comes to the Bundy residence to discuss the problem and eventually cooks and cleans for Al — all the things a good wife (unlike Peg) does for her man. The play on gender roles is supreme, primarily because of Al’s response to the action. Laughs, unique, memorable.
03) Episode 87: “Married… With Aliens” (Aired: 11/04/90)
Al believes a group of aliens are after his socks.
Written by Ellen L. Fogle
When discussing the show’s adoption of a tongue-in-cheek sense of awareness about its identity, this episode first comes to mind. Not only does the story find a lot of comedy from the audience’s understanding of Al’s character, but the very premise, and the laughs it seeks, are reliant on the show’s mythology — specifically with regard to Al and feet. There’s something inherently campy about the show’s use of such a goofy plot, and the sheer absurdity of Al being visited by aliens (ALIENS, yet!) further illustrates a deliberate severance from traditionally realistic modes of storytelling. And yet, we’re still in an era in which the laughs remain MOSTLY character-driven (often with the campy structures tonally applied on top), rendering the episode somehow bizarrely sensical, veritably endearing, and shockingly, a classic.
04) Episode 89: “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” (Aired: 11/18/90)
Al changes his demeanor after the neighborhood ladies label him a hunk.
Written by Kevin Curran
My pick for the year’s strongest, I have to note that this is probably one of the most character-oriented and least absurd installments from the fifth season — somewhat of a surprise given that its author, Curran, is someone whose entries I’d categorize as having pushed the show’s storytelling further and further away from logic. The premise has Al gaining a reputation among the neighborhood as being a hunk, a development that chagrins Peg — particularly when Marcy, quite comedically, finds herself attracted to him — and delights Al, who changes himself as a result of his new image. This very amusing premise, which does require a knowledge of the characters and how they usually are rendered, is married to both a laugh-heavy script and a period in the show’s history that allows this story to shine. Another classic — and proof that the show is still able to balance stratospheric laughs with stories that, while typically bold, don’t alienate common sense, using the self-awareness in a way that’s not foundationally corrosive!
05) Episode 92: “Married… With Who?” (Aired: 01/06/91)
Marcy wakes up married to a stranger.
Written by Ellen L. Fogle
This is the narrative turning point for the series, which is often broken down (in terms of reputation) as the “Steve era” and the “Jefferson era.” The so-called Jefferson era begins now, when Marcy wakes up next to a stranger who she learns is her new husband. The best gag from the episode is the simple revelation that her name will now be Marcy D’Arcy, and although there might be a bit of a logistical stretch in believing both she and he, who is discovered to be a recently paroled white collar criminal, would aim to stay betrothed, Fogle’s script keeps the comedy and the story’s fundamental interest level so pronounced that we don’t have time to kvetch. Additionally, both Al and Marcy need this new character for story, so it’s all worth it.
06) Episode 93: “The Godfather” (Aired: 02/03/91)
Al becomes powerful when Kelly dates a local politician.
Written by Ralph R. Farquhar
A parody of, you guessed it, The Godfather (1972), I am conflicted about the nature of this episode’s existence. I think, as a basic rule, the satire of singular properties is always a risky move (for any show, even going back to The Jack Benny Program, which we’ve been discussing on Wildcard Wednesdays) not just because some audience members HAVEN’T seen the source material, but also because individual parodies can be confining, forcing the characters to contort into scenarios that sensibly don’t jibe. In the case of this offering, which only goes overboard in one single scene (based on the way Al responds to the story), the premise begins sensibly, is bolstered by a comedic script, and the Godfather scene ends up being the episode’s funniest, thus proving that sometimes these risks do indeed pay off! Surprisingly, a hit.
07) Episode 95: “A Man’s Castle” (Aired: 02/17/91)
Peg decorates Al’s private bathroom.
Written by Stacie Lipp
Admittedly, this was the episode whose presence on this list was the least assured, for — as you’ll note by the honorable mentions — there are funnier, more memorable, and generally better liked outings than this, even though, unlike this, they’re all flawed in some considerable manner. This entry, the second by Stacie Lipp, gains my favor simply because, aside from a consistent tone and no major missteps, its story is all about the dynamic between Al and Peg, deriving its comedy from their relationship. It feels a lot like an early Bundys vs. Rhoades entry, in which gender lines are drawn in a battle of the sexes (although of course, there are no longer any Rhoades around, leaving the Bundys to enact this conflict themselves). So, for its use of character and its solidly constructed, simpler story, its standing is elevated. Worthwhile.
08) Episode 96: “All Night Security Dude” (Aired: 02/24/91)
Al gets a job as Polk High’s security guard.
Written by Glenn Eichler & Peter Gaffney
Although written by a pair of freelancers — like a handful of episodes at the conclusion of the fifth season (in an attempt to expand the staff) — this installment benefits from employing a sense of history, specifically with regard to Al Bundy and the legend of his time as a Polk High star athlete. This element, always a part of his identity but really maximized for comedic use beginning in the third season, is among the most realistic and relatable parts of Al’s character, and any episode that makes good use of this notion is automatically bolstered. Additionally, this installment merits inclusion here for the guest appearance of Bubba Smith as Al’s old football rival, whom he must challenge in a mock game to regain the school’s stolen prize trophy.
09) Episode 99: “Kids! Wadaya Gonna Do?” (Aired: 04/07/91)
Kelly babysits a group of kids while the Bundys have a movie night at the D’Arcys’.
Written buy Ellen L. Fogle | Directed by Linda Day
One of Fogle’s strengths in the early seasons came in her depiction of the Bundy/Rhoades dynamic, and as that component of the series diminished until finally becoming extinct last year, the addition of Jefferson finally gives her the chance to, once again, play with the two-couple construct that she does so well. Not only did she helm Jefferson’s introduction episode above, but she also takes the reins for this interesting excursion, the first to really use them as a foursome (and in the process, attempt to give the new character some needed definition). The gag with the audience being able to hear all four of their private thoughts is an easy, but delightful, highlight of the season, and helps the episode overcome a mediocre A-story.
10) Episode 101: “You Better Shop Around (I)” (Aired: 04/14/91)
During a heatwave, the Bundys move into the supermarket.
Written by J.D. Brangato & Michael Ferris
Season Five’s back half features two back-to-back two parters, both of them taking the series to a place of broadness that has heretofore been unseen. The supermarket entries, of which this is the first part, are far superior to the Gold Fever entries, because the former’s concept feels better rooted in the characters and how their established personalities inform their motivations, and therefore the story. While these two outings are little more than justification to explore the high-concept supermarket competition between the Bundys and D’Arcys (which is comedic and creative, but not particularly clever), Part I is outstanding: a character-laden romp that finds its own hilarious centerpiece in the Bundys moving into the supermarket to escape the heatwave (and their A/C-less house). There are some extraordinary laughs, indicating the show at the peak of its comedic prowess, and unlike Part II, the characters take precedent over the story.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Oldies But Young ‘Uns,” a popular episode for the memorable premise of Al trying to learn the name of an oldie that’s been stuck in his head (it’s a terrific idea used unexceptionally) and the overrated guest appearance of Matt LeBlanc (who would appear in a rotten backdoor pilot a few weeks later), and “Buck The Stud,” an underrated outing that officially concludes the season, boasting two amusing stories and effective character moments for all the Bundys; it suffers from low energy. Also, the aforementioned too-broad-for-my-tastes installments that are nevertheless worth mentioning include: “Wabbit Season,” which has a stellar and brilliantly funny first act, but goes off the rails in a second act that’s too cartoonishly conceived to be reconciled and embraced, “Weenie Tot Lovers & Other Strangers,” an episode entirely removed from common sense in style, but is not without its laughs or appreciated character beats, and “You Better Shop Around (II),” the conclusion of the above two-parter, which boasts a big, loud, creative premise, but not as many character-driven laughs as its better-written first half.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Married… With Children goes to…
“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the sixth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!