Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our series on the best 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 D’Arcy, TED McGINLEY as Jefferson D’Arcy, CHRISTINA APPLEGATE as Kelly Bundy, and DAVID FAUSTINO as Bud Bundy.
Despite sporadic instances of high caliber laughs, Season Six is not a fun year to discuss — and only an intermittently fun year to watch. These qualifications on our enjoyment are almost singlehandedly due to a bad decision, followed by the unplanned midcourse reversal of said decision as a result of an unfortunate tragedy. I’m writing, of course, of the show’s choice not to hide Katey Sagal’s pregnancy and instead make both Peg and Marcy expectant mothers — a storyline that had to be ascribed as Al’s tortured dream midseason when Sagal, who went on bedrest fairly early in her pregnancy, gave birth to a stillborn daughter in October 1991. Little about this harrowing situation can be made into a positive, for although the idea of Al (and, to a lesser extent, Bud and Kelly) being saddled with an unwanted new baby is comedic and suits his character, the introduction of — and preparation for — a child naturally drags the show down among the typical family fare that it once so consciously tried to spoof. But this might have been the intention, as the addition of a whining, screaming tot into the Bundy household could have, theoretically, reinforced the show’s domestic satire aims, which hadn’t been used in full force since Steve departed during Season Four and the show fulfilled its own original premise (in which the heretical Bundys were contrasted against a representation of the idealized image of marriage on television, the Rhoades), by mocking another common TV trope — the birth of a new baby — and then focusing all accompanying stories on how the family would comedically and narratively deviate from the norm. In other words, the baby could not only have been used to accommodate an actress’ blessed event, it could have also reignited the show’s satire-rooted premise. (After all, remember that ol’ tortured metaphor from an early seasonal commentary? By aesthetically playing in “the sandbox” with other sitcoms, there was greater opportunity to be explicitly satirical.) This could have rekindled the show’s purpose.
But theory often doesn’t work in practice. The reason that the juxtaposition of the Bundys and Rhoades clicked so well as satire is that audiences got to see the show’s deviant protagonists up against a walking, talking embodiment of bland domesticity and marriage on TV in the ‘80s – a relationship that made the series’ parodic elements clear and direct while also allowing for a conflict situated on the clash between “typical ‘80s sitcom” and THIS ‘80s sitcom. The sixth season’s baby storyline, however, lacks the mirror image necessary to ensure to the audience that its objectives remain irreverent (there’s no representation here of the sitcom tot and its happy family for the Bundys to antagonize and contrast), and the muddying of intention – especially with something inherently sentimental – keeps the satire from asserting itself. Naturally, no matter how derisive and uncaring the show tries to make this baby storyline, the writers’ narrative responsibility to the new familial addition is unimpeachable, which means that the audience has to care about its presence and how the other characters respond… and that means the show has to care as well. To use another metaphor, the show has to “lean in” to some of the unavoidable baby sentimentality in order for the structural ensemble changes to be accepted by the audience, and this is corrosive to the show’s comedic identity; cutesy or mock-cutesy: it’s still too precious for Married… With Children. And even though the satire – despite some character laughs for Al, in particular – isn’t revitalized here, once Sagal’s off-screen tragedy necessitated the storyline’s abandonment, the show’s attempts to re-adopt premise-driven satire is also abandoned (seemingly for good). But no bother, really, because the audience, over the past few years, has naturally chosen, rather than pedagogically viewing the Bundys as televisual commentary, to relate to them (especially, Al, the perennial loser) unironically as they would those on a “normal” show – thus “normalizing” what was never intended to be normal.
So the series’ core satire is finally crossed off its list of objectives – and while we’ll see parody situationally applied throughout the run (this will always be part of its identity) – there’ll be no more attempts to make the show about this discussion. Now, we “ride or die” based solely on the characters… And this is where Season Six directly suffers as a result of this storyline. Above, when I noted that there was nothing ideal with which to contrast the Bundys’ miserable pregnancy, I was withholding information. You see, the show decides to make Marcy an expectant mother too as a means of potentially filling this oppositional pregnancy role with the D’Arcys. But given the broadening of both character and story that has occurred over the duration of the show’s life – and especially during this season as a result of this arc – there’s no one left who could ever represent something not worthy of being parodied, as this storyline tends to engender an overarching single-dimensionality of character, particularly for the two most involved: the mommies-to-be. For in the show’s attempts to maximize laughs by exploiting Al’s misery, Peggy and Marcy are turned into uncompromising and one-dimensional shrews – representing a breach in both’s character-based believability. These obvious issues, in which character is subjugated for story, are the primary reasons that the “pregnancy episodes” are an evident cut below last season’s material. (And the ensuing string of Peg-less shows are unavoidably lopsided in humor and narratively inconsequential due to the glaring structural disconnection.) It’s only when the show can drop the pregnancy arc entirely that the season is able to illustrate a comedic viability that is, if generous, on par with last year’s average. The only problem here, however, is that once the storyline is said to have never existed, some of these excessively hyperbolic, unpleasant, and nuanceless characterizations remain; stay tuned…
The good news is that there are a few productive developments, surprisingly, to arise during the pregnancies. Not only does Bud find more comedy in the adoption of his Grandmaster B alter ego, the show also finally cultivates a characterization for Jefferson through his bonding with Al over the aforementioned changes in their wives. This simultaneous camaraderie with the knowingly wife-hatin’ Al alongside a desire to please the increasingly henpecking Marcy, who is now more regularly painted as his sugar mama, gives the gigolo a source of inner conflict – different from Steve’s (who returns here for one episode), whose positional dilemma had been morally centered. Thus, Jefferson, in effect, finds a way to be a comedic character during these pregnancy episodes, and just as some other characterization choices aren’t thrown out with Al’s nightmare, neither is the definition afforded here. Also, once Sagal goes on leave, the show is forced to focus its attention on the relationship between Al and the kids, which naturally strengthens each of their standings (particularly the kids’) substantially — even after the invalidating dream revelation — and represents a beneficial evolution. In fact, as mentioned above, the show’s comedic instincts outside of the pregnancy arc are pretty dynamic – almost equal with last season’s base level of quality, which I posited as a comedic peak (because that year didn’t have any bad decisions – like a pregnant Peg). Indeed, the second half of the sixth season (with the noted exception of the England trio, a three-part spectacle from the pinnacle of the show’s popularity – it’s designed to bolster the troubled season’s energy, but actually mitigates character in favor of story and only realizes how dangerously the series has been flirting with its own established rules of believability) is filled with surprisingly strong material; if the entire season, the show’s most-watched, had been of this quality, it would have been another great year. (As suggested last week, Season Seven is not dissimilar; more next week…)
But the process through which we get to this strong material — and the process through which the human beings making the show went to get there — is a tragedy that mars over half the season: the pregnancy arc, the Peg-less shows, the “dream” episode (the only appropriately sensitive solution to get out of this storyline, and one for which the producers should be commended), and even the first few offerings afterwards; they’re all a bit sad. Not palpably and intentionally sad, like the year-long melancholy inflicted by the death of a fictional character during the second season of Archie Bunker’s Place, but there’s enough sadness, in hindsight, that it’s difficult for the audience to embrace the show’s always raucous aims, which, to its credit, are nevertheless pushed forward admirably — laughter is the best medicine. Yet comedy may not be paramount here, for Sagal suffered a horrendous tragedy, and even though the writing seemed to improve — the contortion of the characters, particularly Peg’s and Marcy’s, was no longer mandated; the show removed all of its responsibilities to premise-inspired satire and wasn’t forcing something that didn’t fit; the stories wouldn’t have to flirt anymore with baby-driven schmaltz — once the arc was abandoned, the uptick is still not a qualitative triumph that deserves to be celebrated like other victories. Yes, I firmly believe a baby would have been bad for the show (and next season proves this theory), but the cost of revoking this storyline is so high that, reputationally, the entire season is practically unsalvageable — deservedly or not… It’s just a sad situation all the way around. Fortunately, for everyone’s sake, Sagal’s next two healthy pregnancies did not become Peg’s, but the series still seemed determined to inject some youth into the cast. Why? Well, that’s for next week… 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 Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 24 of the 26 offerings this season are directed by Gerry Cohen. Any highlighted episodes not directed by Cohen will be noted below.
01) Episode 108: “If Al Had A Hammer” (Aired: 09/22/91)
Al builds a room of his own with the legendary Bundy hammer.
Written by Kevin Curran
Choosing my MVE for this season wasn’t as easy as it’s been in years past because, while there are some very good episodes here, nothing really stands out among the crowd in a way that prior selections managed to do. However, this particular installment, which ends up being my pick for the year’s best, is a unique case, for it’s the only pregnancy episode to make today’s list. It should go without saying that this is the finest of that lot — everything from the script (characters written more believably), to the premise (Al-centric and reminiscent of another classic, “A Dump Of My Own”), to the laughs (Grandmaster B — the highlight of the whole entry) are stronger than those in surrounding episodes. The outing doesn’t exactly make the case for the pregnancy storyline (it almost could), but it at least takes our minds away from thinking about why it’s not working, and as a result, this one feels like more of a victory than some of the equally strong non-pregnant episodes below. In other words, this one succeeds at a more difficult task, and is therefore both more memorable and laudable. A surprise hit!
02) Episode 114: “Kelly Does Hollywood (I)” (Aired: 11/10/91)
Kelly appears on local public access television.
Written by Larry Jacobson
The first part of a well-regarded two-parter, both halves of which are featured, these are the only two episodes on this list that are “Peg-less,” as Sagal was out on a premature maternity leave (for four full episodes), necessitating that the show redirect its focus elsewhere: Al and the kids (who handle it decently). Kelly gets to be the star here, as she decides to take revenge on her modeling teacher by hosting her own local public access talk show, on which she and her friends discuss everything from men’s butts to bad perms. It’s a riot, and despite the cartoonish nature of the teleplay (and the unnecessary appearance by Matt LeBlanc’s character on the cancelled Top Of The Heap), the sequence alone makes the episode among the year’s funniest.
03) Episode 115: “Kelly Does Hollywood (II)” (Aired: 11/17/91)
The Bundys go Hollywood when Kelly’s show goes national.
Written by Larry Jacobson
Part II is considerably broader than its first half, and were I to make a preference between the two, I would choose the predecessor, which is more character-driven and less narratively contrived. However, this half-hour is merrily buoyed by both the premise’s afforded ability to satirize the national television industry — this is an example of the show using its sense of parody situationally, as opposed to foundcatonally — and the guest appearance of Jon Lovitz as a sleazy network executive from the fictional NBS. I don’t usually appreciate scripts that are as realism-starved (particularly from this era), but funny is funny, and in a season where sadness is subliminal (the “dream episode” directly follows this installment), it’s most appreciated.
04) Episode 118: “I Who Have Nothing” (Aired: 12/22/91)
Al tries to track down his championship game ball.
Written by Katherine Green
One of the best ways the series keeps grounded is through Al, who, in spite of having gone from Everyman to Born Loser over the the first few years, still retains heavy traces of humanity with which the audience enthusiastically connects. In Season Three, while his character broadened, the show pushed forward the idea of Al’s days as a high school football champion being a “golden era” from which his life never improved. Sadly, I think a lot of people can relate to Al’s situation (a period of life happier than the present), and in addition to providing an opportunity for great comedy, those laughs are supported by a strong pathos. This installment capitalizes on this idea with a fitting, funny premise. Also, Wendie Jo Sperber guest stars.
05) Episode 119: “The Mystery Of Skull Island” (Aired: 01/05/92)
Bud dates a girl who likes daredevils, while the married couples play a game.
Written by Kevin Curran
For all of Season Six’s narrative and character-based issues, there are a few important things implicitly reinforced throughout the season, including the comedic maximization of the Bud character, whose lack of success with the ladies becomes even greater (and this episode, in which he gets a broad, but comedically satisfying story, furthers this idea), and the development of Jefferson, who hadn’t really been fleshed out in his opening season. As mentioned above, I think the show gets to understand the new character during the pregnancy arc, by exploring the ways in which he bonds with Al, while simultaneously remaining more optimistic about being a father. The reason that this offering, which isn’t exactly a favorite, makes today’s list is that the characters take center stage in thin stories that give them comedic prominence. Welcomed.
06) Episode 122: “The Egg And I” (Aired: 02/16/92)
Steve returns to reconcile with Marcy.
Written by Ellen L. Fogle
This is a big event episode, and even to a fan who enjoyed Steve and appreciated the show’s focus when he was part of the main cast, the idea of using his return as a gimmick (which will happen again in later years) is a bit alienating, for no matter how much we’re interested in seeing him back and exploring that comedy, there really is no justification for it at this point beyond a splashy story. Fortunately, any qualms about the way the show would explore his return appearance are ameliorated by the strong script by Fogle, who always did the best Bundys vs. Rhoades episodes, and though the installment is broad (the brawl between Steve, Jefferson, and Marcy is particularly cartoony), it’s exactly as funny as it needs to be. Memorable and fun.
07) Episode 123: “My Dinner With Anthrax” (Aired: 02/23/92)
Bud and Kelly win a party with the band Anthrax while their parents are away.
Written by Larry Jacobson
Admittedly, this is the episode that got boosted up from the honorable mentions category from which it would more appropriately reside. I suppose if I was a fan of the band Anthrax, I might procure additional enjoyment from this outing, but since I am not, I only rely on what the episode presents. It’s not consistently amusing, but there are some standout moments, chief of which is Marcy going crazy to their music and joining in with the band’s destruction of the Bundy house. Also, Al and Peg get to interact in their own subplot off guest stars Fred Willard (always a delight to see) and Edd Byrnes. It’s a little too manic (all of Jacobson’s scripts this year seem to be), but because there are a handful of smaller things to enjoy, I easily do.
08) Episode 125: “Hi, I.Q.” (Aired: 03/22/92)
Kelly gets invited into a group for intellectuals, while Al and Jefferson try to build a workbench.
Written by Steve Crider
If any installment were to rival my selection for MVE, it would be this one, which, as with “The Mystery Of Skull Island,” explores the four adult characters through a simple story: the men try to build a workbench, while the women look on in amusement. The premise is an excuse for outrageous slapstick, but it does feel in keeping with the established characterizations, and because it’s decidedly low-concept, it’s far easier to appreciate. Meanwhile, Kelly is invited to join a group for intellectuals (a parody of Mensa), only for Bud to realize that she’s really been brought in as part of the group’s competition to invite the stupidest date. This, naturally, leads to a brawl, where more cartoon violence occurs. (I’m not troubled — it’s burlesque!)
09) Episode 126: “Teacher Pets” [a.k.a. “Teachers Pets”] (Aired: 04/05/92)
Bud dates his substitute teacher while Al starts crashing birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s.
Written by Katherine Green
Another strong episode for Bud’s character, this is a surprisingly hilarious entry (or not so surprisingly, given that it’s penned by the show’s longtime writer Katherine Green) that concerns Bud dating his substitute teacher and subsequently being popular with the girls in his class. The comedic centerpiece of the installment, which makes it most enjoyable, has Al marching down to the school, mistaking a new (much older) substitute teacher as Bud’s lover, and making a fool out of his son in front of the whole class. It’s terrifically funny and a fitting climax to the story. Additionally, this episode boasts a BRILLIANT subplot of Al crashing children’s birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s. That’s an inspired story idea — great comedy here.
10) Episode 128: “The Gas Station Show” (Aired: 04/26/92)
Al has to work at a gas station to pay off a bill he couldn’t afford.
Written by Michael G. Moye & Ron Leavitt
During these middle seasons of noted broadening (before the show completely disconnects from both reality and its figurative roots), one of the ways that the series regularly centers itself is by doing shows that boast simple concepts. This outing is an example, as the premise finds Al having to work at a gas station after he can’t afford to pay for the food his family bought at the convenience store (while they had splurged and pulled into full service). The bulk of the action takes place at the station, and as a result, the installment seems to embrace its multi-cam theatricality — generally a good thing for Married… With Children, as long as common sense remains visible (unlike the Gold Fever two-parter from last year). Solid and narratively ideal.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Cheese, Cues, And Blood,” in which Kelly becomes a hit at a local pool hall and Jefferson gets needed development, “Lookin’ Fer A Desk In All The Wrong Places,” which takes some of the characters to unfortunate extremes, but does so more comedically than most of the pregnancy shows, “If I Could See Me Now,” which boasts the best script of these honorable mentions (despite a missing Peg) and was the closest to making the above list, “God’s Shoes,” which is a funny idea that itself lacks logic (and isn’t aided by the teleplay), and “The Goodbye Girl,” in which the show makes a bunch of in-jokes about television (including McGinley’s prior series efforts) as Kelly gets a job at a TV museum.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Married… With Children goes to…
“If Al Had A Hammer”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the seventh season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!