Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our series on the best of Married… With Children (1987-1997, FOX). The entire series has been released on DVD.
A dysfunctional family coexists 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. SHANE SWEET recurs as Seven.
The seventh season of Married… With Children is a year of seeming dichotomies, with the show coming off the peak of its popularity but still attempting to expand its audience, while making bad decisions (or, more accurately, one singular and particularly bad decision) – yet nevertheless emerging a qualitative winner by the time the year draws to a close. Let’s not waste any time: when most fans think about the seventh season, the image that first comes to mind is that of the disastrously unfortunate Cousin Seven (Shane Sweet), the show’s own Cousin Oliver (of The Brady Bunch – making that series even less palatable), brought aboard to inject some youth into the cast, generate additional stories, and no doubt, expand the series’ viewer base. But if last season’s misbegotten pregnancy storyline only hinted at the troublesome nature of introducing a third Bundy child (for all the reasons discussed last week – please see that post for my commentary), the introduction of Seven proves it. Not only is a kid of his age completely out-of-place within the show and its comedy (cutesy or mock-cutesy: it’s still too precious for Married… With Children), but he also brings nothing of value to the scripts — at least the baby arc could have been viewed as a satire-reigniter — and instead serves as a distraction from the better written, more ably-played, and strongly comedic characters in whom the audience has now chosen to make considerable emotional investments. (We’re not going to care as much about Seven as we do about Bud, for instance, and forcing us to try may be counterintuitive.) Furthermore, Seven’s inclusion doesn’t make a lot of rational sense within the context of the show and how it’s identified itself, so the audience is always wondering the purpose of his existence; why is he here? It’s a question that I myself can’t answer definitively, and from the responses of those involved, the reasoning behind Seven’s introduction remains hazy.
Given that the story arc reminds us of last season’s tragic pregnancy, in which Peg fawned over the Bundy’s pending addition to the point of hysteria, the decision to introduce a third Bundy child – a younger Bundy child – makes the two seem somehow connected, which would indicate that the series was still interested in restructuring itself into a more typical – at the very least, visually (if not narratively and comedically as well) – domestic sitcom. (Again, check out my thoughts on Season Six to find out why I find this all misguided!) So I’d like to believe that the year’s creative architects were not themselves responsible for Seven’s inclusion, for this would mean that they didn’t learn the lessons from the sixth season – specifically that the show could not embrace any more idealized domestic TV tropes, even when aiming to mock or reject them, because the audience’s developed and previously mentioned emotional investment (which has partly made the foundational satire irretrievable) is betrayed once the characters are forced to contort for these new narrative obligations. So, in an effort to give the writers and producers credit for a basic self-awareness of their own show, my guess has always been that there were greater forces at work; yes, the network. Ever since the Rakolta protest in Season Three, FOX had been reportedly nervous about the series’ content and the self-imposed demographic limitations this material implied. Thus, making the series more family friendly – or simply appear to be more family friendly by design – must have been an attempt to extend the base. Never mind that the series brought in the unique demo that most sitcoms need (the rural white male), was the network’s second most watched series (behind The Simpsons) and had defined the aesthetic direction (satirical, irreverent) in which FOX decided to move during the late ‘80s (spawning shows like its breakout hit The Simpsons, which has always owed a lot to Married… With Children’s style and structure); apparently, this series still needed some fixing.
One might infer that FOX’s continued growth (note that original programming finally expanded to seven nights a week during the spring of ’93 – creating a fully operational network) changed some of their principles and objectives. While the suits still ostensibly sought anti-establishment niche-audience material – the kind designed to make their brand stand out creatively from the rest – in practice, they were actually looking for shows that would have a wide appeal centered on certain targetable demographics… that could then, if hit-material, spill over into other demos: exactly the playbook used (and fodder sought) by the Big Three networks. In other words, now that FOX was ready to actually compete, the brand would be subordinate (determined by) the numbers — just like its rivals. (This isn’t noted with contempt, but merely describes FOX’s development into a more traditional enterprise.) Of course, Married… With Children was never meant for a Big Three network, so it’s no surprise that FOX’s shifting mission from underdog to regular competitor meant that its once groundbreaking series would now be less at home on FOX than its newer hit, The Simpsons, which had eclipsed Married… With Children in overall popularity and had both a more family-friendly construct and appeal, thus satisfying their newly emboldened mercantile aims. So what does all this have to do with Seven? Well, while shows like Martin and In Living Color shored up the African American demo and the Aaron Spelling dramas brought in young women, FOX looked to its two biggest hits to transcend their large “mostly white male” bases. The Simpsons was able to do this, precisely, by appealing to the entire nuclear family. Now, FOX was trying to do the same with Married… With Children. So, essentially, I think Seven’s addition was a way to make this show more like The Simpsons. (We’ve actually seen this creative spillover actualized in other ways; there’s no doubt Married… With Children has gotten more narratively cartoony as it’s progressed — intentionally.)
Okay, so if we’re ready to assume that Seven’s presence was not a creative decision, but rather a commercial one forced upon the show to increase the ratings, let’s quickly reinforce how stupid it was – and again, see last week for more of my thoughts about why this was never going to work – and then give the show (and specifically, whoever made this decision) credit for recognizing the same. In fact, once they realized what a misfire had been made (and the audience sure let its feelings be known as well – why the heck was an obnoxious kid around?), the character of Seven was phased out, appearing in only 12 of the first 18 episodes. Of those 12, he’s only a major participant in two of the stories; in most others, he’s lucky to have five lines. So the year’s reputation as being overly burdened by an irritating and unnecessary kid is very much exaggerated, for his presence is seldom felt. As a result, I find that those who look at Seven’s inclusion as a “jump the shark” moment for the series “can’t see the forest for the trees,” as the only thing that’s really represented creatively by this character is what was unintentionally concluded by the potential addition of a baby in the year prior: the amelioration of foundational satire in favor of character-driven kabuki, contingent on nothing else but convincing the audience to invest in the weekly story (based, as always, on how the teleplay motivates the action). In other words, it’s now impossible to ignore that the show has evolved, and I think most anger regarding Seven – or rather, how anger regarding Seven transforms itself into anger against the entire season — comes back to this central truth; this isn’t the show you once knew. Yes, it’s also shockingly sad to see the series seemingly out-of-touch with its own identity, and I can understand why this would be emotionally alienating, but Seven is too transient to be symbolic of anything — his usage is minimal, and what’s more, the show will never try something like this again: it will forever embrace its identity. (The problem from now on will be unstoppable broadening and the damage it does to the characterizations.)
As you’ve probably surmised, I find Season Seven, like Six to be ironic, for once again, if the series had not made a dumb decision, the year would probably be regarded as a strong showing, operating with the same sense of humor that we saw employed in what I consider the show’s comedic peak (Season Five) – the prime differences here stemming mostly from the ongoing broadening. Also, because the year doesn’t have to contend with an off-camera tragedy that made even the narrative reset gloomy, Season Seven had more potential to be substantially stronger than its predecessor. (Perhaps that’s another reason why it’s easier to be outraged about Seven than the baby — this wound feels more self-imposed.) So, once again, the year is conceptually dichotomous, for the quality, aside from the bad decision to include Seven, is otherwise the same. Naturally, the installments without the brat are fundamentally more enjoyable, but even in the episodes in which his character does appear, the laughs are as strong (if not stronger) than they were last season, yielding a base level of quality that’s close to what we were seeing during the peak – comedically speaking, that is (some of the characterizations are less appealing as a result of last year’s decisions – more on this in later weeks). So even with this potentially show-wrecking decision (there’s no doubt that Seven turned off viewers, who tuned out), Married… With Children puts out another admirable year – impressive for the obstacle that it gave itself. This relative success is also surprising because co-creator Michael G. Moye stepped away this season, leaving Ron Leavitt in charge of the figurative reins. The dismantling of the show’s core duo would seem likely to foster a reduction in consistency, but that, shockingly, isn’t the case, for while this year’s laughs get bolder (as the scripts continue to grow more farcical and increasingly towards a live-action cartoon), the success rate remains commendable. (I’ll have more to say about Moye and Leavitt — and their contributions — next week; stay tuned…)
Although every single audience member must individually contend with what strikes him/her as beyond the realm of believability, I think Season Seven finds the show not yet close to the inevitable bursting of its bubble (when the scripts can no longer regularly handle satisfying the audience due to the uncapped ridiculousness), because, here, the ends still mostly justify the means. There are episodic contrivances and mistakes, but it’s not routinized; the opposite is true – scripts work more often than not. Let me reinforce a point from above: Seven is the year’s anachronism; he is not its ambassador. He doesn’t work, specifically, because his existence is opposed to the show’s identity, and his lack of permanency only reveals the show’s self-awareness about its nature. The show is knowingly becoming a burlesque, and this sense of guided and identity-driven camp allows for a certain amount of elasticity, as the writers can pretty much do whatever they want, as long as it’s ultimately funny and can be rationalized by the particulars of the series and its characters. (We’ll see this trend continue in years ahead, but there will come a time when the ends are no longer as justifying.) Meanwhile, there’s another dichotomy that bears mentioning: this season sees an uptick in the show’s raunchiness, which had been consciously mitigated after the Rakolta debacle. For some reason — and this seems at odds with the show’s family-friendly grab at the year’s start — the scripts are once again given the freedom to be as ribald as they please. (Perhaps this was a creative trade-off — the show would accept the kid structurally, but have more leeway with the censors? Or perhaps this was an overcorrection to ease the audience’s fears that the show would become tame with a new kid?) At any rate, it helps the year’s comedy and aids the show’s uniqueness; it needs to shock… So, I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest. (And pay attention to the honorable mentions, because this has been the hardest list to make thus far.) 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 Seven. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 22 of the 26 episodes this season are directed by Gerry Cohen. Any highlighted episodes not directed by Cohen will be noted below.
01) Episode 135: “Al On The Rocks” (Aired: 10/04/92)
Al gets a job as a topless bartender.
Written by Andrew Smith
One of the things most easily noticeable about the seventh season is that, despite the glaringly obvious bad decision discussed at length above, there are a lot of really comedic story ideas being explored. In fact, I’d say that a good many of the year’s finest episodes are situated upon a good premise, with the outing’s prime responsibility only to do it justice. In the case of this particular installment, the very idea of Al becoming a topless bartender is itself an easy purveyor of laughs, and unlike the initial Seven-heavy episodes (which are nevertheless funny and well-structured despite moments of sheer misguidedness), the focus is back on the characters we appreciate the most, meaning that the show is simply doing what it does best.
02) Episode 138: “The Chicago Wine Party” (Aired: 11/01/92)
The Bundys protest a two-cent beet tax.
Written by Stacie Lipp
Exemplifying the progressively burlesque characterizations — and the accompanying baroque storytelling — this episode is probably among the most cartoonish (read: disconnected from common sense and reality) on today’s list, and it even climaxes in one of those satirically violent street brawls, for which this series has started to become known. Its inclusion here was not initially intended, but the strength of the comedy — the episode’s sheer ability to elicit laughs, surprising laughs — made it almost an essential. I’m still surprised that I enjoy this episode as much as I do, but it’s simply filled with too many tremendously humorous moments to overlook, the best of which, I think, occur in the scene featuring a drunken Al.
03) Episode 141: “Death Of A Shoe Salesman” (Aired: 11/22/92)
Al wants to be buried next to a beloved Western star.
Written by Stacie Lipp
Al’s love of the Western stars, particularly the Duke, has long been established, and so the episode’s use of this character trait for its somewhat goofy story is nevertheless sustained by its veracity within Al’s known characterization. Furthermore, the subject of death on a situation comedy is usually a rich area of exploration, because the accompanying emotions are so intense. It’s very difficult to do the subject with the needed levels of humor, but once done right, it’s usually quite rewarding. This is also a perfect subject for this definably irreverent series, which not only aims to mock television conventions, but also gets jollies in being campily crass and in poor taste (always with a wink and a nudge). Thus, this is ideal territory for exploration.
04) Episode 144: “The Wedding Show” (Aired: 01/10/93)
Bud sleeps with his cousin’s bride on the day of the wedding.
Written by Arthur Silver
Amongst all the kabuki, one of the things I’ve always appreciated about this series is its recognition of the importance in simplicity, both with regard to its stories and its characters, whose uncomplicated renderings don’t project a lack of dimensionality, but rather a definable precision, making them then more readily exploitable for laughs. This installment is one of the show’s most simple, as it takes place entirely in the Bundy house before the clan is going to a family wedding. There are several worthwhile scenes between Al and Peg that are tight in construction, but loose in objective as they prepare to leave, while the primary story gives Bud a rare sexual partner, played by Joey Lauren Adams, who happens to be his cousin’s bride…
05) Episode 147: “Mr. Empty Pants” (Aired: 02/14/93)
Peg creates a cartoon character based on Al.
Written by George Tricker
Moving into the second half of the season (and with only one more Seven appearance in the offing), the show’s already heightened sense of comedy goes into overdrive, with humorously designed stories and amiably rendered scripts. Once again, the premise of Peggy creating a cartoon character based on the already cartoony Al is an easy source of comedy, especially when paired with Al’s anticipated reaction of embarrassment. There’s actually a little more story here than in some of the other episodes on today’s list, but the comedy flows nicely throughout the entire half-hour, and because the proceedings live up to the premise (and let’s note that this came from a freelancer), it’s easily among the season’s most memorable.
06) Episode 148: “You Can’t Miss” (Aired: 02/21/93)
Bud goes on a dating game show to compete for a woman’s affections.
Written by Joel Valentine & Scott Zimbler
As with the above, this is also a freelance script, penned by a pair who’ll contribute one more offering (a notable excursion from the tenth season), and it’s another strong episode for Bud Bundy, whose desperation with regard to the female of the species has grown to become one of the series’ most reliable sources of laughter. In this regard, this is another episode that sets itself up for success by utilizing a dependable, comedically founded premise, and earns its distinction here for just “living up” to the set story expectations. Also, television fans will delight in seeing the guest appearance of Bill Maher as the host of the fictional game show, in which a woman must choose between a resident stud and an average Joe (or Bud, in this case).
07) Episode 149: “Peggy And The Pirates” (Aired: 02/28/93)
Peg reads a romance novel to Seven.
Written by Richard Gurman
Usually dream/fantasy sequences indicate a lack of creativity, as the need to “reach out” for such gimmicks often points toward difficulty within the show’s established universe. But in the case of Married… With Children, the series very rarely seeks out stories of this nature, and so the accompanying sense of novelty is actually allowed to play unencumbered by the usual desperation. And yet, while we appreciate this episode’s uniqueness, it doesn’t even need said novelty, for all the episode’s comedy comes from the characters themselves, who are only transmitted into this fictional world and allowed to function as themselves in this knowingly theatrical setting — which perfectly embraces the show’s own schema. Also: this episode guest stars former regular David Garrison and is notable for boasting the last appearance of Seven.
08) Episode 152: “Movie Show” (Aired: 04/11/93)
The Bundys go to the movie theatre.
Written by Ellen L. Fogle
My choice for the year’s MVE, I must admit that it wasn’t such a cut-and-dry decision — not because this episode isn’t great, but because I consider it one among several strong (but not Season Four/Five level strong) outings from the season. What ultimately gives this episode precedence is that aforementioned note of simplicity. This excursion is all about taking the characters into a specific environment and embracing the theatricality engendered by the premise. It’s a classic model that we’ve seen in everything from “Eatin’ Out” and “Life’s A Beach” to last season’s “The Gas Station Show.” And while this episode does reveal a consistent brand of nebulous believability, especially in comparison to similar episodes from prior seasons, the focus on the characters and their relationships is what ultimately makes it a special entry. This is the kind of fare Married… With Children does expertly, and it represents this era well.
09) Episode 153: “‘Til Death Do Us Part” (Aired: 04/25/93)
Al is embarrassed about his love-making reputation.
Written by Stacie Lipp
Further evidence of the show’s rejuvenated bawdiness, this particular installment is precisely the kind of premise we haven’t seen since Season Three, when Rakolta’s attempted boycott of the show got FOX and its censors anxious. The premise alone is quite naughty, especially for the series thus far, as it involves, specifically, the duration of Al’s performance when making love to Peggy. Naturally, with a story of this nature, the script is going to employ laughs of a similar type, and let me tell you, this is one of the elements that certainly separates Married… With Children from its competition, for no other show at the time was talking about sex quite like this. It’s unique, somewhat shocking, and usually, very funny… but there is a subjectively placed line.
10) Episode 157: “The Proposition” (Aired: 05/23/93)
Al’s rich old girlfriend buys him from Peg.
Written by Arthur Silver
The season ends with an atypical offering that’s best remembered as the “Vanna White episode.” The famous Wheel of Fortune model plays an old girlfriend of Al’s who’s since become a millionaire. She tracks down her one true love, and offers to buy him from Peg, a deal that — this being Married… With Children — Peg naturally accepts. The success of this episode comes from the absurdity of the premise, the great surprise casting, and funnily enough, the installment’s final affirmation of the bond between Peg and Al, which helps to ground all the lunacy, and because we don’t see this between the two of them very often, benefits the outing by giving us something rare and unique. Not comedically stellar, but memorable.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “What I Did For Love,” the bookend to Season Three’s notorious “Her Cups Runneth Over,” as the Bundys once again visit a lingerie shop and the show recommits itself to salacity, “Heels On Wheels,” a loosely plotted installment (with a lot of fun, character moments) in which Kelly buys a motorcycle, “Go For The Old,” which utilizes a great premise (Al pretending to be a senior to get the discounts and compete in competitions that he’s sure to win) and concludes in a very memorable, and perfectly Married… With Children manner, and “The Wedding Repercussions,” a sequel to the aforementioned “The Wedding,” which is also simply conceived and founded upon great character laughs. All four were close contenders; I could make a case for all of them in the above list. Of a more honorable mention variety is “‘Tis Time To Smell The Roses,” which features a decent script fighting a substandard execution, but nevertheless makes time for a single memorable scene in which Al goes up against Ms. Blaub (who is as she sounds).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Married… With Children goes to…
NOTE TO ALL READERS: I have updated the “Coming Attractions” page and added a poll — I want to find out which shows YOU want to see covered on Sitcom Tuesdays within the next 18 months. Sometime after Murphy Brown and Seinfeld (both of which are already written and will finish this June) but before July/August 2018, I will be discussing The Larry Sanders Show, Frasier, and Friends. Those are definite. However, I want to know what other shows you want to see in this time period. Your choices are Wings, Dream On, Herman’s Head, Mad About You, The John Larroquette Show, Ellen, and Cybill. You can only vote once, but may choose as many of these shows as you wish. I’d be very grateful to get an idea of what (of those listed) you would like to see; I consider every new series a major commitment and knowing what my readers want is an important determining factor (of several) in how I choose to allocate my time. So head on over to the poll — and let me know! I’ll post the results in a few weeks.
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the eighth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!