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 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.
If Season Four – the last with the series’ original premise and the first to resemble the bold humor that would define Married… With Children over its next few seasons – is both situationally and qualitatively the link between the three early years and the following three middle years, then Season Eight, with its maintained peak level of humor and regular flirtation with all that seems ridiculous (and soon enough, not sublime), can best be described as the link between the three middle years and the following three final years. This description suggests a sense of symmetry with regard to the show’s evolution — one that, when put onto a graph, may look something like a bell curve. From this mental image, you might assume that by Season Eight, Married… With Children, if not already on a descent, is getting ready for one. Unfortunately, this will prove to be true; the show is soon to devolve into a logic-starved live-action cartoon, far removed from the traces of connectable believability delivered through characters once parodic (but now beloved) that have proven so essential to the series’ integrity – regardless of how connected a season is to the original premise’s foundational satire and televisual commentary. In prior weeks, we discussed how the show stopped using said satire in its core premise, as the audience became so accepting and invested in the Bundys’ universe that any sense of parody could then only be applied in situational circumstances. One of the reasons for this unavoidable drift in tone is that when abnormalities become normal, a show has to work harder to surprise, enliven, and in this case, satirize to find things that could then be regarded as atypical. Also, while the show has – by this point – stopped trying to reject a type of TV that has, thanks in large part to this series, long been rejected (another reason why the satire is no longer required) – the show’s attempts to remain an aggressively rule-breaking property have directly led the writing into progressively elevated arenas designed precisely to surprise and enliven…
In other words, this is how and why the show has been broadening, and Married… With Children set itself up on this inevitable and unstoppable (albeit, somewhat maintainable – for a while, anyway) trajectory from its first episode, when it established an original premise – a promise to the audience – that was hinged on being different from what then constituted traditional television fare. Naturally, it would become more difficult for the show to assert its differentness once the audience became accustomed to the series’ timbre, and especially when, once a hit, similar works would be spawned and inspired. This difficulty was also accelerated by the audience’s emotional adoption of the Bundys as a family to whom they could genuinely relate, as all that might once have been considered absurd was soon met with a hoot, a holler, and a nod of recognition. (Yes, the show never stooped so low as Roseanne to try and INSIST to the audience its “realism” – there were always winks, nudges, and parades of genuine camp to reinforce the series’ never forsaken burlesque nature – but the writing stopped discouraging audiences from making this association and played to it, sometimes, for comedic gain.) But, as we’ve explored before, broadening in itself (which, as has just been noted, is an inevitability for most series – especially ones that thrive on outrageousness), isn’t necessarily a qualitative disqualifier. For instance, this same broadening allowed the series to turn into a comedic powerhouse, as each season after the first found the show building into a more genuinely hilarious entity – peaking, I believe, in Season Five, when the show was first unshackled from the premise but still had its characters in the rarest of forms. Actually, broadening only becomes destructive when it goes unchecked for too long. When does this happen? Well, it’s going to be subjective for every single viewer, but abstractly, it happens when the relationship that the characters share with logic breaks, creating an irreconcilable gulf in which stories can’t be motivated through character because the characters themselves can’t be motivated. (Soon…)
Now, I’ve spent nearly two paragraphs discussing broadness, and I’ve yet to explain why this is relevant to Season Eight, in particular. Well, we’ve always known this trend towards exaggerated absurdity would be the show’s undoing, for it would corrupt the sanctity of character (this is worse than just corrupting the storytelling), and this commentary will serve as a preface, of sorts, for the stuff we’ll be seeing in the weeks ahead. Also, because my thesis here is that Season Eight is the unique transition between these last few weeks and these next few weeks, it stands to reason that there are clear signs – clearer than ever – about the direction into which the show is heading. I want this noted. However, we’ll save the actual gloom and doom talk (I’m being hyperbolic, fortunately) for upcoming posts, for I have some good news – it’s temporary, but it’s good nevertheless: we’re not in trouble yet. While matters of broadening are individually marked for each viewer, related to when and why investment is breached, I consider Season Eight to be the last full year in which the show seems mostly committed to maintaining a healthy, necessary relationship with the common sense required to keep the relationships between both audience and character and character and story in sync. Similarly, Season Eight is the last year in which I can fully appreciate the stratospheric laughs without having to admit to a systematic reduction of my own aesthetic standards. It’s the broadest year that manages to continually satisfy; the logic line isn’t crossed so often as to be erased. Believability will become a commodity in the final seasons, and most of the humor – regardless of quantity or quality – will seem ill-supported. For the most part, that’s not the case here. In fact, in comparison to the three prior years, this is the most satisfying since the fifth, seeing as Seasons Six and Seven were each tarnished by flawed constructs (baby/Seven) that had varying degrees of impact on the comedy, while both damaging the series’ identity and forcing the audience to address the abandonment of the show’s original premise; character laughs were thus overshadowed.
So, Season Eight gets to do what Seasons Six and Seven, because of their respective issues, couldn’t; this year gets to exist – unencumbered — at what we’ve defined as the peak level of humor, represented throughout the series’ fifth year. What am I saying exactly? Well, I’ll put it blunt: this is probably the second funniest season (maybe third, in favor of Season Four, the other transitional year) of the entire series. And, in fact, because it’s no secret that I will take issue with each of the remaining years (some more than others, of course), I’m willing to give Season Eight even more credit: it’s the climax of the show’s best and most effectively calibrated brand of comedy – the last time we’ll see this quality regularly enough to attribute it to an entire season. As a result, the year gets an extra boost of goodwill; it’s the final hurrah for these troubled, but often terrifically funny, middle seasons to which this year is still connected. Don’t forget, however, what we’ve previously discussed – Season Eight is equally connected to its three predecessors as it is to its three successors. (And, I’d like to point out here that I find Season Five more enjoyable than Eight because the former is closer to the earlier seasons, while the latter is closer to the later seasons.) For as funny as the episodes here legitimately manage to be, there’s no doubt that we’re headed into no man’s land (or rather, NO MA’AM’s land) with regard to the show’s storytelling – itself dependent on the characters, who are becoming more caricatured: Bud is hornier than ever; Kelly is stupider than ever; Marcy is more militant than ever; Al is more chauvinistic than ever; and Jefferson is more gigoloish (yes, a new word) than ever. (The only exception here is Peg, whose characterization suffered the most in the two prior seasons and is therefore allowed to relax a bit – also as a function of Sagal’s pregnancy, which does not become a part of Peg’s narrative.) Such distillations of “type” are often initially quite conducive to story, but as more self-modulation is removed from a character’s depiction, the opposite happens: stories become difficult to logically motivate. (Again, soon…)
There I go worrying about the last few seasons again; this should, rather, be more like a celebration – another triumphant year of comedy for an outstandingly comedic series with characters who are still capable of eliciting regular guffaws. So before we get to this week’s wonderful list, there’s one more thing I wish to discuss, and it’s related to a particular regarding Season Eight. If you’ll remember in last week’s commentary, it was mentioned that co-creator Michael G. Moye had stepped aside while Ron Leavitt stayed on board. Well, this year finds the opposite happening – Leavitt leaves, while Moye returns and reassumes control (for this season and the ninth) of the show’s creative direction. Seeing both their work together and their work apart gives us the unique ability to pinpoint and analyze their individual strengths. Naturally, the duo was a perfect pair, but in removing them from one another, there are specific qualities that arise. Based on last season, it seems that Leavitt had an eye for simplicity, choosing – especially in the face of both the wrong number (Seven) and the ratcheted up counterbalancing raunchiness (a device used to reassert the series’ shock value) – to center many stories on the relationships shared between the core characters. Moye, on the other hand, seems to be the funny man, knowing not only how to craft a really comedic premise, but how to imbue a script with a laugh-a-minute rhythm that could make even an adequate story appear better. This is reinforced throughout this season, which – let’s note it again – is among the series’ funniest. No doubt, there’s more that could be written here about the show’s continuing evolution and the double-edged nature of the effects of Leavitt’s departure – of course, the pair balanced each sublimely – but for now, we’ll just enjoy the season and what it offers. Ready? Okay, 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 Eight. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 161: “Luck Of The Bundys” (Aired: 09/26/93)
Al refuses to admit that he’s on a streak of good luck.
Written by Richard Gurman | Directed by Tony Singletary
Although the superstitious premise flirts with the spectacular and is therefore not-so-seemingly realistic, these constructs don’t feel out of place on a situation comedy (and all narrative fiction, really, which is obsessed with fate), and given the story’s fidelity to Al’s character and the way the series has depicted him (for the majority of its life) as a Born Loser, this actually feels like one of the least unmotivated entries on today’s list. Coming after a string of opening outings that were either funny but narratively inferior, or good for character but lacking in big laughs, this episode is both comedically and narratively rewarding. Due to its usage and presentation of the Al Bundy character, and the series’ own unique brand of mythos, this is a winner.
02) Episode 162: “Banking On Marcy” (Aired: 10/03/93)
Marcy overcomes her fear of public speaking in an unusual way.
Written by Stacie Lipp | Directed by Tony Singeltary
If there was any doubt about the FOX censors’ slow abandonment of their Rakolta-inspired constraints on the show’s content, this ribald outing — with a premise that you certainly wouldn’t have found in Seasons Four, Five, or Six — proves exactly how low the show’s figurative brow has been allowed to fall, particularly with regard to sex. The premise has Marcy overcoming her fear of public speaking by visiting a doctor who instructs her to pretend that she’s in her bedroom. What does Married… With Children then do with the story? Well, it has Marcy publicly orgasm every time she gives a speech. It’s a truly hysterical performance by Bearse, which makes the otherwise shocking and thinly constructed episode more laudable.
03) Episode 165: “Scared Single” (Aired: 11/07/93)
Al hires a young ball player at the store and tries to counsel him against marriage.
Written by Katherine Green | Directed by Sam W. Orender
Al hires an assistant at the shoe store, Aaron (Hill Harper), a young ball player in whom Al sees a lot of himself. Not since the days of Luke Ventura has Al had help at the store, and while that character only seemed a distraction from the more interesting people at home, by this point in the series’ run, it’s a good idea to give Al an additional scene partner. Although Aaron only appears in a handful of episodes (this season only), the increased use of the store is itself smart, for it opens up more story possibilities centered on Al. This particular episode is probably the least conceptually strange of the entire lot, but I must confess that it makes today’s list primarily for the exquisite sight gag of Aaron’s old high school sweetheart: a Peg look-a-like.
04) Episode 166: “NO MA’AM” (Aired: 11/14/93)
Al and his friends form a group to oppose a a feministic talk show.
Written by Larry Jacobson | Directed by Tony Singletary
Jerry Springer guest stars as himself in this surprisingly powerful episode that introduces NO MA’AM (National Organization of Men Against Amazonian Masterhood), an integral component of the last three seasons. Of all the episode on today’s list, if you asked me to pick one outing that foreshadowed the years ahead, it would be this one, for the very introduction of NO MA’AM reveals the heightened characterizations that the show will soon employ with regard to both Al and Marcy. Initially, this is terribly comedic, for their battles have always made for some of the series’ funniest moments, and as long as an episode retains a reasonable plot (as this one does), we’re able to overlook the troubling implications in favor of the riotous comedy.
05) Episode 169: “A Little Off The Top” (Aired: 12/12/93)
Al goes into the hospital for back surgery and ends up circumcised.
Written by Michael G. Moye | Directed by Sam W. Orender
One of my favorite episodes of the entire series, this script, by series co-creator Michael G. Moye, is essentially predicated on one big joke: Al needs back surgery, but the doctor misreads his chart, which says “make a circular incision,” as “make a circumcision.” Again, we’re dealing with a risqué premise that wouldn’t have been permissible in years past, but we’re also contending with a major hurdle in logic, one that’s not rooted in a breakdown of character motivation, but in the broader realm of common sense. However, the leap that this episode requires is completely worthwhile, for the jokes that ensue following Al’s little procedure are hysterical, constituting some of the most comedically potent stuff of the season — nay, series.
06) Episode 170: “The Worst Noel” (Aired: 12/19/93)
Al and Peg try to find something to watch on Christmas Eve.
Written by Larry Jacobson | Directed by Amanda Bearse
While none of the Bundys’ Christmas excursions come close to replicating the unique brilliance of Season Two’s “You Better Watch Out,” the holiday, which typically inspires yucky sentiment on far less amusing sitcoms, is often a goldmine for Married… With Children, which delights in riffing on the conventions. This is a particularly welcome trend at this point in the series’ run, for this brand of sitcom satire has been significantly mitigated since the characters have skewed away from archetypes and closer to outright cartoons. As for this fine excursion, I appreciate that it is centered around something so very simple: Al and Peg arguing about what to watch on television on Christmas Eve. That’s all character and it’s all we need for laughs.
07) Episode 172: “Honey, I Blew Up Myself” (Aired: 01/23/94)
Al is outraged when Peg’s boudoir photo is put on a billboard.
Written by Wayne Kline | Directed by Sam W. Orender
When I hosted a Sitcom Fest for a group of my high school friends several years ago, this was the single episode I chose to represent the series and the type of fare that FOX offered in contrast to the Big Three Networks. Although I initially intended to pick an earlier installment, I couldn’t find any other episode that struck me as being quite so laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, this installment is a veritable laugh-a-minute, with a premise founded on the relationship between Al and Peg, capitalizing on the antagonism between Al and Marcy, and featuring tremendous gags like the Wife-O-Meter. Yes, it’s big and broad (much like the billboard of Peg), but all the laughs land, proving precisely how magical this series could be when it was on top of its figurative game. Although it may be unexpected, this is my choice for the year’s MVE.
08) Episode 177: “The D’Arcy Files” (Aired: 03/20/94)
Al learns that Jefferson is a spy and considers revealing his identity.
Written by Ilunga Adell | Directed by Gerry Cohen
As discussed briefly in past weeks, Jefferson’s characterization was supplied gradually over the course of the series, for while we learned stuff about him in his introduction, we didn’t really see the bulk of his character put in place until Season Six. And then, it wasn’t until Season Seven that the gigolo aspects of his persona were regularly maximized for comedic opportunity. This installment aims to add another layer onto a character who, though he’ll always been less dimensional than his cohorts, is amiable enough that we can enjoy simply the fulfillment of his functions (as Marcy’s partner and Al’s partner-in-crime) without overanalyzing. Of note in this excursion — a funny script by contributor Adell and an appearance by Robert Mandan.
09) Episode 179: “Ride Scare” (Aired: 04/24/94)
Al is forced to carpool to work with a trio of plus-sized models.
Written by Nancy Neufeld Callaway | Directed by Sam W. Orender
Written by a new staff member, I view this installment as a Victory in Premise. I think the very story idea is intended to be the main draw, and for once, it actually is the main draw, for there’s nothing as comedic within the episode itself as the actual idea of Al sitting in a vehicle with a trio of plus-sized models (especially given how we know he feels about ladies of their girth and the havoc they make at the shoe store). That’s not to say that the episode doesn’t do a good job of supporting its story with an enjoyable script, but it’s otherwise not exceptional in the way that, for instance, my chosen MVE for the year manages to surprise with its no-holds-barred high-octane hilarity. Nevertheless, still quite memorable and ideal for Al’s character.
10) Episode 183: “Kelly Knows Something” (Aired: 05/22/94)
Kelly competes on a sports trivia game show.
Written by Al Aidekman | Directed by Amanda Bearse
While I’ve always considered this to be a very funny episode — with a premise that has roots in classic situation comedy traditions (just ask Ralph Kramden) — there was a part of my thinking that wondered whether or not this installment would make the list. Being that this is a strong season, there’s no shortage of interesting discussion-worthy excursions for which I could have made a case, but no matter what, I just can’t discredit the episode of its sheer entertainment value. Yes, I find it derivative of work found on other shows, and yes, I think it’s predictable (if not poetically well-crafted), and yes, I think it reuses comedic ideas that were found more simply (read: nobly) in prior seasons… but, darn, if this isn’t a funny, expert usage of Kelly.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Hood ‘N The Boyz,” which has some interesting character-related material for Al, but puts story above all else (like big laughs and the other characters), “Get Outta Dodge,” a well-liked entry due to a classic “Al as loser” construct, and “Nooner Or Later” [a.k.a. “Nooner Or Nothing”], another premise-driven outing that nevertheless came the closest to making the above list. Mention should also be made of the hysterical incorporation of The Jeffersons in an otherwise ridiculous entry, “Dances With Weezy,” along with “How Green Was My Apple,” which starts admirably and derails into unfortunate surreality, and “Valentine’s Day Massacre,” a popular episode that plays more like a sketch than a sitcom.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Married… With Children goes to…
“Honey, I Blew Up Myself”
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 ninth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!