Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our series of posts 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. HAROLD SYLVESTER recurs as Griff.
As you can tell from my decision to only include seven episodes on today’s list instead of the usual ten, we’ve finally reached the point in Married… With Children‘s history in which it’s impossible to pretend that the series is still of a quality that can be considered acceptable in comparison to the majority of the material covered here on Sitcom Tuesdays. By this season, we cringe as much as we laugh. All the problems we’ve been discussing for weeks have finally come into a grand and unyielding fruition, and it’s clear from the very first five minutes of the season that the quality – perhaps as a result of the official departure of Michael G. Moye, the last of the series’ two co-creators – has taken an even worse hit than it did in between Season Eight and Season “there’s no good reason for this dip in quality” Nine. The show’s primary problems in this era were stated as such in last week’s post: “Due to the caricaturing of these players, the systematic mitigation of their individual characterized self-awareness and comedic modulations in favor of broader beats and sketch-like stories (both driven by a desire for comedic supremacy – the chronic need to be funnier than ever before, at almost any cost) removes these characters of the warped humanity that, even through past parodic and ridiculous objectives, made them worthy of the audience’s emotional investment. Now that we can’t believe in them, we have a harder time believing in the show itself – especially the stories, which, given their aggrandized nature (again, in the drive for comedic supremacy), most need the motivated support of characters.” In other words, because the show’s storytelling is becoming more ridiculous, the series has evolved in such a way that it’s entirely dependent on the characters, not just to motivate the stories (which is the very basic charge in well-written situation comedies), but also to maintain the show’s integrity (and I use the word to describe the show’s sense of a solid and consistent identifiability) in the face of knowingly broader, and more ridiculous, ideas.
But these increasingly absurd ideas aren’t just reserved for story anymore – they’ve also permeated the characterizations: the very beings needed to inspire the narratives. Examine each regular (and the relationships shared), and you’ll see the same broadening, to the point of abstraction (so that any story can be made to work – past characterizations be darned), occurring to all. This happens on many long-running comedies, especially when the need for more aggrandized plots (in the quest for that aforementioned comedic supremacy) meets a laziness with regarding to character motivation, both of which are sadly understandable. To the latter point, because everyone knows these players so well, less effort must be put into rationalizing why they react and respond in certain ways. For instance, one of the relationships that the show has long used for conflict, and by proxy, comedy — the oppositional dynamic between Al and Marcy — has now transcended the duo’s philosophical and emotional differences into a simple Elmer Fudd vs. Bugs Bunny narrative-driven antagonism. It’s elemental, but no longer founded in character; now these conflicts are based in the construct itself – “that’s just the way it is” – with fewer attempts at motivation. Yet this simplification in rationale, instead of distilling the characters down to their basic comedic forms, actually divests the two of the human veracity essential to these broadly conceived cartoonish plots. This, which occurs throughout this season and at almost every turn, is devastating; stories fail, regardless of their own extremeness (and they’re already more extreme here than most) because the characters lack believability – not reality-based believability, but human-based connectability (hinged on a degree of consistency) – and this is the fundamental problem that persists through every single script, characterizing the writing, now led by both Richard Gurman, one of the series’ veterans, and Kim Weiskopf, who joined the staff in Season Eight, as terribly inferior to the years prior.
Yet while the characterizations remain the most evident sign of the show’s decay (and, as discussed, most contribute to all the other issues), the season’s broad, absurd episodic narratives remain the most conspicuous, with cartoonish gags and an ever-present strained relationship with common sense. The clearest embodiment of this type of storytelling is in the seasonal arc involving the separation of Peg’s parents, played by Tim Conway, the legendary comic who appears in four episodes this season, and well-remembered character actor Kathleen Freeman (you’ve seen her in many things; notably, she was a regular on the single-season sitcom Lotsa Luck, discussed here in 2014), voicing the role of Peg’s ominous mother, who comes to stay with the Bundys but never graces the screen with her appearance. On paper, this is a funny arc with two well-cast leads; in execution, it’s a one-joke scenario that doesn’t enliven the season as intended, but instead hastens and elevates the writing’s believability problem. With very few exceptions (noted below), the first two-thirds of the year, which contributes some of the worst material this show has produced so far, does not find any benefits from the storyline, except for an excuse to get Peg out of the house in a lengthy quest to find her runaway father. Yes, Sagal was pregnant again and is only present in the year’s first 15 episodes. She appears in small pre-taped scenes during the next three, and is completely absent for all remaining outings until the final scene of the season finale (highlighted below), in which Peg returns home to her beloved.
Surprisingly, instead of hampering the seasonal quality, Peg’s departure actually leads to a slight uptick in the year’s episodic success rate, for the structural confinements introduced by her absence forces an enhanced creativity that, for the first time in Season Ten, is dependent on the usage of the other core characters. So while Married… With Children isn’t really Married… With Children without her (in the same way that no I Love Lucy episode is complete without Ethel), this collection of episodes has more to offer at its conclusion than it does at the start. Now, don’t get me wrong — many of those Peg-less outings, particularly in the beginning of the stretch, are lackluster, as there are too many stories focusing on the kids, who although comedic, less often satisfy (because, as discussed in prior weeks, their entries don’t make good use of the rest of the core ensemble, feeling too much like network-mandated “let’s appeal to the young demo” shenanigans). And yet, in the year’s final handful of offerings, the scripts re-center themselves back on Al and make more of an effort to maximize usage of the five remaining regulars together, along with Griff, whose character gains in prominence and contributes significantly to these episodes’ comedy. (He is the only unique presence in these final seasons that offers something of value that can’t be found in years prior.) When the season stops trying so hard to be bigger and better than ever, as it does in the first half of the year with the Wanker arc and some horrendously absurd weekly narratives (plus an unfunny episode in which Buck is reincarnated as Lucky), the writers are able to find some character-concerned material to close out the season, and you’ll see this reflected below in the list. So, on that semi-positive note, I have picked seven 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 seven best episodes of Season Ten. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that the special, “Al Bundy’s Sports Spectacular,” is not considered an episode.
01) Episode 221: “Love Conquers Al” (Aired: 12/10/95)
Al and Peg take her parents to a marriage retreat, while Bud entertains Kelly’s beau’s sister.
Written by Paul Corrigan & Brad Walsh | Directed by Amanda Bearse
To frame the season accurately, let me point out that this is the 12th episode of the year, meaning, of course, that I didn’t find the first 11 fit to highlight. The primary story for this entry has the Bundys taking the Wankers to a marriage retreat, headed by Edward Hibbert (Frasier‘s Gil Chesterton), where plenty of broad laughs can be had. Meanwhile, the two kids are stuck at home in an unrelated subplot, in which Kelly begs Bud to entertain her Latin Lover’s sister, who turns out to be supremely attractive and quite voracious. The comedy is the turnaround — that while Bud is getting all this action, Kelly’s guy is not giving her anything. In the case of both stories, I’ll not falsely claim greatness, just tenth season superiority.
02) Episode 222: “I Can’t Believe It’s Butter” (Aired: 12/17/95)
Al learns that Griff has fallen in love with a phone sex operator: Peg’s mom.
Written by Scott Nimbler & Joel Valentincic | Directed by Sam W. Orender
My choice for the strongest episode of the season, this script makes use of Peg’s mother without saddling it to Ephraim (Conway’s character), and thus does a better job of integrating her presence into the rest of the series. The premise is innately comical, with Griff falling for a phone sex operator named Butter (hence the title), who, as fate would have it, turns out to be the girthy Mrs. Wanker. The premise inspires a lot of big laughs, and the script is able to deliver satisfactorily. In fact, there are a handful of delicious moments here, including the phone call in which Peg impersonates Butter, that make this episode a true winner. So for the use of the seasonal arc, the inclusion of Griff, and the strength of the script (something I can’t say for every episode here), this is a comparable classic. Easily the MVE. (It’s a Christmas episode too!)
03) Episode 224: “The Hood, The Bud, And The Kelly (II)” (Aired: 01/14/96)
Bud tries to finish the exercise video, while the men attempt to install the satellite dish.
Written by Daniel O’Keefe | Directed by Gerry Cohen
This two-parter uses the kids for an overly cartoonish primary plot, with Bud having to produce a music video with two temperamental stars (one being Kelly) before the mob (a member of which is played by Richard Moll) comes down on him, and it’s, frankly, a huge bust. If that were all this episode had to offer, it would probably be among my least favorites. But the secondary plot involves Al and his NO MA’AM friends attempting to install a satellite dish to the Bundy roof, while the wives make bets on the accidents. It’s a formula we’ve seen for years (“Hi, IQ” anyone?), but it’s always comedic, and even though the show has gotten way too unrealistic (the bird sequence is a low), the laughs are still there. Here today for the subplot alone.
04) Episode 229: “Turning Japanese” (Aired: 03/17/96)
Marcy’s Japanese boss won’t promote her unless he can buy Al’s Dodge.
Written by Fran E. Kaufer | Directed by Sam W. Orender
Pat Morita guest stars in this episode as Marcy’s boss, from whom she’s hoping to get a promotion. This premise begets a funny scene in which she and Jefferson try to impress him with their knowledge of Japanese culture, when, of course, he’s tired of all that. The story then becomes about Morita’s character trying to buy Al’s Dodge, thus incorporating the Bundys into the narrative, and allows for a climax at the nudie bar, where Al successfully negotiates a deal for his car, but only if Marcy agrees to humiliate herself by performing on the stage. By no stretch of the imagination is this a brilliant entry, but it has some laughs, and because it’s structurally tighter than most of its competition, it seemed an appropriate entry to highlight here.
05) Episode 232: “Bud Hits The Books” (Aired: 04/28/96)
Bud is caught pleasuring himself in the library.
Written by Stacie Lipp | Directed by Sam W. Orender
Beverly Archer, whom most of you will remember as Iola Boylen from Mama’s Family, appeared last season in a memorable episode as Bud’s boss at the Virgin Hotline. This time, she plays an uptight librarian who catches Bud pleasuring himself in her library. It’s a typically ribald premise for the series (which saw a rise in its salacity a few years ago, mostly in the quest for fresh story), and that corrosive lack of logic is ever present in the plot (Marcy defending Bud to the school board — really?), but there’s no denying that this episode is one of the most humorously salient entries of the entire tenth season, thus illustrating another case of the figurative ends justifying the means. Because this episode is so amusing, we forgive the narrative flaws.
06) Episode 233: “Kiss Of The Coffee Woman” (Aired: 05/05/96)
Al and Marcy get jealous when Kelly and Jefferson star in a coffee commercial together.
Story by Todd Newman | Teleplay by Dvora Inwood | Directed by Sam W. Orender
If there was any episode on today’s list that threatened my MVE selection from earning its title, it’s this entry, which does a superb job of crafting a single story around the five regulars, all of whom get fine material. The story has Jefferson and Kelly starring together in a series of coffee commercials in which they play lovers, a fact that naturally comes to bother both Al and Marcy, which grants us some excellent Al-Marcy bonding scenes (that help to counteract the overly simplified hatred that this season presents between them). Additionally, this episode just seems to be operating on a more elevated playing field (read: a strong script) than the others: it’s comedic, it’s satisfying, and, a rarity at this time, it doesn’t insult our intelligence. A goodie.
07) Episode 235: “The Joke’s On Al” (Aired: 05/26/96)
Al thinks a visit from Peg’s old rival is part of a practical joke by Jefferson.
Written by Calvin Brown, Jr. | Directed by Amanda Bearse
The season finale, this laugh-driven installment is notable for a couple of reasons. First, it features a hilarious subplot involving Griff, whom the NO MA’AM gang has falsely arrested as a cannibal in an elaborate prank. Second, it culminates in the return of Peg, who comes home (with Tim Conway in tow), just in time to prevent Al from marrying one of her old Wanker rivals, whom he had assumed had been hired by Jefferson as a practical joke against him. Sometimes I am put-off by these story-heavy practical joke episodes, but there’s enough humor to keep this outing afloat, and because it’s both structured well and gives us the welcome return of Peg, it easily becomes one of my seasonal favorites. (High praise indeed, right?)
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: four that derive most of their laughs from the respective premises, “Guess Who’s Coming To Breakfast, Lunch, And Dinner,” which introduces the arc of Peg’s mom coming to stay but reinforces the season’s inferior quality from the very beginning, “A Shoe Room With A View,” which is all about making time for fat jokes, “Reverend Al,” an occasionally amusing entry just way too broad to enjoy, and “The Agony And The Extra ‘C’,” in which Jefferson and Marcy shine.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Ten of Married… With Children goes to…
“I Can’t Believe It’s Butter”
NOTE TO ALL READERS: Here are the results of the poll featured on this blog over the past few weeks. The first image shows the amount of votes, from 574 total, for each series. Voter quantity is unknown, but my estimation is that it’s somewhere between 175 and 200 (with 191 as the chosen approximation based on the way data was loaded). The second image shows the percentage of voters, from these estimated numbers, that would have selected a certain show. (For instance, if 175 people voted, than 48%, or 4.8 out of every 10 people, chose Wings.) I will analyze this data and tell you what this means for the blog next week!
Come back next Tuesday for my thoughts on the best episodes from the final season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!