Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the conclusion of our series on the best of Married… With Children (1987-1997, FOX). Remember, 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. HAROLD SYLVESTER recurs as Griff.
After two-and-a-half months of coverage, we’ve finally reached the end of Married… With Children, and although the cast and crew were never made officially aware during production that this year would be the show’s last, this entire season seems to point to that inevitable conclusion. Aside from the quality of the writing (which we’ll, of course, discuss in a moment), FOX’s scheduling of the series seems to indicate both a diminished regard and a forgone conclusion. Following a disappointing tenth year that saw the average seasonal rating drop to the lowest it’d been since Season Two (back when FOX was still the Wild West and not the legitimate fourth broadcast network that it had become by 1996), the brass decided to move Married… With Children out of the comfortable Sunday night slot it had occupied for seven years to make room for The X-Files, which was building an audience, and which the network (correctly) believed could be more competitive. So FOX’s aging comedic titan, for whom it still claimed to have the utmost respect, was moved to Saturdays, an audience-less territory, alongside a clone called Love And Marriage, which was cancelled within a few weeks. Seeing how terrible Married… was faring in its new location, the network pulled original episodes for a month and opted to move the series back to Sundays, where it would be slotted in at 7:30 following reruns. The ratings didn’t improve. In January, the series was moved to Mondays, where it bounced from 9:30 to 9:00 in February. The death knell rang in late April, after the season finale had been shot. A two-part outing was promoted as the series finale and aired in an hour slot in early May, but one more original episode was broadcast on FOX in June (after having been pre-empted in April). Time changes. Preemptions. Back-to-back episodes. This is what happens when a show is near death.
The “writing was on the wall” and although many claimed surprise when the decision was officially made, I believe the nature of the episodes produced at the end of the season bely a subconscious awareness (more below)… Yet even if they didn’t see the end from the way the show was being treated by the network, I hope they could tell from the material. In a few words: the show is pooped. Last season proved that there were no more stories that made sense for these nonsensical characters; no new jokes for these broadened-to-comedic-abstraction characterizations. Even with a host of new writers (led by a new Executive Producer with no prior time on this series, Pamela Eells, whose past credits included Mad About You and The Nanny), Season Eleven isn’t able to shake the creative malaise that plagued the majority of the year before. (Note that three-quarters of the scripts this season are credited to writers in their debut/only year.) Not only are the stories naturally labored (from years of damage done to the players and obvious complications stemming from longevity), but these new voices also exacerbate issues of unrecognizability, for without years of experience understanding the characters’ evolutions, these writers have had to derive their knowledge purely from watching. The effect: instead of simply writing the characters as they exist (which itself would have proved difficult – check out the last few seasons), the writers are writing the characters as characters – inauthentic renderings of the perpetually tweaked, but original, specimens. While inflaming the disconnect between the characters and the audience’s perception of them, these walking holograms also feed into the growing lunacy typifying the storytelling, as cunning camp has now turned to cringe-worthy camp: baroqueness for barouqness’ sake, or, more accurately, for the sake of broad comedy – as the characters themselves, because they don’t actually exist anymore, can no longer be counted upon to deliver; now it’s up to the stories to manifest the requisite burlesque, with the characters following suit, embodying the same empty, false qualities.
This critique on the characterizations is an abstract one, and while it’s easy to pinpoint how different they all are (even from Season Ten), it’s difficult to explain. However, you can find evidence of the problem all throughout the first half of the year, as episodes are dependent on absurd premises (instead of the characters, thus revealing the show’s aforementioned inability to understand and use them properly) that preclude them from satisfying like all sitcom offerings should. It makes the first half of Season Eleven the lowest point in the series’ history. Although, to be fair, an influx of new writers is always going to lead to a period of adjustment on any series (think back to the huge shift in Season Five of The Golden Girls) – and while I think the nature of the entire season indicates this staff’s general ill-suitedness for Married… With Children, based on their ultimate inability to bring about enough positive change, it must be noted that as they start to create their own perceptions of the characters throughout the season, they’re better able to use them as motivators for the (still-too-unbelievable) narratives. Around the time that the show switches to its final Monday night slot, the scripts are doing a better job with the relationship between character and story, and because there seems to be an effort – an abrupt one — to mitigate the growing camp in favor of more pointed character-centric material, I’m led to believe that the show was attempting to “land the plane” (i.e. finish out the series – or even, the season) with a greater dignity than with which it began. It’s almost as if the writers, knowing that time was dwindling, were trying to clear away all the weeds to find Married… With Children‘s roots. We’ve seen this happen – a terrible start to the final year, coupled with a midseason turnaround that allows for a graceful demise – on everything from Cheers to The Golden Girls, and because the pattern is so similar, it’s difficult to believe that this final stretch of episodes wasn’t crafted as (or even, just in case of) the series’ farewell.
One of the results of this last minute shift is a surprisingly sober three-parter in which Al and Peg separate — a story that seems like it would have made more sense about a decade ago when there actually were dramatic stakes within the premise, and therefore doesn’t fully work now (no thanks to newbie writers with never-solved characterization issues) — that nevertheless indicates a more noble and perceptive intention regarding how the show should be telling its stories. This trend goes for the rest of the season, from February ’97 onwards, as noted narrative attempts to purify the characters, examine their relationships, and use this admirably for story don’t quite manage to rise above the new crew’s general ineptitude regarding their depictions and the confines imposed by many years’ worth of now-constricting broadness. And yet, because it’s such a clear improvement over the first part of Season Eleven, and because these scripts are actually more interesting than a lot of what we saw in Season Ten – as a result of their proximity to the series’ conclusion — I can at least appreciate these final half-knowing moments, where the show, despite being of an overall lesser quality than the season prior, is trying to communicate to the audience that these characters still matter and it understands how it went wrong. This acknowledgment is an appropriate end (that should have come two seasons before, but I digress) for an important series — changing the history of the FOX network and the state of American television comedies, in which self-reflexivity, be it in narrative or tone, is now almost a non-negotiable. So, for the last time with this show, 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 Eleven. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that episodes aired back-to-back, or in a single hour block, are considered two separate entries, as they would in syndication.
01) Episode 244: “Crimes Against Obesity” (Aired: 12/29/96)
Al is put on trial by the full-figured women whom he’s insulted.
Written by Russell Marcus | Directed by Amanda Bearse
In full disclosure, I must admit that this episode was bumped onto the list so that I could get seven (just as we had last week). This is, frankly, a one-joke episode, with the entire premise built around Al’s chronic battles with the girthy women who frequent his shoe store. It’s one fat joke after another, and while it does feel incredibly easy and uninspired, the script is inherently comedic, given the nature of the show’s abject glee in employing this type of humor — a sort of rebellion against standardized, mainstream fare. Additionally, the incorporation of women who hadn’t been guest stars in many years helps to give this installment a sense that the show is acknowledging its roots. It’s not a great or creative idea — but it fits Married… With Children.
02) Episode 245: “The Stepford Peg” (Aired: 01/06/97)
Al uses Peg’s amnesia to turn her into the model homemaker.
Written by Valerie Ahern & Christian McLaughlin | Directed by Amanda Bearse
Ironically, for all my gripes in the seasonal introduction about the nature of the show during the first half of the season, I must note that this installment, which I’ve chosen as the MVE, was actually the first episode produced for the year, and held until midseason when the show was behind in its schedule and needed an offering ready to go. Obviously, because I’ve chosen this outing as the year’s finest, I consider it the year’s funniest too, and one of the reasons that the entry is so strong is that it seems fully aware of the fact that these characters have become caricatures. You see, while the amnesia premise itself is one that I would ordinarily disown outright on other sitcoms, this live-action cartoon not only seems to handle the story, but it also allows the show to play with the stereotypes by which both Peg and Al have been defined. So, in giving us a Peg that we don’t usually get to see (a Happy Homemaker), this episode flips the stereotypes on their figurative head, which is itself a form of self-awareness — and a boon to the procurement of laughs. Semi-classic — in spite of some hollow Season Eleven characterizations (Kelly’s is especially unfortunate) — for the premise cultivates a relationship with the type of domesticity that this show was initially designed to reject. Thus, Season Eleven’s problems (the false caricaturing of previously unique characters) are couched here in a story that actually works, making this an enjoyable, but telling, representation of the year at large.
03) Episode 249: “Breaking Up Is Easy To Do (I)” (Aired: 02/24/97)
Al and Peg visit a marriage counselor after an argument.
Written by Eric Abrams & Matthew Berry | Directed by Mark K. Samuels
The first part of a three-episode arc in which Peg and Al split, this offering initially aired in a one-hour block that also included the following installment. By virtue of the fact that this entry is here and the other two are not, you can correctly deduce that I consider this one the strongest, for I look to it specifically as ushering in a renewed sense of concentration on the characters and their foundations — a simplification, although one that doesn’t expand, but rather narrows. There’s no doubt that it’s a surprise to see the show treat this story and these characters so earnestly, as if they are real people, because I would posit that we haven’t seen this conceit employed regularly since Seasons Four or Five. As a result, these three entries do feel out of place, but as previously mentioned, the show’s efforts are appreciated, and since this particular installment does a better job than its following two of reconciling the legitimate premise alongside anticipated big laughs, this is easily the most deserving of our attention.
04) Episode 252: “Live Nude Peg” (Aired: 03/10/97)
Peg disguises herself and enters a contest at the Jiggly Room that Al is judging.
Written by Matthew Berry & Eric Abrams | Directed by Amanda Bearse
While this episode — like so many that we’ve highlighted here lately — contends with a premise that stretches credulity, particularly as it pertains to common sense, the implementation of the story, once again, shows a shift in the writers’ intentions. For although the idea, which might be nevertheless typical of this era’s storytelling, of Peg sneaking into the nudie bar in disguise and Al not recognizing her (even I Love Lucy struggled to make this believable) is alienatingly broad, it actually allows the show to explore, specifically, the relationship between Al and Peg, even going so far as to give these characters actual, logical conversations. Through all the pomp, the focus is clearly on the regulars, which makes this episode thrive as a result. Enjoyable.
05) Episode 256: “Lez Be Friends” (Aired: 04/28/97)
Al bonds with Marcy’s identical cousin Mandy, who he learns is a lesbian.
Written by Pamela Eells | Directed by Gerry Cohen
I would classify this as an atypical episode for a variety of reasons. For starters, it wasn’t shot in front of a studio audience due to the fact that Bearse had to do double duty as both Marcy and her twin cousin Mandy (clearly a riff on the identical cousins TV trope — which makes it palatable). Additionally, the decision to make the story about Mandy’s sexual orientation, itself a mirror of Bearse’s own real life identity, gives the show a weighty topic with which to contend, and for once, there is the sense that the show wants to be somewhat respectful. However, you’ll be pleased to know that this doesn’t come at the expense of the installment’s comedy either — and even better, the story has the effect of re-humanizing Marcy, who’d gotten especially cartoonish in Seasons Nine and Ten, and the final scene she shares with Al is one of those full-circle “we’ll never agree on anything or say we’re friends, but we do care about each other” moments that reinforces a long rejected relatability and points toward an ending.
06) Episode 257: “The Desperate Half-Hour (I)” (Aired: 05/05/97)
The Bundys are held hostage by Bud’s prison pen pal.
Written by Valerie Ahern & Christian McLaughlin | Directed by Gerry Cohen
As the first half of the intended season finale, which became marketed as the series finale (even though it wasn’t the last original episode to air on FOX — or the last original entry to debut in the United States; that distinction goes to Season Three’s “lost episode”), this installment aired first in a single-hour block. I slightly prefer this half over its successor, highlighted below, because of the elevated theatrics. For the first time since Season One’s finale, the show does an episode that plays in realtime, as the Bundys and D’Arcys (while in costumes for a party) are held hostage by Bud’s prison pen pal, whose boyfriend becomes Kelly’s love interest. It’s not a great outing, but it gets all the characters together in the same place at the same time.
07) Episode 258: “How To Marry A Moron (II)” (Aired: 05/05/97)
The Bundys prepare for Kelly’s wedding to the Weenie Tot heir.
Written by Ben Montanio & Vince Cheung | Directed buy Gerry Cohen
This is the last original episode that Married… With Children ever produced, and contrary to all the reports that the cast and crew were blindsided by the cancellation notice (which didn’t even allow them to say a proper goodbye), I think there’s a terrific sense of finality here, what with the potential marriage of Kelly and the heir (Charles Esten) to the Weenie Tot fortune (with Gordon Jump and Edie McClurg playing the parents) and some of the dialogue given to Al, in particular, in the final scene. It really seems like the show is preparing to say goodbye, with a change to these characters’ dynamic in the offing. But, of course, this development never actually goes through, leaving things back to normal. I’m a big proponent of non big-event finales, and I like that ultimately nothing changes. I think this is a great place to leave the characters and though not “officially” produced as an ending, I think it’s a strong one.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Children Of The Corns,” which merits mention due to the amusing subplot of Peg winning a microwave oven (and hiding it from Al), “A Bundy Thanksgiving,” which has a few worthwhile laughs alongside forced characterizations, “Bud On The Side,” which features a comedic premise for Bud, and “A Babe In Toyland,” another entry that merits mention for the subplot, in which Al and Peg try to sleep in separate beds. Also, the subplot of Jefferson and Marcy role-playing Al and Peg in the otherwise rotten “The Juggs Have Left The Building” is worth singling out.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eleven of Married… With Children goes to…
“The Stepford Peg”
NOTE TO ALL READERS: From the results of January’s poll, I have decided that there is enough interest to make every show on the list an ideal candidate for full coverage. However, there are some scheduling changes about which I’ll alert you now. Following our look at Seinfeld, which comes directly after Murphy Brown (starting next week), I’ve decided to dive into our two HBO comedies, Dream On and The Larry Sanders Show. Then, as a “palate cleanser,” we’ll circle back and examine the soon-to-be completely released Newhart. (Herman’s Head will be discussed on three Wednesdays around this time.) Following that, I’ll start Wings, which I’ve moved so that it can be adjacent to Frasier, our first show of 2018. From there, we’ll do Mad About You and The John Larroquette Show (I’m not sure in which order), followed by Ellen, Friends, and most likely, Cybill. I’ll let you know if anything changes; so stay tuned — there’s great stuff ahead…
Come back next Tuesday for my thoughts on the best episodes from the first season of Murphy Brown (1988-1998, CBS)! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!