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. HAROLD SYLVESTER recurs as Griff.
In last week’s commentary, we discussed at length how Married… With Children was at the precipice of its evolution into a logic-starved cartoon, in which the series’ repeated and overarching push for broad camp-fueled laughs could no longer be sustained through believable characterizations and any semblance of a substantive foundation; this faulty construction would then prove corrosive to the show’s ability to be regularly comedic through said characters, thus separating the now-caricatured players from the stories told and making the writing’s repeated rejection of reason no longer worth the collective subjugation of our aesthetic principles. (In other words, it’s going to become less character-driven and often too stupid to excuse!) While some felt the show’s glory days had long concluded by the time of Season Eight (and, narratively, that might be a difficult argument to counter), I nevertheless opined that the year represented one final vestige of sustainable quality, perhaps the “apex” of the show’s sense of humor, boasting the most impressive relationship between ambitious, bold comedy — the kind that was being heightened every year in the series’ quest for more, bigger, and newer — and mostly character-rooted scenarios that made supportive and justifiable sense both on a macro and micro level. In an early draft of that post, which was revised before publication, I likened the show’s ongoing broadening – particularly with regard to the alienating extremeness under which the characters would continue to be written – to an expanding bubble, warning that Season Eight was the biggest the “bubble” would ever satisfyingly become — a moment of elevated grandeur eight years in the making, but impossible to sustain — for it would soon be subjected to the inevitable burst, when the rising absurdity would finally destroy the audience’s regular faith in the characters. Thus, one might assume Season Nine to be the “bursting.”
Unfortunately, I think this collection of episodes inevitably proves the above idea to be affirmative — the fabled bubble is certainly in trouble here in Season Nine — although its combustion is neither as spectacular or ostentatious as this series’ history, or even the sometimes hyperbolic nature of my commentary, would lead one to believe. In fact, this may be one of the only things that Married… With Children does with subtlety, for there is no singular moment here where the baroque’d-to-high-heaven characters and their increasingly Simpsons-ized (read: disconnected from logic) storytelling become so grossly unwieldy that the series’ core (its triangular relationship between character, story, and humor) collapses. No, the fate of this mythical bubble doesn’t involve a spectacular pop, but rather, a gradual deflation — a deflation that begins here in Season Nine and continues until the series limps across its figurative finish line in Season Eleven. You see, the bursting of a bubble doesn’t do the series’ trajectory justice. (Sorry for all the mixed metaphors – I find the image quirkily endearing and sometimes an efficient tool for describing my thoughts!) Actually, Married… With Children is generally better off than other long-running series that fall victim to similar problems in their twilight years, like, for instance, The Jeffersons, as there are still moments of great comedy in these final seasons, and although they don’t come often enough to excuse the show’s widespread and irreversibly destructive tendencies, these strong laugh-out-loud moments do appear often enough to make them easily highlight-able — and deservedly so. As a matter of fact, a first glance at today’s list may not indicate that there’s been any change from last season – many comedic stories here appear no broader than what was seen last year… But that’s only at first glance.
Sadly, the problems are foundational. Although there are several episodes here that I would consider to be among the series’ finest (including an uninterrupted string of three outings — noted below — that I find truly hysterical), the show’s “base level of quality” — a terminology that comes up with some frequency on this blog in reference to the average quality existing throughout a season, defining the year in its many moments that are neither exceptionally strong or weak, is noticeably reduced. That is, while there are still great installments that stand above their peers (like those aforementioned three), the season’s core quality — specifically the aesthetic that flows through the typical, or more pejoratively, the mediocre installments here — is fundamentally inferior in comparison to that which has been seen in seasons past, specifically years Three-Eight. This reduction can undoubtedly be traced to the broadening trend that we’ve been exploring all along, for the changes permeate the stories, the tellings, and ultimately, the characters. Sure, one could also claim that the series was becoming outpaced by the incoming televisual sweep of “singles in the city” fare, which would explode this season (’94-’95) with Friends, but that explains not why this show isn’t working, but rather why it was no longer as commercially appealing, and I would argue that any effects this had on Married… With Children’s creative operations are irrespective to the difference between this season and the last. Additionally, one can’t blame the difference between Eight and Nine on the creative team; co-creator Michael G. Moye, who returned last season to resume the executive producing reins, is back again this year, his last as a “hands on” participant. (His absence will be felt next year.) So there’s no change in that regard. Furthermore, one can’t blame the season’s lower quality on bad decisions — like a pregnancy or Seven — because, for once, the show is making good decisions.
Let’s go through them. For starters, the series decided not to write in Sagal’s pregnancy this time, instead excusing the actress’ maternity leave as Peg vacationing back home in Wanker County, a story that holds up for the season’s first few episodes and actually doesn’t act as much of a hindrance to the stories. (We miss her structurally, but the other characters enjoy the elevated time, and thus, get more opportunities of their own for laughs.) So the show has clearly learned from past mistakes! Also, the season makes wise moves with regard to its expanding universe, introducing a handful of characters who invite both new story and big comedy. The first is reporter Miranda Veracruz de la Jolla Cardinal (Teresa Parente), a one-joke, but not demeaning, presence who provides comedic continuity anytime the series needs to make use of a news crew throughout the rest of its run. (It happens more often than you’d think.) The second is Marcy’s niece, Amber (Juliet Tablak), who comes to stay with her aunt for the year and serves as a casual love interest to Bud. Although she’s not a very funny character herself (and the series doesn’t give her much of a personality; she only makes four appearances throughout the season, leaving little impression), she ties into Bud’s overall character development, and that’s one of year’s stronger through-lines. (He has a few laudable showings here, partly thanks to her.) The third character is Al’s long-discussed boss Gary (Janet Carroll), who he’s stunned to learn is a woman. She’ll be another source of conflict throughout these remaining seasons, which smartly make more use of the shoe store setting — a fact that proves most rewarding due to the season’s best addition, Al’s new sidekick Griff (Harold Sylvester), who replaces last year’s Aaron as Al’s right-hand man at the store. Sylvester is a hilarious presence who not only makes shoe store stories more viable, but also helps encourage the growing utilization of NO MA’AM, a source for continued story and easy, but reliable, jokes. His inclusion is script-elevating — a fresh addition to a series in need of new character-driven dimension.
Yet, with all these smart moves happening to bolster the series’ standing, why is this year the “burst,” or more accurately, the “deflation” of the bubble? Well, it’s the way things are being written; the show, long having distanced itself from foundational satire, thanks to a departing actor and a surprise emotional relatability from the audience to the Bundys, finally loses something important: connectable characters. 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. We realize the problem (and its permanency), slowly over the course of this season, and while this was always the inevitability, hastened by the departure of Leavitt, whom I posited last week as the character guy (to Moye’s funny man), it’s still a disappointment that can’t be understated… However, I can still spin this positively in a few ways: 1) Season Nine is better than Ten and Eleven, 2) I’m grateful the series was as solid for as long as it was, and 3) as always, there are some worthwhile entries here. So, on those optimistic words, I have 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 Nine. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that the two specials produced this season, “Best Of Bundy” and “My Favorite Married,” are NOT considered episodes themselves.
01) Episode 185: “Driving Mr. Boondy” (Aired: 09/11/94)
Al has to retake his driver’s exam and Kelly works at Marcy’s bank.
Written by Donald Beck | Directed by Gerry Cohen
Of all the season’s Peg-less/lite offerings (the first four episodes of the season), this one is the most comedic, for it’s the most character (as opposed to story) centered. Additionally, because the installment’s two stories are set away from the house in separate locations (the DMV for Al/Bud and Marcy’s bank for Marcy/Kelly), the episode doesn’t give us a chance to miss Peg. This is smart, for one of the things that will become particularly clear next season, when Sagal goes on a maternity leave that encompasses the entire latter half of the year, the character, even though she doesn’t get great stories, is vital for commentary, so the show misses her when she’s gone. Anyway, this funny episode is not too ridiculous — a winner for Season Nine.
02) Episode 187: “Naughty But Niece” (Aired: 09/25/94)
Bud is attracted to Marcy’s visiting niece.
Written by David Castro | Directed by Gerry Cohen
This Peg-lite offering introduces two characters of varying importance: Griff and Amber. While the former will assert himself as the best addition this series has seen since Jefferson and remain Al’s shoe store sidekick for the rest of the run, the latter’s appearances are confined to Season Nine and only a few offerings in which she herself never exists as a comedic presence. This last point is, okay, however, for her inclusion is almost assuredly designed specifically for Bud — to give him a casual love interest (and thus new stories that may appeal to a younger audience — more network “suggestions,” perhaps?) and in this episode, keep him tethered to the rest of the family. This is indeed a terrific outing for Bud’s character — one of several this year.
03) Episode 190: “Dial B For Virgin” (Aired: 10/16/94)
Bud takes a job at the Virgin Hotline, while Peg and Al rent a movie.
Written by Wayne Kline | Directed by Amanda Bearse
As the first entry in that aforementioned string of three hits, this installment has the distinction of being among the series’ funniest. This sentiment bears reinforcing, for very few shows can claim some of their strongest episodes nine years into the run. (And for what we’ve covered on this blog, the only show that can boast a similar claim is Cheers.) This particular episode is a Victory in Premise — Bud getting a job at the virgin hotline alongside a chaste spinster played by the always hilarious Beverly Archer — and of comedic storytelling. The script, by Kline (who wrote last year’s MVE — his only other episode) knows how to seek big laughs by keeping them within the established (albeit, broad) characterizations. In fact, while the Bud story is comedic, some of the best scenes here come between Al and Peg as they go to the video rental store and try to pick out something that they’ll both enjoy. Simple, character-based laughs. Divine.
04) Episode 191: “Sleepless In Chicago” (Aired: 10/23/94)
Al finds himself in a precarious position when Jefferson tries to swap Marcy’s birthday present.
Written by Katherine Green | Directed by Katherine Green
Another winner, this installment isn’t written as comedically sharp as the ones highlighted directly above or below, but it’s another Victory in Premise, for it takes an indubitably comedic idea — Al being forced to sleep next to Marcy in bed — and contrives a way for the story to get there without making it seem like a particularly manipulative narrative. I also think this episode points to Jefferson’s durability on the series; although McGinley has long been regarded as a “show-killer,” his rarely-too-ostentatious character has been good for the other characters, allowing them to become more comedically salient versions of themselves, while his definition occurs more slowly. Another series classic — just a very funny idea ably presented.
05) Episode 192: “No Pot To Pease In” (Aired: 11/06/94)
The Bundys find themselves as the basis for a new FOX sitcom.
Written by John Glenn Houston | Directed by Gerry Cohen
My pick for the best episode of the season, this episode is another one of those situational satire scenarios about which we’ve been talking over these past few weeks. (Nutshell review: Although the show was founded on being a satire of television comedies, once the characters became endeared to the audience, the show kept having to work harder to employ its parody, eventually opting instead to abandon institutionalized satire, in favor of that which could be described as specific and circumstantial.) This episode, which is perhaps the most self-referential of the entire run, takes a not-so-original story (heck, we’ve seen it on Sanford And Son, which no one’s ever claimed was a paragon of story originality) about the Bundys finding their lives adapted into a popular FOX sitcom and makes it feel fresh by virtue of the series’ superb ability to spoof and deride. Everything about FOX, about television, and about the show itself is mocked in this episode, and while it’s still a situational lampoon, it’s nevertheless incredibly potent — not to mention indicative of the show’s sense of humor about itself and its own identity, a trait that has admirably served it well through the duration of its run. A classic.
06) Episode 195: “I Want My Psycho Dad (I)” (Aired: 12/11/94)
Al and his friends are shocked when their favorite program is cancelled.
Written by Barry Gold | Directed by Gerry Cohen
There’s an interesting history to this two-parter, and if you read the newspaper article featured above in the commentary, you’ll see that these installments were originally planned for Season Eight until FOX refused to let them go into production, due to their treatment of violence on television. Of course, the scripts finally got shot and broadcast, and one wouldn’t even be able to tell that they were originally planned for last season, particularly because the broad and, frankly, terribly unrealistic hijinks seem more at home here in Season Nine than they would have in Season Eight. But that mostly goes for Part II; Part I has the luxury of just merely setting up the funny idea, which involves NO MA’AM and helps pit Marcy against Al (always comedic).
07) Episode 197: “The Naked And The Dead, But Mostly The Naked” (Aired: 01/08/95)
Peg and her friends join their husbands at the nudie bar.
Written by Michael G. Moye | Directed by Sam W. Orender
In complete transparency, I initially intended to only choose eight for this list, and this was one that got boosted up from the honorable mentions. Truthfully, I don’t think this episode is nearly as memorable as its premise suggests, even though it’s credited to Moye himself, who both has a great knowledge of the characters and how to use them for meaty laughs. I actually think the outing rests too much faith on its comedic premise — of the wives accompanying the men to the nudie bar — that it derives too much of its enjoyment from the concept. However, this may be too big of a nitpick, because regardless of how it stacks up in comparison to the others here, it still is superior to the entries that I’ve opted not to feature. (And I’m glad I chose ten.)
08) Episode 199: “Get The Dodge Outta Hell” (Aired: 02/05/95)
Al’s Dodge is lost at the car wash, and Marcy runs into Steve.
Written by Larry Jacobson | Directed by Gerry Cohen
Produced as the series’ 200th but aired as the 199th, this is an important episode, and you can tell that all involved put effort into making it a cut above the rest. In addition to being notably laugh-filled, it’s also reminiscent of the early years, imbued with a sense of welcome history (or full-circleness, for lack of a better term). For one, it grants the return appearance of David Garrison as Steve (who, incidentally, appears once more in a dreadful backdoor pilot that should otherwise go unmentioned), thus forcing Marcy to confront her lingering feelings for him and how she may be settling with Jefferson, who’s just gotten a job at the car wash. In fact, most of the episode is set at the car wash, allowing for the proceedings to play with a unity of time and place, an element that embraces the show’s inherent theatricality and also feels reminiscent of the early seasons. (If there’s any complaint, it’s that the Bundys, who get some pure character material, never interact with Steve!) Enjoyable, big (small) episode for all — a favorite.
09) Episode 204: “And Bingo Was Her Game-O” (Aired: 03/26/95)
Peg takes Marcy to a Bingo tournament, and NO MA’AM tries to pick an official beer.
Written by Laurie Lee-Goss & Garry Bowren | Directed by Gerry Cohen
I’ve never seen this episode cited by fans as being among their favorites, but I think it’s one of those quietly strong entries that simply isn’t flashy enough to stand alongside what typically constitutes a Married… With Children classic. Belying a sense of willful cohesion, the script employs two separate stories that prove themselves to be dependent; while Peg (and Marcy) go to a Bingo tournament — one of the best stories ever thrown to Peg, a difficult character for whom to craft ideas — Al and his NO MA’AM gang get drunk trying to choose an official beer for the group, thus preventing him from picking her up like he promised. There are a lot of little comedic moments here, and because it’s so good for Peg, highlighting this one was a no-brainer.
10) Episode 206: “Pump Fiction” (Aired: 04/30/95)
Al and Kelly make a short film about shoes.
Written by Kim Weiskopf & David Castro | Directed by Gerry Cohen
Sometimes I balk at this premise when found on other sitcoms because the idea of characters on a show making a film is simply a gimmick that secures comedy based on manipulative (writer-imposed) construction rather than anything character-driven or substantive. (Cheers most comes to mind.) However, because my expectations for this series are calibrated differently (as they are for Gilligan’s Island, which also did a story like this) — believing that the series has long employed humor that can be considered occasionally gimmicky — I therefore find the premise permissible and within the show’s aesthetic. So I am able to appreciate the easy, but fine comedy of Kelly and Al’s cinematic masterpiece, Sheos, without claiming its brilliance.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Shoeway To Heaven,” which is an amusing, if unspectacular, opening to the season (set primarily at the shoe store), “25 Years And What Do You Get?,” one of the least ridiculous episodes of the year (it’s more subdued and, in some moments, feels like it belongs to a different era), “User Friendly,” a Bud-heavy episode that features the last appearance of Amber and boasts an easy-laugh subplot of the husbands failing at a home project, and the funny “Shoeless Al.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Nine of Married… With Children goes to…
“No Pot To Pease In”
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 NEXT week.
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the tenth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!