Married…With Children

In the old-time automobile world, an “antique” is older than 45, a “classic” dates from 20 to 45 years ago. It’s been in that spirit that in recent times I’ve been adding more material to Travalanche about the 1980s and ’90s (much as TCM has begun showing movies from that period. After all, a 40 year old person was born in 1982!) Ironically, I’ve already written about many “classic” shows I was far less devoted to than Married…With Children (1987-1997), though I have mentioned that show on Travalanche nearly two dozen times.

“Devoted” is almost certainly the wrong word. I always wanted something from Married…With Children that I never got. I felt there was something latently there in the concept, something ambitious which the show never delivered, so I was constantly dissatisfied, but I watched it rather loyally out of morbid curiosity, and the occasional guilty chuckle. It launched in 1987, the same year as Roseanne and The Simpsons segments on The Tracey Ullman Show, and all three sitcoms seemed to share a similar ambition: to upend the traditional family sitcom and explode the lies and mythology that underlay that format. It was near the end of the Reagan ’80s, and it was beginning to occur to people that the cultural 1950s throwback that the Gipper represented (manifested on comfy, gentle programs like The Cosby Show) did not represent the lives of real, ordinary, struggling Americans. Wall Street got ever richer; working stiffs got…stiffed. So smart TV people decided to respond with shows that reflected that reality. Roseanne did so with frank, even brutal realism. The Simpsons did so with clever satire. Married…with Children did it by merely being heinous, in the spirit of a punk band.

Unsurprisingly, the then-new Fox Network was the perfect home for a show like that. At the time, their willingness to take risks seemed exciting; nowadays if I identify the Fox brand with anything, the word would be “nihilism”, and this was a pretty nihilistic show. It’s main raison d’etre was stylistic. It was about a sit-com family, not a real one, or one even remotely based on real analogues. The Sinatra-sung theme song, the old standard “Love and Marriage”, announced irony, at the very least, something anti-idealistic, yet also seemed to be in dialogue with old episodes of Father Knows Best or whatever on Nick at Night. Married…With Children seemed to promise a level of grotesquerie approaching The Munsters and The Addams Family…but it only partially delivered that.

The family’s name was “Bundy” (like the serial killer). The only character on the show who approached the amount of “outre” I sought was the wife Peg (Katie Sagal), whose kitsch factor, with the big hair and the spandex, approached Peewee Herman, John Waters, David Lynch, and the B-52s, which was precisely my taste. The daughter Kelly (Christina Applegate) was slutty in the Madonna mold, which also seemed fairly cutting edge at the time. The character of Bud, the son (David Faustino) was the weakest link conceptually. If he was supposed to be as funny and out there as the other characters, one saw no evidence of it, not in a TV universe that has contained such vivid characters as Pugsly Addams, Eddie Munster, or even Larry Mondello, or Maynard G. Krebs. Was he supposed to be the normal one, like Marilyn Munster? If so they didn’t go far enough in that direction either. (Although at a certain point he rocked a mullet, and that was a good touch.) Ed O’Neill on the other hand was hysterically funny as patriarch Al Bundy, a shoe salesman with a weakness for “Big’Uns” magazine. His performance (his comic timing and delivery) was really what fueled the show and kept it going for an extraordinary 10 years, I think. It certainly wasn’t the writing, which I found consistently half-baked, lame, and short of the mark. O’Neill and the others sold it; that’s what saved the show.

Creators/producers/show-runners Michael G. Moye and Ron Leavitt had previously worked on shows like Diff’rent Strokes and The Jeffersons, which also suffered from markedly weak writing. On Married…With Children, the effort was entirely on being outrageous. It was not a cool, dispassionate satiric “take” on America, it was more like an actual symptom of America’s descent. It didn’t poke fun at “dumb and lowest common denominator”, it WAS dumb and lowest common denominator. It cheerfully embraced an aesthetic kinship with pro wrestling and topless strip clubs and heavy metal MTV videos, but didn’t transcend. It reflected America, but more like a mirror than a consciousness, so it seemed to me. But I couldn’t turn away, at least for the first few years, so I guess the producers won.

We have happy and sad updates on 3/4 of the cast. Katie Sagal now plays John Goodman’s wife on The Connors, the successor show to Roseanne, which is highly appropriate (and a fascinating study in contrasting approaches, The Connors being a much more “realistic” show). Christina Applegate knocked it OUT OF THE PARK on her recent Netflix series with Linda Cardellini Dead to Me, now in its third season, but she has sadly also announced that she has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It’s a huge pity, to put it mildly. She’s done the best acting work of her career on this show; she seemed about to hit her stride, with lots of exciting work ahead of her, but now there’s a shadow over her future. And as for Ed O’Neill (whose birthday it is today) he went on to yet another long-lasting family show, Modern Family, which ran from 2009-2020, thus beating his previous personal best. Faustino has also been a steadily working actor, although with nothing like the success of the other three. Ever the odd man out!

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