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Married With Children – The Complete First Season (A TV on DVD Review)

Married… With Children

Married… With Children – The Complete First Season

The Complete First Season – 1987 (Columbia TriStar-2003)

Simply scratch the surface of Married… With Children’s first thirteen episodes (now available on DVD), and you will find the most depressing show ever to appear on television. Beneath its fierce determination to be rude, crude and outrageous is revealed the sad punch line to The American Dream.

Its material is dredged up from the bottom of a carton of the soured milk of human kindness, its expiration date long-ago expired. This is a nightmare on Elm Street, concerning a family of vultures trapped inside a ticky-tacky house, tearing away at each other’s flesh. The pathos is worthy of the most sobering Eugene O’ Neill play. It’s a long day’s journey into prime time that had lasted eleven seasons, its bitter castor oil drunk down thirstily by millions of fans, mostly male.

The series struck an off-key chord, and that’s to its credit: it’s not easy to bring millions of people together week after week for years and years — unless, after the seemingly harmless laughter subsides, its audience realizes that it has just been offered a serving of honesty and truth on some subconscious level (although most of them would never realize this or admit it). A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, even if the sugar contains cyclamates.

The Bundys, middle-class poor and long resigned to their sorry fates, are a clan of walking, talking ids. They say what other victims in the same situation (and there are millions of them) could only think or feel without ever revealing, not even in family therapy. There is no tact, no holding of the tongue, no turning the other cheek, no phoniness fronting their unbearable agony of everyday living. If they don’t laugh outrageously, they’ll cry buckets, so they opt for the humor, pulling out the stops. The problem, like with most television sitcoms, is that some of the punches are pulled — you can tell exactly when and where this happens, its glaringly obvious and a huge letdown.

Up until the debut of this series, networks would never allow us the “real” Bundys — the endless throngs of development dwellers you see waddling through the outlet malls or standing in line like sheep for the latest swill at the movie multiplexes, their credit cards mad-maxed, their quiet suffering from too much McDonald’s, their brains awash from TiVo. They’re way too carbon copy, even today, even for reality television. However, as cartoonish as the Bundys were, they were the very essence of these people; they made art out of the ordinary. The Bundys are America to the tenth power.

In this first season, there is an obligatory but forgivable bit of “I love you after all” hugging and learning. The only time you’ll ever see this family display any sincere (but rare) affection with each other is here in these strange first thirteen episodes, in which everyone is more or less on their best behavior. You’ll witness quiet conversations, backrubs and intimate glances between husband and wife, and even occasional sibling bonding that would make even the most unfamiliar Married… With Children viewer realize how awkward and wrong this is. 

After this premiere season, the warmth goes out the door, letting in the cold air off Lake Michigan – and all the flies. If you’re a true fan, this DVD is a pure hoot, for there is nothing more fascinating than revisiting a show taking its modest first baby steps before it becomes a sensation and gains its confidence; a new series in search of its characters and its characters in search of a show.

According to the recent reunion special, which is also included on this DVD, the series debuted in 1987 as the fledging Fox network’s first significant hit. Rupert Murdoch, who had purchased a string of UHF stations in order to form a “rebel network,” wanted to stick it to the establishment (namely ABC, NBC and CBS). His target, especially, was the most popular mainstream programming of the day: the yuppified, prosperous likes of The Cosby Show and Growing Pains.

Married… With Children turned the sunny sitcom smile into a grimace, in which for once the players were dysfunctional, never-satisfied, frustrated underachievers. This was refreshingly about time, but where Married… With Children couldn’t completely get it right, Roseanne and Seinfeld more successfully fine-tuned the concept a few short years later (ironically, these programs appeared on the established networks once those networks figured out how to catch up).

The reunion special, like most programs of this ilk, is a bit too self-congratulatory. The cast members lounge on the resurrected set in their real-life clothes, reminiscing and sharing anecdotes and laughs. Of course, watching almost an hour of brief best-of clips is far more entertaining than sitting through eleven years of any show, especially one as uneven as this one. As David Faustino, who played son Bud, stated, “[The Bundys] were exaggerated dysfunction, borderline white trash,” and David Garrison, who played yuppie neighbor Steve, said, “You’re not supposed to act like Father Knows Best!” 

Both actors are entirely correct, but the message that the special keeps trying to hammer home is “you’ve never seen anything like this on TV before.” True, but not entirely. By the late 80s, the Bunkers had already come and gone, and Saturday Night Live had exhausted its reserve of toilet humor and desperate-to-please outrageousness. Married… With Children wasn’t the revolution they want you to believe it was, but it certainly earned its place in “home sweet hell” innovation.

The strength of this show lies not in its writing but in its acting. The genius of rubber-faced Ed O’ Neill, who was put on this earth to play the hangdog head of the clan, is the main reason to tune in for any episode. He tosses off lines like nobody’s business, and his suffering and resignation is the stuff of high art. His character, Al Bundy, is the son of a bowling alley pinsetter; he had a whirlwind romance with his high-school sweetheart, Peg (he reminisces, “[remember when we walked on the beach?] You got cold so I gave you back your coat.”). Al knocked up Peggy during the summer after high school, where Al was a football legend and had a promising future ahead of him. He put his college football career permanently on hold; his humiliating part-time job at a strip mall shoe store became full time, where he remained forever and ever, amen.

Al Bundy has become a prototype as recognizable in the culture as Archie Bunker; when someone describes an “Al Bundy type,” you know exactly what it means. When Bundy mumbles to himself, “I didn’t want to get married – I got married. I didn’t want to have kids, I have two…,” it’s a mantra that’s tragicomic all in one quick, exasperated breath. When his wife asks him, “Did you miss me?” and he answers, “With every bullet so far,” you know you’re witnessing pure brilliance. Another actor may not have delivered the line with such precision.

Portraying wife Peg Bundy, Katy Sagal is nothing less than competent and talented. However, that may be the very problem. The character is written as an undereducated couch potato with no marketable skills and nothing to offer her family or the world. Sagal is so articulate and intelligent, so beautiful and cynical, that her character almost doesn’t add up. Unlike O’Neill, who fits comfortably into his role, Sagal is always too busy camping it up in her Frederick’s of Hollywood wardrobe, taking tiny little steps and fussing with her hands. She seems to be acting every minute; her ditsy persona clashes with the on-the-ballness that Sagal oozes so naturally. Her lines would sound funnier if she didn’t seem so smart and savvy, like when she says to her kids, “I’d ground you, but you’d be here all day,” or when yuppie neighbor Marcy says, “Do you think women want to sit around all day watching TV?” and Peg nods emphatically. It’s funny, but we’re never quite sold.

Christina Applegate and David Faustino, who play offspring Kelly and Bud Bundy, are surprisingly natural and appealing, at least at first. As the series moves on, they become more and more cartoon-like, leaving far behind what little teenage realism they had originally and triumphantly offered.

As the natural foils, Steve and Marcy Rhodes (David Garrison and Amanda Bearse) earn their paychecks as the precious next-door neighbors and honeymooners whose rose-colored worldview is slowly eroded by the Bundys’ sourness. Misery loves company, especially if it’s visiting from next door: the Bundys are happy to help extinguish any flicker of optimism that lightens their darkened doorway. They are the Unwelcome Wagon.

What sets Married… With Children apart from many of the envelope pushers that came before it is that now the main characters are the bad influences, rather than the other way around. Now, the bad blood is coming from within the main body. The parental advice is wrongheaded; instead of smiles, we get snarls. Peggy sets the oven timer to remind herself to order in dinner; Al accidentally shoots the neighbors’ dog, Bud bribes Kelly to keep her material-girl lifestyle a secret. Get out, now: the psycho caller is coming from inside the house!

Another innovation to its credit is that the Bundys are a microcosm of America: like the Bundys, Americans will fuss and fight with each other until an outsider picks on them, and then that outsider better watch out!

As the show grew in popularity, the stories became more outrageous and unreal, and the sexual suggestiveness became more blatant. The original hints at bawdiness (an adolescent Bud getting off while watching aerobics on TV, Kelly playing fast and loose with her stone-washed-jeans ‘80s friends, Al on the couch with his hand down his pants, but never far enough to concern the censors) would only become more out there as the series progressed (digressed?). And, like most shows that eventually make the conscious decision to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the quest for ratings (think Happy Days), the hooting and hollering of the studio audience actually becomes a distracting character within the show itself. And finally, the show’s eventual obsession with stunt casting (everyone from Jessica Hahn to Tina Louise to Jerry Hall) took away from what little realism it originally had to offer.

Still, let’s face it: funny is funny. The ironically pleasant and innocent theme song “Love and Marriage,” happily masks the nightmare of the Bundy existence, as do the storylines. When Al asks his wife, “Are the kids gone?” she answers warily, “Yeah, but they’ll be back.” That’s as timeless today as it was brash then. And when Peg says to her kids, “Smile as if Daddy died,” we know we’ve entered The Twilight Zone, and it’s not as scary as we originally feared. And, honestly, do we really need another moral lesson, as Al tells his children, “Kids, there is something we can all learn from this.” They ask, “What Dad?” And he responds wearily with “I don’t know. Go to bed.”

Or, upon receiving good news, Peggy exclaims, “I’m as giddy as a widow!”

So are we.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: October 10, 2004.

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