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Married… With Children gave us an unhappy family like no other

David Faustino, Ed O'Neill, Katey Sagal, and Christina Applegate starred in Married... With Children (Photo: Fox)
David Faustino, Ed O'Neill, Katey Sagal, and Christina Applegate starred in Married... With Children (Photo: Fox)

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.

Dysfunctional TV families are now de rigueur, but there was a time when veteran writers Michael G. Moye and Ron Leavitt felt the market was saturated with saccharine portrayals. They’d both been around the sitcom block before taking their idea for what became Married… With Children to Fox—Moye had written for Diff’rent Strokes and Good Times, and his fellow Jeffersons writer Leavitt had previously worked on Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Their combined experience with sitcom clans ran the gamut from idealized to aspirational yet relatable, but they were passionate about creating a show that turned up the realism. So the two pitched Fox on a sitcom premise that guaranteed group hugs would be few and far between.

Moye and Leavitt’s original concept for Married… With Children (née Not The Cosbys) was simple: The series would depart from the formulaic warmth and lessons of shows like Leave It To Beaver and Silver Spoons (the latter of which Moye co-developed) to create a singularly unhappy family for TV viewers. Instead of featuring an Eddie Haskell or a Kimmy Gibler, Married… With Children would center on a whole family of misfits, who we’d be lucky to see tolerate each other, let alone grow as the show progressed. Peg and Al Bundy would be the indifferent and downtrodden parents, respectively, of two teens who raised hell instead of any kind of awareness on issues affecting youth.

When the show was first pitched, Moye and Leavitt envisioned Sam Kinison as Al Bundy, the unsuccessful shoe salesman whose high school football glory is never far from his mind. The series creators had also hoped to snag Roseanne Barr for the role of Peggy, a stay-at-home mom who rarely left the couch. The producers reportedly modeled the characters after Kinison’s and Barr’s stand-up personas, which were popular but not exactly lovable. The two stand-ups passed on the show, with the latter debuting her own series about a less-than-perfect family just a year later on ABC. Kinison would later guest star in the season-four episode “It’s A Bundyful Life.”

Even without established comedians heading up the dysfunctional Bundy household, the fledgling Fox network picked up Married… With Children, adding it to a Sunday lineup that featured 21 Jump Street, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and The Tracey Ullman Show. By then, Ed O’Neill and Katey Sagal had been cast as the miserable marrieds; they appeared in the pilot with Tina Caspary and Hunter Carson, who were initially cast as Kelly and Bud. But when the show debuted on April 5, 1987, Christina Applegate had replaced Caspary as elder sibling Kelly, while David Faustino donned the future baggy pants of Bud Bundy.

The Bundys were a whole family of malcontents, who sparred as much with each other as everyone else around them. They were a fun-house mirror version of a nuclear family. Al was a hollowed-out shell of Ward Cleaver—he had a family and a job, but derived little satisfaction or comfort from either. Most episodes centered on the Bundys’ discordant home life and Al’s depressing work life, with jokes mostly coming at the paterfamilias’ expense. But he was no mere put-on schlub; he was more openly bigoted than Archie Bunker and more skeptical of the people around him than George Jefferson. Al was the de facto series lead, but he was hardly a character to get behind. He was a misogynist and a bigot, who had one foot out the door. Forget all the hooting that followed his entrance in every episode; those hollers were the soundtrack for his latest failure.

Married… With Children also skewered the happy homemaker archetype, featuring a mother with a complete lack of maternal instinct and zero remorse about that fact. Sagal envisioned the character as a former cocktail waitress, so she crafted the look of someone who was trapped in a permanent happy hour: big hair, stretch pants, cigarette permanently in hand. Like everyone else in the family, Peggy lacked any real redeeming qualities, but her parental neglect was easier to play for laughs because her kids were old enough to mostly fend for themselves. But they were plenty bitter about that—even the dim-witted but beautiful Kelly could tell something was missing. She was often too busy picking on her younger brother, Bud, who made up in brains what he lacked everywhere else. The Bundy teens were also subverting the sitcom norms—Bud was a hornier, less personable version of annoying little brothers like Ben Seaver, while the prepossessing and older Kelly boldly engaged in sexual encounters that were only insinuated on shows like Family Ties and Growing Pains.

That same unusual and unflattering portrait of family life stalled out the show. Offering up what Moye and Leavitt considered a more accurate representation of American families was the extent of Married… With Children’s innovation. Its dedication to having so many unlikable characters at its core—even the Rhoades and D’Arcys next door didn’t prove to be much better in the long run—wore thin over the course of the show’s 11 seasons. There have been so many flawed families on the small screen since, with one glaring difference: All of those groups, from the Malcolm In The Middle clan to the Gallaghers of Shameless, showed some growth over time. Married… became tedious and skirted nihilism in its later seasons, churning out family feuds and dreams deferred ad nauseam. The breakup threats preceded (and mirrored) The Simpsons’ will-they/won’t-they divorce conceit, as did so many of Al’s downright cartoonish schemes and accidents.

The utter lack of morality didn’t sit well with some TV viewers, including a Michigan woman who led a boycott in 1989, which in turn led to a rise in popularity for the show. But most people who tuned in before and after the boycott didn’t do so to watch Kelly learn something or see Al score a small victory (though those things certainly happened); the show’s midsize but ardent following did so to revel in its eschewing of any values system. And that’s what they got, with diminishing returns. Here we offer 10 episodes that saw the Bundys at their best, which was the same as their worst.

1. “Married… Without Children” (season one, episode seven)

Screenshot: Amazon Video

With their upward mobility and more progressive values, the Rhoades were intended to be a foil to the resigned Bundy clan. Marcy in particular served as a counterpoint to Al’s misogyny, and regularly battled with her boorish neighbor on everything from political issues to aesthetic matters. Marcy and Steve’s relationship deteriorated throughout the first four seasons; she became domineering, and he withdrew. Their differences were highlighted in this season-one episode, which saw them instantly regret wanting to play house with the Bundy kids. Despite being equipped with “a game recommended by Psychology Today,” the Rhoades can’t get through to the little hellions. The failed experiment revealed that only Marcy was ready for the next step in their marriage, foreshadowing her split with Steve years later.

2. “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (season two, episode seven)

Screenshot: Amazon Video

Though mostly resigned to his fate, Al occasionally railed against the latest cause of disappointment in his life. Over the course of the series, the sad-sack everyman took on various systems, usually after some assault on his backwards values or small comforts, like beer. The futility of his efforts was clear from the get-go, but Moye and Leavitt gave him the odd win here and there to maintain the illusion—for the character and audience—that life wasn’t quite meaningless. “For Whom The Bell Tolls” sees Al and the series in high form, with a story that’s both heavy on the barbs and dissatisfaction. For the rest of the family, Al’s battle with the phone company is nothing more than an inconvenience, but he sees it as a form of resistance. He works himself up into a patriotic lather and pulls out a small victory, but true to its nature, the show saddles him with an even bigger problem: a visit from his mother-in-law.

3. “Eatin’ Out” (season three, episode 11)

Screenshot: Amazon Video

The Bundy home was made up of a bitter husband, an equally bitter wife, and two hormonal teens, so the fighting was almost nonstop. For many viewers, this dynamic was far truer to life than that of the more wholesome households that reigned over the other networks. But even that seemingly accurate representation of home life would wear thin (and did) if it weren’t for the occasional ceasefire. And watching the Bundys battle a common enemy was often more enjoyable than seeing them spar among themselves. In this midseason episode, a small windfall leads to—what else?—some brief fighting before a fancy family dinner replete with zingers. Most significantly, Kelly and Bud are able to see their parents as something other than downtrodden authority figures. It doesn’t last, because in typical Bundy fashion, they find themselves unable to settle up at the end of the meal. The group ends up split along familiar lines, with the kids worrying about themselves while Peg and Al figure out a way to avoid debtors’ prison.

4. “976-SHOE” (season four, episode eight)

Screenshot: Amazon Video

Over its 11-season run, Married… With Children taught us that if Al didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all: The shoe salesman went from struggling provider to human punching bag. The writers laid it on thick, putting the sad sack in increasingly dismal and cartoonish circumstances. It became equally punishing for viewers over time, as there appeared to be some kind of checklist of humiliations and slights for Al to endure. And even though he didn’t give his family much of a reason to have his back, their abysmally low opinions of him dragged down the momentum. Which is what made the intermittent return of his will to live so important—it cut the bleakness as effectively as the occasional win. In “976-SHOE,” Al launches a shoe advice hotline in a desperate attempt to make the last couple decades of his life count for something. Everyone else thinks the idea stinks, including Steve, who lent him the money to start the business. Their fortunes are all tied together, so they all fail together. Steve gets fired, marking the beginning of the end of his marriage to Marcy.

5. “Oldies But Young ’Uns” (season five, episode 17)

Screenshot: Amazon Video

The paternalistic nonsense of the “daddy’s little girl” convention was very much a part of this sitcom family, but in this case, Daddy was a lout and his daughter, not so innocent. In order to keep up appearances, Al remained willfully ignorant of Kelly’s wild ways, and she tried her damnedest to keep them from him. But their arrangement couldn’t hold up against the revolving door of Kelly’s boyfriends, which spit out future sitcom stalwart Matt LeBlanc in this late season-five episode. LeBlanc plays Vinnie, the son of Al’s old friend Charlie. Their courtship is hindered by Al, whose latest quixotic quest involves naming the song whose tune is stuck in his head. There’s a short-lived victory for everyone here: Al gets his hands on the correct Beatles record, which is promptly destroyed, and Kelly is free to date Vinnie, who eventually finds his way to two failed spin-offs.

6. “Hi I.Q.” (season six, episode 20)

Screenshot: Amazon Video

There was little love lost between siblings Bud and Kelly—he resented her ability to coast on her looks, and she was put off by his early-onset bitterness. Although they would continue to clash, things became slightly more harmonious when they each found their niche: Bud was the smart one, while Kelly remained the hot one. These weren’t the most inspired let alone respectful storytelling decisions, but they allowed them to coexist. That is, until one of them began to encroach on the other’s territory, like in this late season six episode, where Kelly is invited to join a MENSA-like group. Bud is instantly jealous, and he flings the usual insults at his sister. But when he realizes she’s been duped, he won’t stand for anyone (else) to mock her. The arc redeems Bud far more than it adds any dimension to Kelly, but it doesn’t entirely sell her short, as she at least displays a mechanical aptitude before episode’s end.

7. “The Chicago Wine Party” (season seven, episode seven)

Screenshot: Amazon Video

Class struggle was at the core of the series, with the Bundys frequently playing into gross stereotypes of working schlubs. But their more affluent counterparts were also subjected to plenty of ridicule. And more often than not, the Bundys’ salt-of-the-earth quality was held up as admirable. Take “The Chicago Wine Party,” which saw the family band together against everyone and everything else, including decency. In one of the show’s most overtly political offerings, Al becomes a firebrand—but only after a two-cent beer tax is proposed. He rallies his family to the polls, where they represent the uninformed voter, the apathetic voting public, and later, the downfall of civilization itself. Before it devolves into a bacchanalian mess, the episode makes good points about how various measures are introduced, and just whose rights are being protected.

8. “Luck Of The Bundys” (season eight, episode four)

Screenshot: Amazon Video

Logically, we understand that the Bundys’ frequently dire financial circumstances are the result of many things, including but not limited to unplanned pregnancies and lack of college degrees. (No judgment, but it’s hard to save for retirement when you’re barely making enough to support yourself in the present.) But Al chalks up his bad living to bad luck—the Bundy curse means any happy incidents will quickly turn to shit. The show seems to agree that the Bundys can’t escape their fate, as everyone’s attempts to strike out on their own end in disaster. It’s a road we’ve been down more times than we can count, but writer Richard Gurman pushes the absurdity beyond the usual bounds to set this fall from a greater height.

9. “No Pot To Pease In” (season nine, episode nine)

Screenshot: Amazon Video

Married… With Children held a mirror up to the Bundys and itself in this episode, even making sly reference to the 1989 boycott that led to a jump in ratings. Longtime director Gerry Cohen was at the helm for this meta-episode, in which the Bundys are confronted with their flaws, but still learn very little from them. After Kelly spills her family’s secrets during an audition, the Bundys end up on the small screen. Everyone but Al finds the portrayal unflattering, leaving him on his own yet again. (Their mixed reactions are also a nod to the show’s real-life reception, which was divided, to say the least.) Al puts their feelings above his and marches down to give the studio executive hell. Their lumpen family values aren’t to be ridiculed, he rages, shortly before accepting a payout. Neither his happiness nor the show within the show last, which means everything’s back to normal by episode’s close.

10. “Breaking Up Is Easy To Do, Part 3” (season 11, episode 16)

Screenshot: Amazon Video

Like a certain other sitcom couple, Al and Peggy regularly envisioned life without each other. But, after 25 years of marriage, inertia had set in thoroughly enough to keep them from actually acting on any of those impulses. Besides, they were both so flawed that they’d probably be just as miserable with other partners. This three-episode arc in the final season puts that theory to the test, splitting up the family in part one and following up the rift with Peggy’s and Al’s adventures in dating. She’s the more successful of the two, but the used car dealer played by the late Alan Thicke isn’t really that much of a catch—not once he reveals he intends to let the romance die once they’re married, anyway. There were plenty of woes behind the scenes as well, as Fox futzed about with the show’s time slot in what became its final season. The series was canceled after production wrapped on season 11, which made Al and Peggy’s last-ditch attempts to change their lives all the more desperate.

Availability: The complete Married… With Children series is available on DVD; individual episodes can be downloaded for a fee on iTunes, Vudu, and Amazon Video.