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Article about Married... with Children

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{} Comments by Andreas Carl

April 29, 1996


Nuking the Nuclear Family

'Married ... With Children' is crass, low class and the longest-running show on TV. Deal with it.

By Rick Marin

Anti-TV snobs revile "Married ... With Children" as proof of the end of Western civilization. That's silly: David hasselhoff is {touché}. While "Married ..." may be crass, sexist, the lowest of the lowbrow, it is also arguably one of the most original, ahead-of-its-time comedies of the last decade. With "Murder She Wrote" a goner, the dysfunctional blue-collar sitcom is now TV's longest-running network series (not counting news {NBC's "Meet the Press" is on the air every week since 1948} and sports). It has outlived its critics and competitors. More than 8 million people tune in every week; an additional 4.5 million watch reruns in syndication. They can't all be convicts and trailer trash. Some must have jobs, college degrees {hey, and more!}. At the very least, they have what many of the show's detractors don't: a sense of humor.

Think back to 1987. "The Cosby Show" was No. 1, the stultifying "Growing Pains" was in the top 10. "Family Ties" was the closest these saccharine upscale fantasies came to edgy {maybe that's why Christina Applegate had an appearance on that show about 5 weeks before Married... with Children's pilot premiere}. Then "Married ..." came along, a breath of foul air in a roomful of Pine Sol. Consider paterfamilias Al Bundy (Ed O'Neill): a shoe salesman one rung below Willy Loman on the all-time-loser ladder. The only thing his wife, Peg (Katey Sagal), Hoovers is TV and bonbons. Kelly (Christina Applegate), their teenage daughter, is an overripe nymphet, younger brother Bud (David Faustino) an aspiring pervert. They made nuclear waste of the nuclear family. Many critics raved. "Roaringly amusing," said USA Today. "Cleverly written," praised the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times held its nose but gave the new anti-sitcom credit for trying to "bring its audience closer to what's really going on in the American home." That audience gratefully made "Married ..." Fox's first hit. Two years later Michigan housewife Terry Rakolta crusaded against the show's lewdness. Ratings soared.

More screwed-up working-class TV families followed: "Roseanne," "The Simpsons." Long before white trash was chic, Peg teetered around the house in "do-me" pumps and Kmart couture - a "Jerry Springer" guest waiting to happen {but ironically Jerry Springer was a guest actor on Married... with Children}. "We tried to take traditional sitcom clichés and subvert them," says Michael MOye, who created the show with Ron Leavitt, his old writing partner from "The Jeffersons." Instead of a father who knows best, they came up with one who lies and smells bad. A central running joke is Al's revulsion at Peg's sexual advances. His only consolation is a men's magazine called Big 'Uns, devoted to the kind of women S.J. Perelman once described as "balloon smugglers." As Man at His Worst, Al predates the craven George Costanza from "Seinfeld." His expression is a put-upon perma-wince. "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you. I was just thinking of killing myself," he moans in the pilot. Probably the best of the show's 200-plus episodes is a parody of "It's a Wonderful Life," with the late Sam Kinison as Al's guardian angel. In a reversal of the Jimmy Stewart scenario, Al sees how happy his family would have been had he never been born. He can't allow it, bellowing "I want to live!" so they can be reunited in misery once again. The scene is the exact opposite of what's cynically known among sitcom writers as the MOS, or "Moment of S---." That's the cloying denouement when a character experiences some maudlin epiphany that inevitably results in hugging. It's how Emmy Awards are won {well, Al does hug Peggy and Bud at the end of "It's a Bundyful Life"...}.

"Married ..." has never won an Emmy. This is the source of some bitterness. "Like those guys are funnier than me!" rages the ordinarily soft-spoken O'Neill, who was a respected theater guy before he became Al Bundy. "I'm not playing myself. I'm doing a f---ing character! It's called acting!" O'Neill thinks they get snubbed because the show's not "hip enough" or "P.C. enough." Ironically, it is both. Moye is black, Leavitt Jewish - a partnership almost unheard of in Hollywood. Amanda Bearse, who plays the Bundy's repressed Yuppie neighbor, is one of Hollywood's few "out" lesbians. Despite its sexist image, the show has employed women directors and writers from the start. And it has a Tarantino-ish affinity for cheesy pop icons. Tina Louise, the Village People and Gary Coleman have all done cameos. It doesn't get hipper than that {so Pamela Anderson ain't hip, eh?}.

Would "Married ..." get on the air now? Doubtful. Fox isn't the brash upstart it once was. The head of the network is a former schoolteacher committed to quality. His minions send notes asking the "Married ..." writers to tone down the cleavage. Next they'll be asking Al to take his hand out of his pants.

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