Married…With Children Remains a Breath of Fresh Stale Air

Al and Peggy sit on their couch as Al puts cash into their dog's mouth in the original opening sequence of Married...With Children

It was with some trepidation that I returned to Married…With Children. It’s a show that I watched quite a bit when I was a kid, in the early 1990s, when I was arguably too young for it. Married…With Children felt like a door into being older than I was in a way I wanted, kind of like hanging out with my older brother and his friends. The jokes were often crass, and the whole thing was rough around the edges, but at the time something about this felt subversive.

I wondered if that would be the case watching the show again now, as I really haven’t seen it since those days when it was airing, and didn’t even keep up with it until the end. In some ways the high school version of myself already viewed the humor provided by the Bundys as too juvenile, or something like that, even as I’d become a big fan of South Park.

But each of the Bundys got embedded in my mind from a young age, serving as almost an archetype. Here was Al (Ed O’Neill) with his hand down his pants, Peggy (Katey Sagal) in a leopard print with her hair done up chirping on about something, Kelly (Christina Applegate) as a promiscuous ditz, and Bud (David Faustino) as a skeevy teenager who was really too horny for his own good.

Bud writing a letter

Surely in retrospect this all must be problematic, as the kids say, and you could certainly make that argument at length if you wanted to. But I think you’d be missing something.

The Bundys were never people to look up to, and even as that kid who felt Married…With Children offered a kind of portal to the adult, I never looked up to any of them. I never wanted to be any of them. And returning to the show now with some distance, it’s clear that this was always part of the point.

You might empathize with Al Bundy. You might relate to him. But the man’s a sad sack stuck in a deadend job selling shoes. He makes jokes about hating his life, and even jokes about killing himself, but he plugs on. And even if he and Peggy squabble frequently, at the root of things they love each other, and Married…With Children continually strikes that chord.

Al sits with his arm around Peggy as he holds a cup of coffee in the other hand

I should maybe note at this point that I did not (re)watch the whole series before setting out to write this essay. I watched the first three episodes, and then the last three. So I’m still working from memory with regard to that huge chunk that comes in the middle, where the archetypes are really formed and settle in.

In the beginning, they’re more nascent, and the love between Al and Peggy is perhaps most palpable in those early episodes. They fight, mind you, but their relationship has a sweetness to it that’s certainly gone by the time the series ends. Indeed, by that final run of episodes, the characters have gotten to feel a bit like caricatures of themselves—the archetypes are overblown and the humor is becoming stale.

Peggy looks down at a broken remote control, sobbing

Everything is a step too ridiculous when the family is held hostage by Bud’s pen pal Starla (Tricia Cast) after she escapes from prison. He remains hot for her the whole time. Peggy ends up crying over a destroyed remote control. Al remains fixated on his disrupted plans to watch Death Wish 6 (which doesn’t exist). And Kelly immediately falls in love with Starla’s boyfriend Lonnie (Chip Esten) seemingly because of their shared stupidity.

In what would come to be viewed as the series finale (the show was unceremoniously cancelled by Fox and the network actually aired another episode last), Kelly and Lonnie’s wedding is ultimately called off after Lonnie makes a move on Marcy (Amanda Bearse), and we get a little speech from Al about the importance of marriage that could actually serve as a nice capstone for the series. But instead we end with Kelly going off to be consoled by the multitude of men she’s previously slept with, who had been crying at the prospect of her getting married. And I don’t want to seem like I’m judging the sexual politics of that, because I’m not, but it does feel a bit over the top, besides being meant to end Season 11 and not the series as a whole.

The Bundys stand in a row at Kelly's wedding

Overall, the sexual politics of Married…With Children are something of a mixed bag. “How to Marry a Moron” plays on a fairly offensive trope in having Bud pursued by an overweight young woman he’s disgusted by, and certainly any number of comments and incidents over the course of the series tread close to misogyny. Certainly some are across the line, though I’m not trotting out examples so much as ceding that point.

Mostly, though, things are a bit more complicated.

Kelly and Marcy sit on the couch

In S11E21, “Lez Be Friends,” we meet Marcy’s cousin Mandy, who is also played by Amanda Bearse, and the plot ultimately centers on the fact that Mandy is gay. Bearse herself is a lesbian (openly so since 1993), and I think it’s fair to say that the show was trying to be progressive with this episode. It’s clunky, and there are some comments that might make us cringe a bit, but fundamentally neither Al nor anyone else on the show takes a truly homophobic position.

Kelly’s promiscuity is generally played for laughs, and many of those come at her expense, but I don’t think Married…With Children ever really encourages us to judge her for it. Certainly, when it comes down to it, her family doesn’t. They just give her a hard time about, because giving everyone a hard time about everything is kind of their deal.

And I think this gets to the spirit of Married…With Children better than any screed about its problematic aspects could—the series fundamentally withholds judgment. There is no moralism in this show.

Al makes a knowing face as Steve looks over at him

You could argue that at times, there should be. I was a little shocked, for instance, by how casually everything’s played in S1E3, “But I Didn’t Shoot the Deputy,” when Al accidentally shoots and kills the neighbors’ dog. You could take a lesson about gun violence from this, but if it’s there, the Bundys certainly don’t learn it.

So, to be clear, I’m not interested in defending Married…With Children any more than I am in attacking it. I think what’s worth thinking about is elsewhere. And it’s not even exactly in the show’s lack of moralism, though that’s a part of it. It’s more in its portrayal of a kind of suburban ennui.

The characters in this show make no progress. Al’s selling shoes at the beginning and Al’s selling shoes ten years later at the end. But more than that, no one really grows us a person.

Al and Peggy look off camera

Moreover, no one in this show is really happy. They may find moments of joy, but mostly they’re stuck in the ruts of their lives. At the same time, though, they lack real aspirations, and don’t really view those ruts as ruts. It’s just life.

There’s something refreshing about this. I think it was refreshing when the series originally aired, and I think it’s refreshing now, though a lot of the social parameters that inform a viewing have shifted. There isn’t an agenda here, so much as Married…With Children asks us to relate to people we might prefer to pretend we don’t relate to. And to laugh with them.

There’s talk of reviving the show as an animated series, and while it would be nice if this provided us with some closure, I hope they take advantage of the animated form’s possibilities to keep the characters relatively stagnant. The closure Married…With Children deserves is thematic. Don’t go giving anyone a happy ending.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos


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