Recently, Deadline reported that Married…With Children was coming back to the small screen. That shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Classic sitcoms from Will & Grace to Murphy Brown have been brought back as of late. This announcement came with a twist, however. The Bundys were coming back in animated form, with the cast of the original series reprising their roles by lending their voices to the new incarnation.
It seems an odd way to reboot the series until you look at who’s behind it. The showrunner is the executive producer of Family Guy, Alex Carter. Family Guy has spent the last two decades as a cartoon like version of Married…With Children with its cast of crude characters. While Family Guy may have changed the way we look at prime-time animated shows, Married…With Children changed the whole game, reinventing the sitcom in the most shocking ways imaginable.
Created in 1987 for the brand new Fox network, Married…With Children would serve as their first ever prime time program. It had the task of growing an audience for a new network. The combination of the two ended up being the perfect combination, for Married…With Children was a shocking sitcom like nothing audiences had seen before, playing against every expectation we’d come to know. A show like it would have never made it, let alone worked, on a network such as CBS or NBC. It needed the patience of low expectations to allow the show to not only grow, but to take hold in America’s collective consciousness until it was seen as acceptable.
Family centered sitcoms in the 1980s all seemed to run together after a while. Shows like Family Ties, Growing Pains, Full House, and a long line of so many others may have had different plots, but they all played out the same way. We watch the family interact, they quarrel a bit over some small disagreement or misunderstanding, but by the end of the half hour lessons are learned and everyone makes up, confessing their love for each other in a storybook ending where everything is tied up neatly. They were wholesome. You could watch them on the couch, cuddled up with your own family.
Married…With Children was the family sitcom flipped on its head, paving the way for meaner shows like Family Guy, Seinfeld, or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It may have started out with Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage” as the opening theme, a wink that harkened back to the sitcom restraints of past shows, but after that it was pure chaos. It wasn’t a show you watched with your kids. It’s what you watched when they were in the other room or sent off to bed. Sure, it revolved around a family, but you were not going to get sappy sentimentality here. Married…With Children was raw and crude.
The patriarch of the clan was Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill), a misogynist jerk who works as a women’s shoes salesman. He hates his job and his customers, making fun of their looks, their weight, their clothes, and anything else he can think of. His wife, Peg (Katey Sagal), spends her days keeping house and practicing sexual liberation. Their oldest is a teenager named Kelly (Christina Applegate) constantly getting into trouble and driving Al crazy. Then there’s her younger brother, Bud (David Faustino), who’s the sanest of the bunch, but all he thinks about is sex and the women he can’t seem to attract.
The combination of these characters gave the show a way to explore taboo topics other sitcoms wouldn’t touch, but that audiences ate up and loved to laugh at. Every week it was nothing but jokes about sex, masturbation, misogyny, race, sexuality. Al having a conversation with a co-worker about foot size easily became a conversation about measuring the size of something else. When Bud talks to his dad about getting caught having sex in the school library, Al is so proud, until he learns that Bud got caught having sex with himself. What other show did that?
This is what people really talked about in everyday life, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Married…With Children was vulgar and sometimes crossed the line. When a group of heavyset women confront Al at work for all the times he’s made fun of their weight, he jokes about them falling through the floor. The crowd roars with laughter. It’s the family you’re supposed to laugh at for how stupid and awful they could be, not the people they make fun of.
While a series like this would be problematic and probably not air in today’s society, in the 80s and 90s it spoke to a changing culture. People were waking up to the diversity around them. It spoke to the change in middle classism. Shows of earlier times, on the other hand, spoke to the simplicity of the middle class. The husband went to the office, the wife took care of the kids and cooked dinner, and then in the evening they came together, a happy little family. There were some uncomfortable truths behind Married…With Children’s crassness. They may have been an exaggerated look at a family, but they were a powerful portrayal of the struggles felt in the lower middle class.
Al Bundy is angry because he feels like a failure at life. He hates his job. He lives in the past, constantly reliving his old glories of being a star athlete, rather than focusing on bettering himself in the present. How many episodes have him telling anyone who will listen about all the touchdowns he scored in high school? The kids are so controlled by their hormones that they’re just trying to make it through the day. Peg is sexually frustrated. She doesn’t feel that her husband is attracted to her. It controls her entire self-worth.
Al and Peg’s marriage is at the heart of the series. It shows how turbulent relationships can be, what it’s like to get stuck in a rut, to not think about your partner, to feel lonely and ignored. The best example of this comes in the final season. Al and Peg finally split up. It’s such a huge moment, speaking to America’s skyrocketing divorce rate, that it became a three episode arc. We see the two bicker in couple’s counseling. Al moves out and Peg is crushed. She eventually tries to move on and meet another man. Still, they miss each other. Al makes his most heartfelt move in the show when Peg agrees to see him. He takes her to park under a maple tree on Maple Lane. Peg doesn’t remember the significance, until Al reminds her that this is the first place where they ever…fought. He says he doesn’t remember much about the fight, but he sure remembers the making up. All the fights they’ve ever been in are represented by this spot. Saying he only remembers the making up tells us that he’s let go of the past. It’s only the making up that matters.
The Bundy family clashed and looked at the world in extreme ways for eleven seasons, but in the end they still stuck to the sitcom formula. They always came back together in the end, even if begrudgingly. Al always went back to his suffering wife, even if he was a little disgusted by it. If you could look past the vulgarities that either made you laugh or cringe, you could find something deeper. Married…With Children showed us function in the dysfunction.
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