Forget thinking critically when it comes to Married With Children. Though it deals with any number of issues—sitcom conventions, nuclear families, class warfare—the series is way ahead of you, reducing all of the above to a bathroom joke.
Don’t get me wrong: Married With Children is smart as hell, its writers are sharper than a set of Ginsu knives, and its actors have impeccable timing. It’s just that they are talking about the same shit—literally, in the first season’s toilet-oriented “A Dump of My Own” episode—over and over again: sex and sluthood, matrimony and money, bodily urges and voracious appetites, desire and dysfunction. Life, basically.
But unlike the brainier, also revolutionary Fox show, The Simpsons, Married With Children‘s take on these compelling subjects sometimes just doesn’t feel as funny the second time around. Maybe it’s the hideously loud sweater Bud (David Faustino) wears in “A Dump of My Own.” Or maybe it’s that the barrage of insults he aims at sister Kelly (Christina Applegate) all have the same punch-line: she’s a dumb slut. Maybe it’s her ratty ‘80s hair or the series’ reliance on Al Bundy’s (Ed O’Neill) fantasies involving vapid blondes with massive breasts. Whatever it is, Married With Children carries temporal context around its neck the way The Simpsons does not.
That doesn’t mean that Columbia’s new DVD of the first season doesn’t reveal brilliance. But the DVD offers only five episodes. It would be good to see at least one featurette about the series or its historical impact, perhaps some behind-the-scenes backstories. The episodes are very funny, but they may not be “the most outrageous.” Many fans, for instance, might have picked the episode where Al’s “No Ma’am” (short for “National Organization of Men Against Amazonian Masterhood”) crew rolls into Washington, D.C. to save Pyscho Dad, star of Al’s favorite TV show, the one that features domestic killings every episode.
Using “outrageous” to pitch product to fans already familiar with a notoriously “outrageous” series can be problematic. This kind of promotion can insult diehard fans, the very consumers who will make sure that Married With Children sells while the impulse buyers pick up their copies of Sweet Home Alabama at the local Costco.
What the DVD does offer is a set of hilarious episodes. “A Dump of My Own” has Al plopping a high-end toilet in his living room so he can bask in its utilitarian glow at every opportunity. The two-part “You Better Shop Around” finds the blue collar Bundys taking in some air conditioning at their local supermarket, parking their folding chairs in the produce aisle, after Al takes out the neighborhood’s power grid. The so-called “lost episode” (not true, since it aired on FX and overseas), “I’ll See You in Court,” has a jury judging hidden video of Al and Peg’s (Katey Sagal) eye-blink-short sexual intercourse to see if their privacy was invaded.
“No Chicken, No Check” features one of the oddest plotlines in TV history. Always on verge of losing his mind because Peg won’t cook him a meal, Al reaches the end of his rope and cooks the chicken that Kelly and Bud are legally bound (according to government standards regarding farm vehicles) to carry in their jointly-purchased car. The fact that Al, Fox’s blue collar Everyman, dubs his kids’ altogether normal car a “farm vehicle” to reduce insurance costs means nothing when his masculinist frustration with all things Peg boils over. He’ll eat anything in sight, including his DMV cash cow. It’s a terrific Gordian knot of a story.
Repeatedly, Al’s rampages throughout MWC‘s far-from-rarefied domestic sphere recall television’s hallmark male figures, whether Archie Bunker’s racist rants or Ralph Kramden’s domestic mania. In other words, MWC‘s social critique is as potent as ever, even if some of its jokes—which were once so “controversial” that they drove critics into fits of condemnation—are now passé. Fox has since become infamous, making use of ground broken by Married With Children (and Cops and The Simpsons) to pitch its salacious programming tent, with sex-heavy series like That ‘70s Show, Undeclared, and Malcolm in the Middle, not to mention the reality shows—Temptation Island, Love Cruise, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?, and Joe Millionaire. Once a pioneer, Married With Children looks tame today.