Recently, Deadline reported that Married with children came back to the small screen. It shouldn’t have been a big surprise. The classic sitcoms of will and grace at Murphy Brown have recently been brought back. This announcement however came with a twist. The Bundys returned in animated form, with the cast from the original series reprising their roles lending their voices to the new incarnation.
Seems like a weird way to reboot the series until you see 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 version of Married with children with its cast of rude characters. Whereas family guy may have changed our outlook on primetime anime shows, Married with children changed the whole game, reinventing the sitcom in the most shocking way imaginable.
Created in 1987 for the brand new Fox network, Married with children would serve as their very first prime-time program. His job was to build 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 the likes of which audiences had never seen before, playing against every expectation we had known. A show like this would never have made it, let alone worked, on a network like CBS or NBC. It took the patience of low expectations to allow the show to not only grow, but to entrench itself in the American collective consciousness until it was seen as acceptable.
Family-centric sitcoms in the 1980s all seemed to work together after a while. Shows like Family ties, Growing pains, Full house, and a long line of so many others may have had different storylines, but they all played out the same way. We watch the family interact, they argue a bit over a little disagreement or misunderstanding, but by the end of the half hour lessons are learned and everyone reconciles, confessing their love the one for the other in a storybook ending where everything is neatly tied together. They were healthy. You could watch them on the sofa, snuggled up with your own family.
Married with children was the family sitcom flipped, paving the way for meaner shows like family guy, SeinfeldWhere Philadelphia is always sunny. It may have started with Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage” as its opening theme, a nod to the sitcom restrictions of past shows, but after that it was pure mayhem. It wasn’t a show you watched with your kids. It’s what you were watching when they were in the other room or sent to bed. Sure, it revolved around a family, but you weren’t going to get sappy sentimentality here. Married with children was crude and rude.
The clan patriarch was Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill), a misogynistic moron who works as a seller of women’s shoes. He hates his job and his clients, making fun of their appearance, weight, clothes, and anything he can think of. His wife, Peg (Katey Sagal), spends her days keeping her house and practicing sexual liberation. Their eldest is a teenager named Kelly (Christina Applegate) constantly getting himself into trouble and driving Al crazy. Then there is his younger brother, Bud (david faustin), who is the most sane of the bunch, but all he thinks about is sex and the women he can’t seem to attract.
Combining these characters gave the show a way to explore taboo subjects that other sitcoms wouldn’t touch, but audiences ate and loved to laugh at. Every week it was just jokes about sex, masturbation, misogyny, race, sexuality. Al having a conversation with a co-worker about foot size easily turned into a conversation about measuring the size of something else. When Bud tells his dad about being caught having sex in the school library, Al is so proud, until he finds out that Bud got caught having sex. having sex with himself. What other show has done that?
It’s what people were really talking about in everyday life, and it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Married with children was vulgar and sometimes overstepped the bounds. When a group of overweight 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 erupts in laughter. It’s the family we’re supposed to make fun of how stupid and awful they might be, not the people they make fun of.
While a series like this would be problematic and likely off the air in today’s society, in the 80s and 90s it was about a changing culture. People became aware of the diversity around them. He was talking about the change in middle classism. The shows of ancient times, on the other hand, were about middle-class simplicity. The husband went to the office, the wife took care of the children and cooked dinner, then in the evening they came together, a happy little family. There were uncomfortable truths behind Married with childrenit is rudeness. They may have been an exaggerated look at a family, but they were a powerful representation of the struggles felt in the lower middle class.
Al Bundy is angry because he feels like a failure in life. He hates his job. He lives in the past, constantly reliving his former glories of being a star athlete, rather than focusing on bettering himself in the present. How many episodes has he told anyone who will listen to all the touchdowns he scored in high school? Kids are so controlled by their hormones that they just try to get through the day. Peg is sexually frustrated. She does not feel that her husband is attracted to her. It controls all his self-esteem.
Al and Peg’s marriage is central to the series. It shows how turbulent relationships can be, what it’s like to get stuck in a rut, not think about your partner, feel alone and ignored. The best example of this comes from the last season. Al and Peg eventually separated. It’s such a huge moment, talking about the skyrocketing divorce rate in the United States, that it became a three-episode arc. We see the two bickering in a couple’s council. Al moves out and Peg is crushed. She eventually tries to move on and meet another man. Yet they miss each other. Al makes his sincerest gesture on 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 meaning, until Al reminds her that this is the first place they ever…fought. He says he doesn’t remember the fight much, but he definitely remembers the reconciliation. All the fights in which they participated are represented by this place. To say that he only remembers the composition tells us that he has let go of the past. Only the composition matters.
The Bundy family battled it out and looked at the world in extreme ways for eleven seasons, but in the end, they always stuck to the sitcom formula. They always came back together in the end, even if reluctantly. Al always came back to his ailing wife, even if he was a little disgusted by her. If you could look past the vulgarities that made you laugh or cringe, you might find something deeper. Married with children showed us function in dysfunction.
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