When Married... with Children debuted on Fox TV on April 5, 1987 (followed by The Tracey Ullman Show a half-hour later), the grungy sitcom became an instant flagship for Rupert Murdoch's upstart network. The program's much-publicized working title, Not the Cosbys (a dismissive reference to the cheerful vitality of Bill Cosby's hugely popular television clan on NBC's The Cosby Show) was a dead giveaway. Married... with Children was going to be a trashier, raunchier, and far more cynical view of the American nuclear family. But it turned out the series actually fell into other caustic-domestic entertainment traditions, notably the Don Ameche and Frances Langford radio comedy series from the 1940s, The Bickersons, and Jackie Gleason's TV classic, The Honeymooners.
The jokes were savage, key relationships were marked by ennui and indifference, and the Bundy family name couldn't help but make one think of America's most notorious, real-life serial killer at the time. Yet the show had a hint of Golden Age Hollywood gloss, a retro-screwball feel that one could detect in the snappy verbal warfare between husband Al Bundy (Ed O'Neill) and wife Peggy (Katey Sagal). The characters, and the show, eschewed sentimentality, which certainly opened the floodgates to comic cynicism but also kept a door ajar for moments of genuine sweetness. A decade later, however, by the time Fox cancelled the increasingly expensive series, Married... with Children's first-season tone would be considerably different, replaced by a stronger reliance on running jokes and character stereotypes, particularly concerning Bundy children Kelly (Christina Applegate) and Bud (David Faustino).
That evolution makes watching Married... with Children's first 13 episodes, once again, quite instructive. Those programs are all on this two-disc set, including the startling pilot, in which Al and Peggy lock horns over marital politics and enlist naive new neighbors Steve (David Garrison) and Marcy (Amanda Bearse) in a battle of the sexes. There's also the classic "Whose Room Is It, Anyway," concerning the Bundys' competition to connive Steve and Marcy into building a recreation room, and "Thinnergy," a very funny piece about a diet that supposedly boosts sexual interest. --Tom Keogh
Married...with Children: The Complete Second Season
Perhaps the definitive episode of Married... with Children is near the end of the second season, when Al and Peg Bundy (Ed O'Neill and Katey Segal), pretending to be their recently married neighbors, go on a game show that tests how willing each newlywed is to torture their spouse. This episode has everything: The cascade of blithe insults, the cheerful shredding of all dignity, the outright celebration of humanity's worst instincts-- everything that has led self-satisfied arbiters of "culture" to proclaim Married... with Children the most sordid, distasteful sitcom in the history of mankind. In short, it's sheer genius.
As the petty, miserable, conniving, yet perversely vital Bundy family, O'Neill, Segal, Christina Applegate, and David Faustino give performances that walk a fine line between outrageous satire and painful truth. It's the anti-Cosby; family breeds contempt. Children scoff at their parents, parents resent their children, husbands and wives eye each other with suspicion and disdain. Episodes hinge on neutering their oversexed dog, fighting the phone company, and trying to humiliate a high school nemesis in a bowling tournament, but it's all an excuse for squalid delirium. This is not an ironic description of the show; Married... with Children is both ruthless and deeply funny. (Though created by men, Married... with Children was frequently produced, written, and directed by women, which is unusual in the sitcom world. This doesn't necessarily have anything to do with its sense of humor, but its eagerness to skewer and roast sacred cows is shared by such women-driven shows as Roseanne and Absolutely Fabulous.) The jokes are like blunt instruments, yet delivered with a unique panache that got honed to razor sharpness in the second season. If you've never experienced the Bundy clan, this is an excellent place to start. --Bret Fetzer
Married...with Children: The Complete Fourth Season
It's fitting that the producers of Married...With Children--The Complete Fourth Season were too cheap to pay for the rights to the show's classic theme song, the jaunty Sinatra tune "Love & Marriage," replacing it with some crappy instrumental. Not because the season is lousy--on the contrary, the show's crass and cynical wit is in full bloom--but because if the Bundys themselves were putting this out, they'd blow off the theme song as well. One of the longest-running sitcoms ever, Married...With Children portrayed American domestic life as bitter, sleazy, and perpetually hungry, yet bound together by the loyalty of the mutually damned. Emasculated shoe salesman Al Bundy (Ed O'Neill, Dutch, Spartan), his lazy and unsatisfied wife Peg (Katey Sagal, 8 Simple Rules), his dimwitted slut of a daughter Kelly (Christina Applegate, Anchorman, View from the Top), and his horny, conniving son Bud (David Faustino, The Trouble with Frank) all bicker and scheme to achieve any meager improvement of their lives. For example, Peg wants to buy an idol of Tubro, the fat Panamanian god of money, hoping that good luck will help her win the lottery; so she sells Al's beloved Playboy collection, launching Al into the depths of despair until he musters the shreds of his manhood and orders her to retrieve them. Or when Al, feeling suicidal on Christmas, gets a glimpse of how happy his family would be if he'd never been born and decides to live to keep their lives as awful as his has been. But it's not simply the parade of suburban atrocity that makes the show funny--it's the zest of the cast, who wallow in their white trash characters with gusto and commitment. Their glee gives the show a sardonic bite that transforms the squalor into something strangely giddy and transcendent, a vivisection of human pettiness that an 18th century novelist like Thackeray would appreciate. The fourth season features a startling array of guest stars, including Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element), Joe Flaherty (SCTV), Tiffani-Amber Thiessen (Beverly Hills 90210), screaming comedian Sam Kinison, and former porn starlet Traci Lords. --Bret Fetzer