I chose to write about Married…With Children because it’s been about a quarter-century since I watched it regularly but I realized how much of it I recall. Unlike Seinfeld, which I have all but memorized, MWC is formulaic, which could explain why I remember so much. As I kept typing, the words and images kept falling out.
Kelly (Christina Applegate) and Peg (Katy Sagal).
Someone today is probably still cashing checks for approving the production of what became a cult classic sitcom in the late 1980s. Shown then on little-known Fox, Al Bundy and his hysterically funny and dysfunctional family, friends, and neighbors, presented a new voice of Americana. Sure, there was nothing knew about a white family whose house had been cut open for the viewers to peek inside. Furthermore, the fact that only one adult within the home had a regular (paying) job while the other stayed home was not shocking.
But it pretty much stops there.
Peggy Bundy, Al’s cigarette-laden wife, regularly dressed in skin-tight leggings and/or high-waisted pants. She epitomized the ‘anti-wife” of American television, much in the same vein as a rival TV mom played by comedian Roseanne Barr. The younger sibling, Bud, was an adolescent boy whose wit outweighed his “game” with girls his age. He was, in short, an Al in the making. Lastly, perhaps topping Al as the most sought-after character (my own bias notwithstanding) was Kelly Bundy. Kelly, played by Christina Applegate, fulfilled more cliches than a single sentence can possibly contain. However, looking back on the show some twenty-five years after watching it each week, I have found a new, enlightened perspective on its value to 1980s and 90s American culture.
While any one individual episode is too difficult for me to remember, I’ll be speaking from here on out on a general level. The images I’ve retained should suffice.
The formula for the show was similar to other sitcoms from the past, present, and future (nowadays). Usually, Al found himself saying or doing something that, to him, exemplified his discontent with his family, other citizens, or the Washington beauracrats. His rallying cries stirred up a live audience that was not discouraged to catcall any time any attractive woman hit the set. He confided a lot with his son–teaching him the morals he’d learned and exemplified. A running joke in the show referenced Al’s long-ago success on the high school gridiron. Many of his buddies played with him and they all seemed disgruntled with adulthood and enamored by their memories. As a ladies shoe salesman, Al had the misfortune to spend his working hours surrounded by women’s sour attitudes toward male clerks and their sour feet. The typical customer he dealt with was either unattractive, rude, overweight, or simply just bitchy. Upon arriving at home, where he longed each day to be a place of sanctuary, Al found himself never getting the chance to unwind for a long period. Anytime he turned on a favorite program or a sporting event, his life was rudely impeded upon by his son’s desire to have a man-to-man talk, his daughter’s dates trapsing in and representing disaster (and typically a toss out the door), or his wife’s pleading to “come upstairs.” While Peg had a more mature sex appeal, Al was rarely if ever anxious to storm upstairs to be with his wife. In fact, their relationship was perhaps the most uncouth on the show.
Peg and Al made a habit of meticulously poring over each others’ flaws and mistakes. While Al typically felt proud that he was the breadwinner, thus entitling him to certain freedoms, Peggy equally felt her household maintenance went unnoticed, which led her to feel unappreciated.
The character who became the mystery was the son, Bud. Bud was at times, for me, the most relateable. He vehemently tried to get laid, fit in, and had no qualms about calling out his sister for her poor choice in boyfriends or dates. An obvious Al-in-training, Bud snuck swings of warm, cheap domestic beers, had fairly intelligent chats with his father, but also had a rather embarrassing collection of pornographic magazines in his bedroom. Standing probably five-six at best, he was inherently socially awkward with girls who agreed to date him. Bud was on course to become a hapless romantic who may or may not sell women’s shoes one day.
The final member of the Bundy clan is Al’s daughter Kelly. Kelly Bundy covers the spectrum as a functional character in a sitcom. Kelly Bundy was a teen hearthrob. The amount of clothing she wore in any given episode would rival that of a pillowcase. Since almost each episode of the show dealt with Al dealing with something that bothered him, the stress was balanced by the free-spirited, dingy daughter. While he was either getting screwed by the government, sports, people at work, or his own family, his daughter, as scantily clad as she was, was always his sweetheart. He cherished her. He never said anything too deroggatory about her.
In short, he was the worst parent she could have had.
Even though she may be remembered for her sex appeal, Kelly Bundy was one of the most significant overall characters from the 1980s. She used her body more than her brain at times, but she ended up usually playing an integral part of the moral to the story. That is, when the episode had a moral.
This is where the cliches begin. Sure. I think Married…With Children changed television. Many shows have done that. Groundbreaking? Perhaps. While I don’t believe the spouse-bashing began with the show, they certainly worked their way to the apex of that list. As a kid, I also loved shows whose teenage girls varied in attractiveness, but none came close to Kelly. I don’t need to close my eyes right now to remember the Christina Applegate poster that hung in my room throughout my teens. Curled hair with one hand pushing part of that blonde hair back. Deep red-lipped smile. Black floral top. High-waisted denim shorts. Printed signature with, I believe, a heart beneath.
This truly American family made its mark twenty-five years ago. It should be eternally available in syndication. It will be shown one day on an Oldies-style television channel. My two-year-old son will someday discover it.
But will I watch it with him?