Television: Not the Huxtables


Another season has begun, and things have not gotten appreciably better for the Bundys. In one recent episode of Fox's "Married…with Children," Peg (Katey Sagal) wins personal training sessions from a hunky TV aerobics instructor. Before the two weeks are out, however, the trainer has become a Bundyesque slob himself, slouching on the sofa with Peg, eating bonbons and smoking cigarettes.

After the erstwhile hunk dies of a heart attack on his own show, Peg decides to put husband Al (Ed O'Neill) and the kids on a wheat-germ regimen. The family of course revolts, and—in the closest this show will probably ever come to sermonizing—Al explains to the kids why their usual diet is to their advantage. They've managed through the years to develop immunities to the toxic effects of junk food and so, like cockroaches, they can now eat anything. They are the ones who will survive, Al proclaims, and he's probably right.

They will survive, but hardly prevail. The notion of Bundys prevailing is, of course, risible. These people cannot seem to get anything right. Al hasn't gotten anything right since high school, when he was a football star. Ever since then, he's sold shoes and, from the looks of things, none too well. Most of the time he skulks about his shabbily decorated house, avoiding Peg's advances, and no wonder. Peg is probably not a bad-looking woman, once you've gotten beneath the hairpieces and the stretch pants, but she's also loud, lazy, obnoxious, and incompetent. There's always money for bonbons, but the fridge is invariably empty, so Al and their two teenage offspring don't get fed.

If they were your kids, you might not feed them either. Bud (David Faustino) is a dirty-minded little voyeur, not overly bright but bright enough to see that his older sister Kelly (Christina Applegate) is the school slut. This amuses rather than horrifies Bud, which is understandable under the circumstances: Kelly seems proud of the fact.

The lives of this brood are a dispiriting series of minor calamities and reversals, from which they learn nothing whatever. That they manage to escape these disasters more or less intact is about the best that can be expected, anyway.

The Bundys as such constitute a refreshing refutation of some of sitcomland's most cherished notions. One of those is that life can be successfully managed, ordinarily within 30 minutes, counting commercial breaks. This myth holds that life presents certain problems—they're thought of as challenges on television—which, if approached thoughtfully, compassionately, and with a sense of humor, can be not only solved, but turned to good.

Dealing with these problems, which usually take the form of elaborate misunderstandings, brings families closer together and creates families where none exist. This, too, is an old TV standby. On "Cheers," for example, the family consists of a collection of improbably healthy borderline alcoholics and their lovable enablers whose cozy home is a comer bar.

That the Bundys are a true family makes their inability to address any of their problems except in the most inept, demeaning, and buffoonish manner all the richer, considering what goes on in so many other sitcoms. In short, these are not the happy Huxtables.

The show's writers, Ron Leavitt and Michael G. Moye, are veterans of "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley" who set out to sabotage the clichés of more predictable programming. This is precisely what they have accomplished, and with surprising popular success. "Married…with Children" is hot these days, and controversial. What has provoked the most criticism is its coarseness and vulgarity, which are not imagined.

Within perhaps three minutes of this episode, for example, there were, in rapid succession, references to pimple squeezing, nose picking, bra stuffing, armpit sniffing, constipation, masturbation, and group sex. None of these jokes were especially clever, but they were about what one would expect from Bundys who are, after all, crude people for whom such references may well represent the very ne plus ultra of hilarity.

Apparently, a lot of sophisticated folks out there find such stuff wildly amusing, too, and crudity does have its uses. From Plautus to Benny Hill, the whoopie cushion and the many variations thereof have been making us laugh—and for a very good reason. They strip us of our pretensions, reminding us that, while we may aspire to soar with angels, there's a good bit of the ape in us yet.

Comedy has its uses, too, although this fact seems to have escaped the great majority of sitcom writers. There may be funnier shows than "Married…with Children," but few that are more purely comedic. Most of what passes for television comedy, after all, no more constitutes comedy than daytime drama constitutes tragedy.

All too often today's sitcoms—CBS's "Designing Women" is especially egregious in this respect—are so inordinately preachy that the laughs exist almost solely to support whatever moral the writers are trying to get across. In programs like these, the guffaws, fast and furious in the early going, build toward a moment of truth at which they abruptly cease. A speech is then delivered (Dixie Carter does the honors week after week on "Designing Women"), after which the stars, temporarily estranged, are best pals—or better yet, family—once again. And so the show closes, usually with a heartwarming chuckle, to send us on our way.

There are no such moments in "Married…with Children," in part because there are no such resolutions in the Bundys' lives, but also because comedy, being its own excuse, needs no such moments. Comedy does not require high moral preachments to make it worthwhile. Life affirming in and of itself, comedy is always superior to whatever nonce (liberal) enthusiasms sitcom writers may feel moved to foist upon the great (unwashed) viewing audience.

It's difficult to imagine which Bundy would deliver the sermon, even if the writers wanted one delivered. Daughter Kelly is a good bet, simply because she's completely inarticulate and forbiddingly stupid and the yuks-potential of any such utterance on her part would be immense.

What wisdom she might have to impart, on the other hand, remains a puzzlement. The Bundys, being utterly unable to help themselves, probably wouldn't have much of genuine value to tell the rest of us, which might well make them the second most realistic family on TV today.

The most lifelike—hands down—remains Homer Simpson's hapless brood, rendered with mordant ill humor by the gifted cartoonist Matt Groening for Fox's "Tracey Ullman Show." Come to think of it, the best matrimonial television since Lady Di and Prince Charles got hitched would be for Kelly Bundy to tie the knot with Homer's boy Bart. Now there's a wedding reception no one should miss.

Alan Pell Crawford has written for The Nation, Vogue, and National Review.