Tag Archives: Married With Children

The Mixed (Yet Uplifting) Message Of “Malcolm In The Middle”

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Not every TV show gets to have a series finale. In fact, it’s fairly rare for any show, be it a sitcom, a drama, or a Saturday morning cartoon, to get to that point. More shows tend to get canceled before a finale can ever make it to the drawing board.

When a show does get to that point, though, it’s still no guarantee that the finale will be satisfying. Ideally, the end of a long-running show should tie up loose ends, create a sense of closure, and reward the audience for sticking with the story since it began. That’s the best case scenario. More often than not, finales tend to be mixed.

Truly satisfying finales like that of “M*A*S*H” are a rarity. More often than not, a series finale is going to leave some fans elated and others upset. To this day, there are still people who argue about the finale of “Lost” and I imagine there will be just as many arguments about the finale to “How I Met Your Mother.”

It’s next to impossible to create a finale that satisfies everybody. The most anyone could hope for is a show that at least creates a complete story, even if it remains open-ended to some extent. That’s how the finale to “Breaking Bad” handled things and while not perfect, I think it worked in the context of the show.

There is another show, however, that didn’t try that hard to make the perfect finale. In fact, the show did something unique in that it embraced the idea that there’s no perfect ending, but there is a path forward. There’s no final triumph or ultimate reward for the characters. There’s only the understanding that life goes on, there’s no easy way to do things, and sometimes the things you don’t like will always guide you.

That show is “Malcolm In The Middle,” a quirky, but entertaining sitcom full of juvenile humor and questionable messages. For some, the show just took family dysfunction to an absurd extreme. Even so, it was pretty funny. Between lovable charisma of Frankie Muniz, the physical comedy of Bryan Cranston before he was Walter White, and the overly dramatic presence of Jane Kaczmarek, this show had a lot to offer.

Like “Married With Children” before it, this show went the opposite direction of the typical feel-good sitcom. Malcolm’s family aren’t the upstanding, upbeat models of society in the mold of “Father Knows Best.” They’re a collection of low-class, ill-mannered, under-privileged brutes who always find themselves in bad situations that inspire bad decisions.

They’re the kind of dysfunctional family that give other dysfunctional families a bad name. Part of their appeal was how they navigated that dysfunction. They rarely learned their lessons, they rarely underwent meaningful growth, and they often screw themselves over with their bad decisions. That’s what made it funny.

For seven seasons, the antics of Malcolm and his family followed a fairly successful formula. Malcolm, his brothers, and his parents find themselves in trouble or in over their heads. They struggle to rectify the situation, but often end up making things worse and incurring plenty of memorable comedy along the way.

In the series finale, however, the show takes that formula and injects something unique into the mix. After seven seasons of wild antics, spectacular failures, and memorable monologues, “Malcolm In The Middle” sent a message that went beyond the forces behind family dysfunction. I would even go so far as to say that message is more relevant now than it was when the episode aired in 2006.

The main premise of the episode revolves around Malcolm graduating valedictorian from high school. Being a certified genius, as revealed in the first episode, his life is the only one within his dysfunctional family that has the potential to be something. There are other assorted side-plots to the episode, one of which involves a giant bag of shit that Reese created, but this is the main catalyst for the ultimate conclusion of the show.

Shortly before graduation, Malcolm is given the kind of opportunity that most people can only dream of. Instead of college, he’s offered a lucrative job at a tech company that would’ve given him a six-figure salary, stock options, and a far less hectic life compared to the one his working class family afforded him.

Malcolm makes clear that he wants that job. He wants that life because, unlike his brothers, he has a chance to escape it. Like so many other times throughout the show, though, his control-freak mother steps in and stops it. She makes the decision for him. He’s going to college. On top of that, he’s going to have to work his way through, drudging along as a janitor instead of using his genius to make things easier.

Naturally, he’s not happy about this. It’s not the first time his mother has made choices that affected his entire life. In fact, that’s one of the most prevailing tropes of the show. No matter what Malcolm or his brothers do, they can never escape their mother’s neurotic control.

She doesn’t just want to control what he does after he graduates, either. She wants to put him and/or shove him down a path towards becoming President of the United States. Both she and Hal, played by Bryan Cranston, reveal that they’ve had this in mind for Malcolm since they found out he was a genius. It leaves him baffled, frustrated, and pretty upset.

Among other things.

However, this time his mother gives meaning to her decision that go beyond the usual “I’m your mother so do as I say” excuse. Instead, she does something that nobody on the show ever attempted to do to that point. She imparts upon Malcolm, and the audience by default, a series of harsh truths within the context of the bigger picture.

Those truths all hit hard as they come pouring out in a memorable exchange that helps encapsulate so much of the dysfunction Malcolm’s family endures. At the same time, it also makes a compelling case for why Malcolm should become President.

Lois: That doesn’t matter. What does matter is you’ll be the only person in that position who will ever give a crap about people like us. We’ve been getting the short end of the stick for thousands of years, and I, for one, am sick of it. Now, you are going to be president, mister, and that’s the end of it.

Malcolm: Did it ever occur to you that I could have taken this job, gotten really rich and then bought my way into being President?

Lois: Off course it did. We decided against it.

Malcolm: What?!

Lois: Because then you wouldn’t be a good President. You wouldn’t have suffered enough.

Malcolm: I’ve been suffering all my life!

Lois: I’m sorry. It’s not enough. You know what it’s like to be poor, and you know what it’s like to work hard. Now you’re going to learn what it’s like to sweep floors and bust your ass and accomplish twice as much as all the kids around you. And it won’t mean anything because they will still look down on you. And you will want so much for them to like you and they just won’t. And it’ll break your heart, and that’ll make your heart bigger and open your eyes and finally you will realize that there’s more to life than proving you’re the smartest person in the world. I’m sorry, Malcolm, but you don’t get the easy path. You don’t get to just have fun and be rich and live the life of luxury.

Beyond simply reinforcing how much Lois exerts control over her children, her words reflect the collective frustration of families mired in dysfunction. From the Bundy family in “Married With Children” to the real people in the world who have kids they can’t manage and jobs that don’t pay enough, she articulated a sentiment that is difficult for most non-working class people to grasp.

Malcolm and his family are essentially trapped in the dungeon of modern society. They’re low-class, ill-mannered people who never got the opportunities to climb the social ranks. Lois and Hal work demeaning, low-paying jobs that don’t provide nearly enough to support a large family, let alone one full of rowdy children that get in trouble every other week. How could they not be dysfunctional in that environment?

It’s an environment that keeps anyone who wasn’t born into a good situation from improving their lives. It’s an environment that breeds and reinforces the dysfunction that Malcolm and his brothers so hilariously embody. Any time somebody does get a chance to leave, they jump at the opportunity and never look back. Moreover, they don’t do anything to help those who never get that chance.

Lois knows this. She can already see that happening with Malcolm. If he takes that job, he’ll just get rich and comfortable, forgetting about where he came from and never giving another thought to those who weren’t as fortunate as him. That’s entirely understandable, as Malcolm’s reaction so nicely demonstrates.

Most people do take the easy path out of hardship, poverty, and dysfunction. It’s not just a temptation. It’s a reflex. Growing up poor and dysfunctional is akin to torture and, as is often the case with torture, people naturally do whatever it takes to make it stop. Lois, for all her neurotic tendencies, is pushing Malcolm to endure for the good of every other dysfunctional family like them.

What makes these final moments of the show so powerful is that Malcolm actually listens to his mother in this case. He doesn’t fight her, for once. In the final scenes of the show, he actually follows the path she lays out for him, going to Harvard and working as a janitor to pay his way through. He’ll continue to suffer the effects of his family’s dysfunction, but it’ll help him maintain perspective.

That perspective is something almost no modern President will have. They really can’t because most modern politicians are millionaires. They essentially do exactly what Malcolm suggested, getting rich first and then buying their way into power. The fact that many politicians seem so out of touch with ordinary people, especially the working class, gives further weight to Lois’ words.

Rather than leave his dysfunction behind, Malcolm will carry it with him. He’ll use it to bring a perspective that others either don’t know about or don’t want to confront. Unlike everyone else who tries to raise awareness of working class dysfunction, he’s smarter than them. He’s actually capable of overcoming the traditional barriers that keep people like him from achieving real power.

It’s an unexpected, but satisfying brand of hope. Most episodes of “Malcolm In The Middle” tend to end with a sense of misanthropy that reverts Malcolm’s family back to the status quo. They’re never allowed to get ahead or rise above their dysfunction. At the same time, though, they don’t sink into a defeatist malaise like the Bundy family.

That’s exactly what puts Malcolm in a position to do something more in the end. Everything that held him and his family back is now a catalyst for something greater. He has both the perspective and the aptitude to do great things, such as become a President who actually cares about helping dysfunctional family’s like his.

At a time when income inequality is on the rise and the working class is enduring greater hardship, the world needs leaders who have Malcolm’s perspective. Unfortunately, such leaders are exceedingly rare, especially as powerful institutions become more and more prone to the interests of the rich.

The “Malcolm In The Middle” finale dares people to imagine what we can do when capable people from dysfunctional backgrounds actually get a chance to do something greater. The show doesn’t offer too many details about what happens to Malcolm beyond Harvard, but it’s refreshing and even a little uplifting to think that a show full of so much exaggerated dysfunction could envision a brighter future.

That future may not improve for people like Reese, though, but that’s probably beyond Malcolm’s abilities. Some dysfunction is just too great, even for a genius President.

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Al Bundy, Circumcision, And Double Standards In Humor

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When you want to know how taboo a topic is, it helps to look at how sensitive people are to jokes about it. Most people can comfortably joke about teenagers, old people, the President, the French, and the Pope. Some of those jokes even make it into popular cartoons and sitcoms that we still laugh at to this day.

Then, there are topics for which making jokes is a gamble. Make the wrong remark at the wrong time and it could really cost you. Just ask Gilbert Gottfried or Roseanne Barr. The stakes get even higher when you joke about religion. Some have a better sense of humor than others, but those that don’t tend to make the news for all the wrong reasons.

Since humor and religion rarely mix, I want to focus on a topic that’s slightly less sensitive in circumcision. I say slightly because gender-specific humor is a lot trickier these days. Old jokes about women drivers and gay men just don’t work anymore and not because more cars are driving themselves.

Between trends in feminism and outrage over Wonder Woman’s armpit hair, the current state of gender politics is no laughing matter. I’ve talked about gender conflicts on many occasions and I’ve also discussed serious issues surrounding circumcision. I’m also aware that the current issues surrounding circumcision aren’t on many peoples’ radar, but I still think it’s worth talking about.

This isn’t just about representation in media or offensive stereotypes. This is about purposefully mutilating parts of the human body. When it happens to women, it’s a major problem that warrants major resources to combat. When it happens to men, though, it’s no big deal and prone to plenty of humor.

It’s more than just a double standard. It reveals a lot about our overall attitudes when we’re willing to joke about something. It shows how much the issue matters and how much energy we’re willing to put in to confront it. To understand the state of circumcision for men, you need look no further than an old episode of “Married With Children.”

I’ve mentioned this classic Fox sitcom before. I put it at the top of my list of TV shows that could never be made today. The fat jokes alone would get it cancelled. It’s a show that went out of its way to be controversial, much to the chagrin of a Michigan house wife. That included an episode about circumcision.

This particular episode was called “A Little Off The Top” and if you know anything about male circumcision, you understand why that’s an overly appropriate title. It starts with Al Bundy getting injured in a basketball game, going to a hospital, and getting circumcised due to a medical error.

It’s all portrayed with typical “Married With Children” hilarity. In fact, one of the most memorable moments of the episode is when Peggy gets a call from the hospital and Marcy, the Bundy family’s neighbor and one of Al’s many enemies, laughs hysterically. I’m not going to lie. When I saw a recent rerun of the episode, I laughed too.

That’s the genius of “Married With Children.” It can take depressing situations like a loveless marriage, a lousy job, and idiot kids and make it funny. It’s part of why this show is one of my favorite shows of all time. When you strip away the humor in this episode, though, there are some disturbing overtones.

To illustrate, here’s a quick thought experiment. Imagine, for a moment, that this isn’t happening in a TV show and you just randomly stumbled across a news article.

“Local Chicago man rushed to a hospital after injury playing basketball is mistakenly circumcised. Family and neighbors make fun of him.”

Take away the iconic Bundy family and the context of a sitcom. Just look at it in terms of raw facts. A man gets an injury, goes to the hospital, has his genitals mutilated against his will due to an error, and is laughed at because of it. The fact that it happens to Al Bundy makes it funny. If it happened to anyone in the real world, it’s not likely to be as funny.

Medical errors are already horrifying enough. This one is extra disturbing for men because it involves our genitals. There’s already a growing reservation about circumcising baby boys for no medical reason who cannot consent, which did not exist when “Married With Children” was on the air. On top of that, there’s a distinct double standard in play.

Even in the lewd world of a 90s Fox sitcom, there are lines that even the Bundy family cannot cross. If you were to reverse the genders in this episode, as I’ve put forth as part of previous thought experiments, then the humor just doesn’t work. If the episode involved a woman who’d been circumcised against her will by accident, then it wouldn’t be funny. It would be disturbing.

The reasons for that aren’t entirely simple. There is a medical and logistical difference between male and female circumcision. For the most part, female circumcision in its various forms are prone to more complications, even in a medical setting. Male and female anatomy are different. There’s no getting around that.

However, the logistics are the same. They both involve cutting, altering, or outright mutilating someone’s genitals against their will. Despite these similarities, one is still capable of being funny while the other is not.

That idea matters because when something can be funny, it impacts how seriously we take it as a society. We can joke about ditzy blonde women, bone-headed men, and irresponsible teenagers because they’re not seen as dire issues. That’s also the reason why we can make jokes about the Vatican in 2018 that probably would’ve gotten people killed half-a-century ago.

The fact that male circumcision can be a joke or the premise of a sitcom says that it’s not serious enough to be on the same level as female genital mutilation. They may not be the same thing, but the implications are still there. When a woman is mutilated, it’s a travesty. When a man is mutilated, it’s comedy. That is not a trivial gap.

I doubt “Married With Children” was trying to make a statement about male circumcision when the episode first aired. The show made a lot of controversial jokes and circumcision barely cracks the top ten. Even if that episode aired today, it probably wouldn’t be that controversial, which says a lot about how little our attitudes about male circumcision have changed since the mid-90s.

In that same time, though, efforts to combat female genital mutilation have gained ground. Efforts to beautify and protect the female body are part of a larger social trend. However, those efforts are not equally prescribed to men, even when the concept is the same.

Now, I’m in no ways in favor of making jokes about male circumcision taboo. Historically speaking, making anything taboo only tends to make an issue worse. I’m also not advocating that we start joking about female genital mutilation, either. My point in citing a memorable episode from a raunchy 90s sitcom is to show the vast disparity in the circumcision debate.

When something is a joke for one group of people, but an atrocity for another, then there’s a major disconnect in the issue. Both sides can and should be discussed seriously. Both can and should be held to similar standards are humor, as well. When you start making exceptions for one over the other, then that obscures the debate for both.

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My Frustrations And Fondness With Bumbling Dad Tropes

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We know them, love them, laugh at them, and cringe at them every now and then. They entertain us. They educate us. They amuse us in any number of ways, both with real-life antics and those only possible through animation. They are the clumsy, bumbling, oafish father figures of popular culture. Compared to many other tropes, they make up a sizable chunk of the overall comedy footprint in our media landscape.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I don’t write that with disdain or dismay. In fact, I’m quite fond of the bumbling father figures that make up a sizable chunk of sitcoms, animated shows, and movies. I grew up on a steady diet of “The Simpson,” “Family Guy,” and “Married With Children.” Characters like Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, and Al Bundy have had a profound impact on my world and not just in terms of laughter.

As I get older, though, I find myself scrutinizing the dynamics of these faltering father figures more and more. I also find myself paying more attention to the context and circumstances surrounding them, especially as our media and culture evolves in accord with changing trends, some less positive than others.

Maybe it’s because I’m an adult now. Maybe it’s because, as both an adult and a man, I have too much experience with the larger complexities of the world. I can still laugh every time Homer does something foolish or Peter does something stupid. However, a part of me can’t help but contemplate the larger implications of bumbling dads.

Some of it has to do with double standards, which I’ve talked about many times before. Some of it deals with the struggles/inexperience in developing complex fatherly characters who aren’t blatant rip-offs of Superman, John McClane, Jack Baur, or Ward Cleaver. Most of it simply reflects a sentiment that I find frustrating at times.

Think, for a moment, about the dumbest, most hilariously idiotic antics in a show featuring bumbling dads. “The Simpson,” alone, should give plenty of content to draw from. With those antics in mind, contemplate what those antics say about the bumbling dad as a character and what it says about male characters, as a whole.

Whether he’s Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, or a guy you know in real life who once threw up in a kiddie pool after doing shots of habenero sauce on a dare, the themes are fairly consistent. At the heart of every conflict in the story is a selfish, moronic, thick-headed guy who, if he didn’t have his wife and kids, would’ve been dead by now.

The bumbling dad isn’t just the catalyst for most of the conflicts in the show. He basically embodies the inherent ineptitude of men, as a whole. Whereas strong, independent women are celebrated as a trope of their own, the bumbling dad acts as a case study as to why men can’t function on their own. Unless they have a woman and a family to restrain them, they’ll collapse under the weight of their own stupidity.

It doesn’t just reflect poorly on male characters. It sends a pretty frustrating message to female characters as well, saying that women basically have to act as referees on top of being spouses and mothers. Their role, in the context of the bumbling dad trope, is to either clean up the mess or reign the man in before he does some serious damage.

In a sense, the bumbling dad is the catalyst for the nagging woman, a character not nearly as hilarious that can be every bit as frustrating. One causes all the chaos and problems in a story. The other whines about it and tries to limit the damage, often while failing to teach the bumbling dad any meaningful lessons that’ll help him be less bumbling.

Granted, there are some exceptions to that dynamic. Compared to Marge Simpson and Lois Griffin, Peggy Bundy from “Married With Childrencompletely subverts this trope. Then again, that whole show went out of its way to undermine every standard sitcom trope that ever existed. As I noted before, it’s the kind of show that could never be made today.

Those exceptions aside, the bumbling dad represents another point of frustration that has more to do with the implications of character development, as a whole. It’s a frustration that even plays out in other forms of media that don’t involve idiot married men who only still have their limbs because their wives won’t let them near fireworks.

When you take a step back and look at the kinds of roles bumbling dads have in so many narratives, you notice a number of recurring themes that don’t just reflect poorly on them as men and fathers. They also help enable a lot of the themes that reflect poorly on certain female characters as well.

Essentially, the bumbling dad is allowed to be an idiot with flaws, ineptitude, and shortcomings of all kinds. It’s okay that he make a fool of himself, getting hurt and causing all sorts of damage with his antics. When Al Bundy and his idiot male friends keep falling off a roof, it’s funny and entertaining. If a female character did that, though, that just wouldn’t have the same impact.

Even in shows like “Married With Children,” the female characters were never allowed to fall off a roof, get hurt, or get into fights of any kind. Even when they’re not nagging or trying to be the voice of reason, the female characters are treated as more fragile, needing to fill a more specific role rather than explore the vast array of buffoonery that their male counterparts get to experience.

A female character can’t be bumbling, idiotic, or self-destructive. That would imply she has too many flaws. Even in the days before the recent push for more female representation, that was considered taboo.

A female character can’t be the catalyst for a problem either, unless it involves the moral crusades of Lisa Simpson. The idea of a female character causing anywhere near the problems as a man would just trigger too much outrage for daring to hint that women can be as flawed as men. That last sentence was sarcasm, by the way.

This, essentially, is the driving force behind the frustration. The bumbling dad trope basically gives the impression that men are the only ones who can be foolish, self-destructive, unreasonable, and unlikable. Women can occasionally do those things, but never to the point of the bumbling dad.

In terms of character development, that’s limiting to characters of any gender. It means all the conflict, plot twists, and memorable story elements have to come from the male characters. All the female characters ever do is react, recover, or rebuild from the male character’s antics.

The bumbling dad basically sets up the expectations alongside the comedy. We expect them to do something stupid. We expect them to make a fool of themselves, get hurt, and not think things through. We also expect the women to basically bring them back in line again because without them, they just couldn’t function.

Beyond the expectations, the bumbling dad is basically the crash test dummy for all the chaos within a plot. They’re the ones that get hurt. They bear the brunt end of the physical comedy, be it a slap in the face or constantly falling down a cliff. The idea of women getting hurt just as much, even in an era where the push for tough female characters has never been greater, still doesn’t sit right with audiences.

That says as much about lingering gender norms as it does about bumbling dads, as a whole. Beyond just relegating the comedy and the personal journey to a particular male character, it gives the impression that women aren’t capable of doing foolish things. Anyone with a stable internet connection knows that’s just not true.

Again, this is not to say the bumbling dad trope is inherently “toxic.” I’ve already made clear how much I despise that terminology. There will always be a place for bumbling dads and the comedy they inspire. There’s also plenty of room for non-male, non-dad characters to be foolish as well. When it comes to gender, age, race, and sexual orientation, stupidity is the ultimate egalitarian.

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Five TV Shows That Could NEVER Be Made Today (Thanks To Political Correctness)

It’s amazing how much our culture can change in such a short period of time, relatively speaking. It wasn’t that long ago that mixed-race couples were considered scandalous, depicting a toilet on a TV show was taboo, and Bill Cosby was a respectable public figure. Whether it’s decades, years, or just a few weeks, things can change quickly.

That change, however, isn’t always logical or in the right direction. Hell, I’m still trying to figure out the appeal of fidget spinners. While I like to think that most change in society is progress, I don’t deny there are instances where we all take a step backwards and sometimes fall on our asses.

This brings me TV, an undeniable catalyst for cultural change. For more than a half-century now, TV shaped, re-shaped, and upended our culture in all sorts of ways. From Elvis’ scandalous hips to the rise of music videos to shows like “Breaking Bad,” TV has been a force for better, for worse, and for just pure entertainment value.

There have been any number of shows, specials, and moments from TV that have come to define our culture. However, there are some shows that, if they happened today, would generate a very different response than they did when they first aired.

I’m not just talking about shock value or controversy either. I mean that if some these shows debuted in the current year, they would generate the kind of outrage, whining, and protests that flood social media and spur the kinds of debates that can only ever end with someone comparing someone lese to Nazis.

These are sensitive times for reasons I don’t think I have to articulate. We’ve made progress in some ways, but may be regressing in others. Some blame feminism. Some blame toxic masculinity. Some blame greed, bigotry, or political correctness. Some even blame the illuminati, but that may be pushing it.

Everyone seems to see something wrong in the culture of the past and the present. Everyone likes to blame someone or something different. More often than not, it’s a confluence of forces that make certain TV shows of the past ill-fit for the present.

Some of that is due to seriously outdated views and stereotypes. It’s entirely understandable why those shows would never work today. Most sensible people wouldn’t argue that. There are some shows, however, that would generate enormous outrage for petty, asinine reasons.

What follows is a list of classic TV shows that, whether due to content, style, or theme, would never air today. It would just be too controversial and not necessarily for the right reasons. It may reflect a lot about the sensitive nature of our culture today, but in many respects, it also shows just how erratic our collective tastes can be.


“All In The Family”

This one should be pretty obvious. “All In The Family” was already controversial in its day. It subverted the whole idea that a father figure in a sitcom should be respectable, upstanding, and just. Archie Bunker is none of those things and the show was memorable because of it.

Much of the show was built around Archie being a bigot, but a lovable bigot. In this day and age, that sounds like an oxymoron. At the time though, the early to mid 1970s to be precise, it worked for the same reason Sheldon Cooper works in “The Big Bang Theory.” You can be an asshole in a sitcom, but you can still be lovable.

Unlike Sheldon Cooper, though, making Archie’s bigotry lovable today is next to impossible without making him a B-list villain in a Tyler Perry movie. In nearly every episode, he says a line that would’ve caused legions of anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-bigot crowds everywhere to erupt on social media. Anyone who even pretended to laugh at that show would be crucified as a Nazi sympathizer.

Beyond Archie Bunker’s bigotry, though, the overall themes of the show would be enough to make it too controversial for TV. The show routinely mentions “the good old days.” Today, though, that idea has been taken to mean the days when people could be assholes to minorities and get away with it. However anyone may feel about the show or its message, it just would just cause too many shit storms to air today.


“South Park”

I know this seems odd because “South Park” is still on the air, having just completed its 21st season. However, even long-time fans of the show can probably appreciate why it should be on this list, especially when you consider how different the show was in its early days.

Even back in the late 90s, this show generated more than its share of controversy for its vulgarity, profanity, and tendency to kill Kenny every episode. It’s the finer details of those controversies, though, that ensure the “South Park” we saw in those earlier seasons could never air today.

Eric Cartman alone would’ve made the show too controversial. Like Archie Bunker, his overt racism, anti-Semitism, and attitudes towards the poor would’ve triggered plenty of outrage. Add depictions of sacred religious icons and characters like Big Gay Al to the mix and the show wouldn’t have made it past the first episode.

The fact that “South Park” is still on the air is less a testament to its staying power and more a testament to its ability to adapt. It is not the same show it was when it debuted in that it doesn’t confront controversy the same way it used to. Even with that adaptation, it still couldn’t debut today, not with someone like Eric Cartman on the cast.


“Two And A Half Men”

This is another show that ended in 2012, which isn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things. Even so, a lot has changed since “Two and a Half Men” debuted in 2003 and not just with respect to Charlie Sheen’s public persona. In terms of the premise and structure of the show, it could never air today without generating way too much backlash.

This is one of those shows that would enrage both feminists and men’s rights activists, alike. Beyond Charlie Harper’s blatant womanizing, treating nearly every female character a disposable sex toy, there’s also his overly emasculated brother, Alan. In addition to having an ex-wife who routinely screws him over, Alan is needy, submissive, and constantly mooching off of everyone around him.

Even by beta-male standards, Alan Harper is an affront to any man with any measure of self-respect, just as Charlie is an affront to any woman with a shred of feminist inclinations. Granted, that didn’t stop the show from being funny. I admit I loved this show while it was on, even after Charlie Sheen got replaced by Ashton Kutcher. However, its brand of humor would just never work if it aired today.

That says nothing about the depiction of the dim-witted kid, Jake Harper. His depiction would come off as more tragic than lovable than it did in 2003. In terms of the sheer volume of people this show would offend in the current year, “Two and a Half Men” is in a league of its own.


“Baywatch”

First off, I need to make clear that I’m not referring to the sub-par movie that never should’ve been made in the first place. I’m referring to the original “Baywatch” TV show that debuted in 1989, much to the joy of straight heterosexual males everywhere. The show, with its premise built around beautiful women in bikinis and David Hasselhoff’s chest hair, had plenty of appeal.

That appeal is still there today. There’s always appeal for beautiful women and manly men. However, these days it’s become distressingly taboo to admire beautiful women in any capacity that isn’t associated with Wonder Woman movies. We’re at a point where just looking at a beautiful woman is considered harassment by some people.

It’s for that reason that “Baywatch” would never work today. I can already imagine the various angry protests it would incur. People will claim the show contributes to female objectification, rape culture, toxic masculinity, and all sorts of buzzwords meant to make anyone feel guilty for committing the terrible sin of admiring a beautiful woman.

I’ve made clear how absurd this trend is. However, I don’t see it changing anytime soon. As a result, “Baywatch” would just be way too controversial and would probably draw the ire of every feminist or uptight religious zealot with internet access. It’s sad that this world would deny us a show that so nicely depicts Pamela Anderson’s bouncing breasts, but that’s the world we live in.


“Married With Children”

Once again, this show finds a way to be relevant on this site. I’ve mentioned it before in breaking down other topics. I’ll probably mention it again because it touches on so many important aspects of men, women, and family life. Despite that relevance, there’s no denying that “Married With Children” could never be made today.

The list of people this show offended, beyond the angry woman that tried to get it canceled, is as vast as it is comprehensive. This show cracked jokes about women, teenagers, marriage, genitals, animals, fat people, minorities, transsexuals, homosexuals, and pretty much every other minority group you can imagine.

It cracked these jokes in the backdrop of a sitcom that went out of its way to subvert every feel-good family drama that ever existed, so much so that it was originally called “Not The Cosbys.” In many respects, “Married With Children” went even further than “South Park” and “Two and a Half Men” in crafting a sitcom around every offensive trope in the book. It did this with a bravado and glee that you can’t help but respect.

That kind of antipathy to everything that’s supposed to make a sitcom endearing is a big part of what made “Married With Children” so successful. It came along at just the right time to subvert existing trends in TV, creating characters and icons that were raw, unfiltered, and offensive. That timing is also why it could never be made today.

Between the fat jokes, Al joking about shooting his wife, and Kelly Bundy being a stereotypical dumb blond, “Married With Children” would find a way to upset everyone. However, I still think those same upset people would laugh at the show. It was just that funny. It’s a big part of why the show still ranks as one of my personal favorites.

Even if “Married With Children” could never be made today, it still reflects an attitude that I think many people feel whenever anyone gets upset over a TV show. In a sense, it serves as the model for how a show can be so offensive, yet so funny. The fact we’ll probably never see anything like it again makes it all the more special.

 

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, sex in media, sex in society

Al Bundy Syndrome: The Face Of Learned Helplessness

Some concepts are so vague that it’s hard to put a human face on it. I suspect that’s part of why many people suck at math. You can’t personalize it, humanize it, or imagine it on a pair of breasts. Even things that directly affect people, like learned helplessness, are hard to grasp.

That’s why if you find a way to put a human face on a serious issue, you jump at the chance. It doesn’t just make it easier. It makes them memorable in an unexpected way. I consider the concept of learned helplessness a serious issue that affects our personal lives, our professional lives, and our sex lives. It goes beyond the world of an aspiring erotica/romance writer. It’s way bigger than we’re comfortable admitting.

That’s why, in the interest of putting a human face on a serious issue, I’d like to present the greatest personification of learned helplessness in the history of media. Some of us grew up with him. Some of us were appalled by him. He’s a myth, a legend, and an icon in his own tragic right.

His name is Al Bundy, the hapless husband and father of the Bundy family from the Fox classic, “Married With Children.” To those who have watched every episode and love the show as much as I do, you already understand why Al is the perfect embodiment of learned helplessness.

For those who aren’t familiar with “Married With Children” or why it was such a groundbreaking show, I feel sorry for you. For most people under the age of 20, they have no idea how much this show shook our collective understanding of modern television.

Say what you will about the trash currently on TV now, but before “Married With Children,” it was much worse. By worse, I mean they were boring. Most sitcoms were bland, generic, feel-good stories that tried to paint the world in an overly-rosy picture. Every one of them basically tried to capture the spirit of “Father Knows Best” or “Leave It To Beaver.”

Married With Children” saw that and decided to do the exact opposite, so much so that when it was in development, the title of the show was called “Not The Cosbys.” It was a show where all the conflicts weren’t solved at the end. It was a show where the world wasn’t idealized, perfect, or fair. In other words, it was more in line with the real world.

In that world, Al Bundy gets dealt a worse hand than most. At one point, he was a high school football star with a promising future. Then, he got hit with a streak of bad luck that effectively crushed his spirits.

He got injured and lost his football scholarship. He got involved with Peggy Bundy, a woman I’ve cited before as a character that men should rightly dread. He eventually has two kids that don’t respect him and works a dead-end, low-paying job as a shoe salesman.

While other sitcoms glorify the innate dignity of working class men like Ralph Cramden, Archie Bunker, and even Homer Simpson, there’s nothing glorious about Al Bundy’s life. There’s nothing noble about his poverty. He doesn’t even try to come off as sympathetic. His life doesn’t raise the bar or embody an ideal. If anything, it reminds ordinary people just how bad things can get.

Whereas other TV sitcoms try to uplift an audience by showing how loving, functional families solve their problems in a simple, 30-minute show, “Married With Children” sent a different message. It presented the audience with a level of dysfunction so extreme, so exaggerated that even if you’re home life was a mess, you could take comfort in the fact that you were not the Bundy family.

What makes that message so powerful is also what makes Al Bundy such a perfect example of learned helplessness. Fittingly enough, the actor who played him, Ed O’Neill, actually drew inspiration from someone in his own family.

In a sense, Al Bundy was built around the idea that he was just resigned to his fate. He realized how much his life sucked, that his family didn’t respect him, and that his best days were behind him. Dealing with all that in addition to working a dead-end job effectively destroyed his spirit, so much so that he stopped trying to better his situation.

That perfectly reflects some of the early experiments done about learned helplessness, namely those involving a poor dog that just stopped trying to avoid painful shocks. Al Bundy is basically that dog after it has been shocked so many times that it just doesn’t bother anymore. It accepts that it will suffer and doesn’t try to avoid it.

In a sense, it becomes a mentality akin to a psychological illness. In the spirit of caveman logic and excuse banking, I’ll give it a name. From here on out, let’s call it “Al Bundy Syndrome.” That’s a much more memorable name than the overly-technical term, learned helplessness. With Al Bundy Syndrome, the condition has a name and a face that Ed O’Neill made iconic.

Given that we already have weird diseases like restless leg syndrome and walking corpse syndrome, which I swear is a thing, I don’t see why we can’t create a syndrome out a fictional character. In fact, it wouldn’t even be the first time.

I’m not a doctor, nor do I claim to be an expert in anything that doesn’t involve telling sexy stories, but it’s for that reason that I feel it’s so important to put an actual face on an issue that’s hard to understand. Psychology is tricky, complicated, and messy. Al Bundy is simple, crude, and crass. One is innately funnier than the other.

In that sense, it’s easier to see the signs and symptoms of learned helplessness, so long as you frame it in Al Bundy syndrome. Watch any old episode of “Married With Children” and the symptoms reveal themselves. They include feelings like:

  • Being hopelessly numb to the misery around you, like Al Bundy
  • Making little to no effort to improve your situation, like Al Bundy
  • Assuming the worst in every situation, like Al Bundy
  • Having an extremely cynical outlook, like Al Bundy
  • Not caring about whether the world likes or respects you, like Al Bundy
  • Having no shame or filter about what you say, like Al Bundy

The list goes on, but there are too many to list and watching old episodes of “Married With Children” is probably far more informative than any list, not to mention funnier. It’s a show that probably couldn’t get made today, due to how politically incorrect it was, even for its time. That makes its impact all the more vital.

I doubt that Ed O’Neill or the producers of “Married With Children” intended Al Bundy to be the poster boy for learned helplessness, but sometimes the connections are there and all we have to do is make them. So, moving forward, if you want to know what learned helplessness is and how to avoid it, just remember this face. It may save your life, your marriage, and your soul.

For that, I thank you Ed O’Neill.

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Filed under gender issues, Marriage and Relationships