Thursday, April 26, 2007

Things That Should Suck, But Don't: Unhappily Ever After

The local multi-cultural channel, OMNI, is showing repeats of Unhappily Ever After. (They show it at 11:00 p.m., so I sometimes watch it when The Daily Show isn’t doing anything interesting. But most of my memories of episodes come from a few years back when I had to watch it in syndication because it was the only thing on while I was exercising.) Why anyone would choose to rerun this, other than the fact that the syndication rights are probably cheap, I’m not completely sure. But I’m nonetheless glad they are, because it’s given me a chance to remind myself that I kind of liked this show.

I feel almost nervous about admitting that, because this was considered one of the worst shows of the ‘90s – and not without good reason. One person actually got angry at me when he discovered I liked Unhappily Ever After. But let me try to explain why I like it.

First, some background. Unhappily Ever After was one of the early shows created for the then-new, now-defunct WB network. At that time (before it made its mark with teen shows) the new network was trying to do a lot of low-budget videotaped sitcoms with a blue-collar feel, so they went to Ron Leavitt, co-creator of Married With Children, and asked him for something similar. Leavitt and Arthur Silver (another Married writer who had started out in the Miller-Milkis-Boyett salt mines on shows like Joanie Loves Chachi) came up with a premise that was basically Married with a twist: what if the Al Bundy ripoff (Geoff Pierson) actually got divorced from the Peg Bundy ripoff (Stephanie Hodge)? Of course, after the first season, this was abandoned, the dad moved back in with his family and it became a straight-up Married With Children ripoff.

The only thing setting it apart was that the dad was a full-fledged psychotic, and that his psychosis manifested himself by his hallucination of a talking stuffed bunny who would rant about how much everything sucked. This bunny was a puppet voiced by Bobcat Goldthwait. Actually, this was kind of a ripoff too, because the character resembled the foul-mouthed sock puppet “Skank” (himself a parody of Married With Children and similar shows) voiced by Andy Dick on The Ben Stiller Show.

Geoff Pierson was no Ed O’Neill (well, nobody is – O’Neill’s Al Bundy was one of the greatest pieces of comic acting in TV history – but even by that standard, Pierson wasn’t that good), and Stephanie Hodge looked bored through the whole thing and left the show a year before it ended. However, the casting director did make some good choices for the three kids. For the little kid, Justin Berfeld, later of Malcolm in the Middle. For the middle child, Kevin Connolly, now on Entourage. And for the Kelly Bundy role of the sexy teenage daughter, Nikki Cox. If you ever saw an episode of this show, you’ll recall that Cox was exploited like nobody else you’ve ever seen: the audience was ordered to scream and hoot and holler every time she came in (not just her first entrance in the episode; every damn time), and the wardrobe people put her in FCC-baiting costumes. Cox is very attractive and funny and has always deserved a really good vehicle (her self-titled sitcom Nikki wasn’t it, and neither is her role on Las Vegas), but the exploitation element was so blatant here that you could almost wind up feeling embarrassed for her.

Okay, so all of that said, why did I enjoy this unevenly-cast, cheaply-made, sometimes embarrassing show? Because the writers, knowing that the show was all of the above, would often say to hell with it and indulge themselves in the most insane stuff I’ve ever seen on a network sitcom. Rants against celebrities, an occasional feature on Married With Children, became the main joke on Unhappily, with every episodes abounding in nasty references to any celebrity the writers didn’t like. Frequent objects of hate included aging musicians, Quentin Tarantino, that “Monday Seinfeld/Tuesday Seinfeld” ad on KTLA, the cast of any show that was beating them in the ratings – every other show, that is to say. The puppet started talking to the audience, and then the other characters started doing it, until by the end of the series one joke was preceded by a minute of Kevin Connolly asking us to guess what the punchline would be (“You know I’m going to ruin this painting, but how will I do it?”). The plots became more and more freakish with every passing season. In the first couple of seasons, it was a fairly standard Married With Children ripoff; in the final season, with the mother gone, it was totally nuts.

And because most of the jokes revolved around the writers’ hatred of late ‘90s culture, the show is a perfect time capsule of the late ‘90s cultural moment. (For example, the final season introduced a goth girl as a character; after her first scene, Nikki Cox explains that even though the goth look is out, sitcom writers are always at least a year behind the times.) The trends of the late ‘90s were all there, not only pop-cultural but political; there was a weird irony whenever they’d make political references – and they made a lot – because their drunken audiences would cheer loudly at references that were meant to be ironic. You could almost see a new political cultural trend developing, unintentionally, when Nikki Cox tried to explain to the other characters the dangers of mob rule and assuming that someone must be a terrorist just because he’s accused of being one (this was in reference to the Atlanta Olympics incident) and not only the other characters didn’t get it, but the studio audience didn’t either. Or look at this chillingly prescient speech and how the studio audience agrees with it.

Listen, world, don’t get too cocky out there. The real Americans are still here. One day, we’re going to wake up from our drunken stupor, realize we’ve got a fat Miss America, and say “What the hell happened here?” And on that day, we’ll grab our guns and swig one more beer, and kill, and kill. and kill, until this is the great country it once was! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

I’m not trying to make this show out to be a work of subversive genius. It was kind of subversive, at least in the sense that the writers were sneaking in all kinds of things that were too smart or weird for their target audience. But it was also kind of bad. Still, it was crazy and funny and often refreshingly angry. Let me put it this way: it was essentially a bad show, but in terms of being weird, mean-spirited and tasteless it was the show that Family Guy never had the nerve to be -- and much funnier than Family Guy could dream of being. And if you want to understand what the late ‘90s were all about, you could do worse than watch a few episodes of this thing.

I’ll close with two sample stories to give an idea of what I’m talking about.

- The premiere of the final season (written and executive-produced by Kevin Curran, a Married vet who’s now writing for The Simpsons along with a couple of other Unhappily writers), was an X-Files parody where the paranormal phenomenon is the dancing baby from Ally McBeal, who only appears to women who are ovulating; it turns out it’s a midget who enjoys dressing up as a dancing baby and once fathered a child by Bea Arthur. Meanwhile, the other characters play a prank on Justin Berfeld by convincing him that this episode is all about him and how he needs glasses; he doesn’t catch on until the end that the camera is never on during any of his scenes. The episode ends with a caption: ”In loving memory of The Magic Johnson Show, 1998-1998."

- The conclusion of a two-part episode where the mother dies: a tanning-salon accident causes her to be fried into beef jerkey, upon which Kevin Connolly eats her. But she comes back as a ghost, and insists that she will haunt the house until they show her some love. After the family gets Father Guido Sarducci to exorcise her, she takes a hint and leaves, but a WB network executive shows up to insist that the series go back to status quo. Oh, and Nikki Cox sums up the episode by saying that they need the mother because “We need a common enemy. It’s kind of like when we lost the Russians as an enemy; who are we supposed to fear now? The Arabs?”


Anonymous said...

Great article- I started tuning this in because of Nikki Cox, and was surprised at how surreal it often was. The damn thing bordered on brilliant at times, which is more than you can say for most sit-coms.

Mr. Semaj said...

I never actually saw this show, but that second clip shows how they were even copying Married...with Children to the effect of lampooning their own network.

And yes, there's only ONE Al Bundy.

As for Kevin Curran on The Simpsons, I strongly believe that he's behind a lot of the more direct jabs at marriage the characters have been making for the past few seasons.

Slowjack said...

I would have say that this is something that does, indeed, suck, at least based on the YouTube clips I just watched. Okay, so the writers, maybe out of spite or boredom, injected a lot of meta-comedy into the scripts, but it's just not funny.

I guess I'm at the point that when I see a character acknowledging the essential crapiness of the show, instead of thinking that it's clever, I wonder why they didn't spend to time to come up with something good instead.

Or put another way: if "Charles in Charge" had contained ironic self-references, it would still be "Charles in Charge."