Question: The other night my boyfriend and I were talking about that housewife who used to complain about Married... with Children and other shows she thought were dirty. As we remembered it, she got a lot of attention and made a lot of progress. But TV isn't any cleaner today. Did she actually do anything? Thank you. — Louis L., Estes Park, Colo.
Televisionary: Looking back, what suburban Detroit housewife Terry Rakolta actually did was create much ado about nothing, which was still a pretty notable effort for a total outsider who started by banging out letters from home. For those who don't remember the dust-up, during the 1988-89 season, mother Rakolta turned on her TV to find MWC's Peg Bundy (Futurama's Katey Sagal) in search of a new bra. The episode, typical for the raunchy, standards-torturing show, was called "Her Cups Runneth Over" and its content apparently scorched Rakolta's eyes. Or, to be fair, she was concerned it would inflict damage on her kids, who were putting in some tube time during the comedy's 8:30 pm/ET timeslot on that particular Sunday night.
"They talked about vibrators," Rakolta told TV Guide in 1989. "They had a man walking around in stockings and high heels. A woman took her bra off [with her back to the camera]. I was shocked." She picked up the phone and eventually reached one of the episode's co-writers, only to be told, in essence, that if she didn't like it she was welcome to make use of her remote. She took pen in hand instead and fired off letter after letter to the MWC sponsors, eventually prompting replies from executives with such companies as Gillette, Warner-Lambert and others. She then got herself some major play in The New York Times, among other publications, and it was widely reported that Fox was cracking down on the show after a few advertisers pulled their dollars. A victory for the moral militia, no?
Well, no. Not really. To her credit, Rakolta saw something she thought was inappropriate on the public airwaves and set about "fixing" it, which was certainly her right. Of course, many other people argued that it was also her right to avoid watching it and thus let the large audience who enjoyed the show continue to do so. Either way, when all was said and done, the only advertisers who didn't eventually return to MWC were those already planning to bail out; all the others ended up buying time again. To make matters worse for the purists out there, the increased attention actually meant improved ratings.
Even the producers had to admit that though Fox executives bumped MWC back to 9 pm and told anyone who would listen that they were going to rein the writers in, they still had it pretty good. "We're under a microscope now," co-creator Ron Leavitt said of his show, which had already been taking heat from the network before Rakolta came along. "Fox is more nervous than before. But we're getting away with things that we couldn't get away with on a [traditional] network. We complain in degrees. We're appreciative."
That they were. And why not? Married... with Children helped put Fox on the network map and, in return, it enjoyed a 10-year lifespan, running from April 1987 to July 1997, well after Rakolta launched her crusade and got her name in so many papers. And the creative forces behind the show didn't take the idea of restraint too seriously. On other series, newly named executive producer Pamela Eells pointed out that before the launch of the 1996 season, "the audience at home never hears the funniest stuff because it's either too crass or too outrageous or too silly. On this show, it all goes in." Now that doesn't sound like a woman cowed by the forces of clean living to me.
For their part, the cast didn't seem all that concerned with the filth imbroglio — their complaints were those of just about any actor who jumps from obscurity to fame and then worries about typecasting. "I don't think if I saw me in Married... with Children that I'd see me for many roles," Ed O'Neill, who starred as rude, crude Chicago shoe salesman Al Bundy, fretted in 1991. "You think, in the beginning, 'Hey, I'm recognized everywhere. This is fantasy.' Then, later, you want to say, 'I'm not Al Bundy. I'm the actor who represents Al Bundy.' I can't be Al Bundy my whole career. I'm a much better actor than people know."
As the other half of the low-rent Bundy couple, Sagal's only gripe was that the sexually frustrated Peg reflected too much of her male creators' mentality and wasn't fleshed out or feminine enough. But the actress was worldly enough to know when she had a good thing going, having already suffered through a divorce and put in time as a backup singer with Bette Midler, Etta James, Olivia Newton-John, Bob Dylan and others. "If I don't watch out, I'm going to start having some real fun," she said early on, admitting she was enjoying herself enough to lower her tough-girl defenses.
And that optimism rubbed off on O'Neill, who had to admit he was fortunate despite his other kvetching. "When I think about it that way, and then I think of my existence these days — my house at the beach, my hammock, the chance to play handball on weekends, which I love — well, I have to think, 'Hey, Ed, this is a pretty charmed life.'"True enough. Then again, he wasn't the guy dodging calls from network execs and outraged housewives.