Settling In With ‘Married With Children’s High-Concept, Low-Stakes Bottle Episode

‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined.

“We’ve got twenty-three minutes to get to the closing of Johnny B. Goode’s…”

“The burger place?”

“It’s more than just a burger place. They’ve got fries.”

There have been a number of treasured comedies from the annals of television to grace this list so far, but this week’s inclusion may be the crudest program to be featured yet. And yet, something so beautiful about bottle episodes is that they can act as an equalizer, leveling programs as sophisticated as Frasier with the often-crass Married With Children.

Married With Children, while delivering a bluer take on comedy, had no problems chiseling a name out for itself from the well established marble block of prime-time television. The sitcom, which depicted the humdrum lives of the Chicago-based Bundys, championed by Al and Peg (played with perfection by Ed O’Neill and Katey Sagal, respectively), somehow became a cultural phenomenon lasting 259 episodes over the course of eleven seasons. Married With Children didn’t only make a name for itself, but with it being FOX’s first prime-time series and one that tackled less conventional issues of the time, it even legitimized Fox into an actual network that could compete with the dominating Big Three of the time (NBC, ABC, and CBS). The Bundys were soon nearly giving the Simpsons a run for their money for who was the public’s favorite blue-collar family.

For a show that celebrated middle America, the mundane, and was such a “low concept” sitcom, the series decided to end their first season with their most creative, stylistic outing, perhaps trying to show Fox that they weren’t just a one-trick pony and that they had unseen talents at their disposal. A lot is going on in “Johnny B. Gone,” but the main story being dealt with is Al realizing that his favorite diner, Johnny B. Goode, is closing down, leaving him to make a decision between his favorite grub spot and his flesh-and-blood offspring. While these decisions are being mulled over, the episode passes entirely in real-time for the 23 minutes that it’s made up of, a move fairly irregular for the series. If anything, such a contemplative half-hour greatly benefits from watching Al mull over his decisions as the process tears him apart. It’s one thing to just hear that Johnny B. Goode is closing by the end of the episode, but by placing this in real-time, the urgency of this announcement is actually felt. Each passing minute is important and it adds an urgency to Married With Children that has never been there before.

It should be noted that Married sticks the landing so well here that they would later return to these tactics and structure with the final season’s “Desperate Half-Hour,” but this is the better take on the format. It’s the episode that really excels with the device rather than merely pulling it off, and doesn’t feel – well, as desperate.

Unsurprisingly, the bottle that the Bundys are placed in for this half-hour is the epicenter of all things slobbish, the Bundy household. With this merely being the end of the show’s first season, focusing on such a familiar location is not only understandable, but a reinforcement of the themes and characters that give this world such a strong voice. While later in the series’ run moving a bottle episode outside of comfortable territory (which is exactly what they would do) makes perfect sense, at this point it could risk being disorienting. The format change is already enough of a shift for the audience to take in, that “overcrowding” this episode could have been problematic. Instead, just the right amount of care is placed to make sure it keeps clipping along, greasing the comedy wheels along with it.

While Johnny B. Goode’s closure is really the focus here, “Johnny B. Gone” like most of the best bottle episodes that we’ve looked at, juggles a number of plots with all of the characters operating at their A-game and shown at their most extreme. It’s barely four minutes into the episode before salmon is all over the living room. As more chaos begins to pile down on the Bundys, the humor in the realization that Al and Peg are never going to make it to Johnny B. Goode’s in time becomes funnier with each new distraction. The episode doesn’t even restrict itself to just focusing on the Bundys, with the Rhoades next door also being trapped in this bottle. The episode acts as just as much of a showcase for Marcy next door (who’s stuck in nothing but a towel for most of the duration) as it does the Bundys. While some might say that an outing like this should focus purely on the members of this off-kilter clan, the season slowly opened up and became more of a showcase for the neighbors. This more than feels like a fitting, earned inclusion in the finale.

As this episode slowly takes it time unraveling (and yet it just flies by) and exploring different comedy ventures within these enclosed walls, “Johnny B. Gone” actually introduces a number of much-loved running jokes that would soon populate the series (Al and Peg’s “mystery” exchanges, as well as the first example of one of their “chicken jokes”), which might be due to how this episode has so much time to play around in its bottle. There’s such freedom in figuring out that you’re unable to leave, that you’re able to cultivate gags that will sustain themselves through the course of the series. But it gives this episode an extra boost of energy and charm that suits it well.

To use this bottle episode as a take on Al and Peg lamenting the future is a great way to close the season. Instead of this bottle episode featuring some emotional catharsis between two human beings, it’s about Al and Peg and their favorite diner. They still get to have a heart-to-heart with an old friend, but that old friend is Johnny B. Goode, an establishment and symbol of the past (that even has an offensive grease stain that’s shaped like Al’s head). Peg tells Marcy that it’s undeniably the place where they’ve built the most memories. It’s even where the two of them met. It’s an anthropomorphizing experience not unlike grieving over the loss of a canceled TV show, something that the viewers of Married might have had to go through themselves under certain circumstances.

This presents an idea that’s more indicative of one of Married With Children’s larger overall themes of the Bundys versus modernity, with this being a perfect example of it. As Married With Children would continue its run, it would often treat moments like this with a mix of nostalgia as well as a readiness to move on (with Peg often holding the more callous, “realistic” perspective), yet here both of them mourn and feel sadness over this passing. While this was surely not the episode’s intention, the bottle structure almost operates as if the Bundys were performing a de facto shiva while they grieve the loss of a loved one. It’s just, y’know, a heart attack trap they’re crying over.

While we’ve looked at all sorts of shows here, and while certainly some of the more ”artistic,” ambitious offerings have had a bigger impact on the landscape of television, sometimes something like this can be even more affecting. Sometimes there’s nothing more human than crying over the loss of a good burger, and Married with Children not only showed us that was okay, but welcomed us into the hug with open arms.

*Toilet flush*

Married.with.Children.s01e13.Johnny.B.Gone.DSR… by athalex7

Settling In With ‘Married With Children’s […]