For every new station that comes out, it lives or dies by whether or not it can find a breakout hit.
Comedy Central had South Park, which did a monstrous business. America went from "what's Comedy Central" to "Oh my God! They killed Kenny! You bastards!" within months, and the channel's future was assured.
But well before that, in the 80s, Fox started up as a channel, and was looking for some differentiating programming. What they found, and then bankrolled - was such an audacious concept that it still amazes many that the company bet its future on it.
It was a show that started out with the working title "Not the Cosbys".
At the time, The Cosby Show was the biggest hit on TV, and Bill Cosby was not yet a bug-eyed sexual predator telling everyone in the media he wanted tales of drugged forced anal sex "scuttled" but was instead America's Dad. His show was even the most popular property in South Africa during the apartheid years. So Fox went the complete polar opposite in direction. The Cosbys were black, the family in this new show, the Bundys, were white. The Cosbys were rich, the Bundys were barely making ends meet. Bill Cosby's "Cliff Huxtable" was a whimsical, light hearted zippity do wop to the zang a zang and Ed O'Neill's Al Bundy was a hateful, misogynistic bitter insulting cretin. The materfamilias of the Cosby's was a refined polished woman with an education and poise - Peggy Bundy was a bon-bon scarfing bouffanted white trash from "Wanker County" who never got off the couch.
Whereas Cosby wrote Lisa Bonet off the series rapidly enough, she was pretty and demure and certainly there as eye candy - the eldest daughter Kelly Bundy was a bleach-blonde, hair-rock rocker girl who it is a miracle never got pregnant and who most certainly was stuffed into skimpy outfits and bikini scenes for the basest instincts of the audience.
And whereas the son of the Cosby family (based on Cosby's real life son Ennis) was an earnest, hardworking kid who occasionally got in over his head, Bud Bundy was a short, acne'd loser kid with near-zero success from condescending and bullying bimbos.
As a contrast, the family next door consisted of Marcy, a career feminist whose small breasts were constantly being mocked. At first she was married to "Steve", but the actor was replaced with show-killer Ted McGinley as himbo boy-toy "Jefferson". This is the show that broke the infamous "McGinley curse"; his introduction not kill the show - and he and the show flourished together.
And whereas the Cosby show had all sorts of nutty, whacky plot lines around Cliff and his wife inadvertently bidding against each other at a super-expensive auction for a rare Charlie Parker pressing, with Cosby going into elaborate spasms of YES! BID FIVE HUNDRED!, Al Bundy would come through the door, insult the fat women who came into his shoe store, and then scowl his way to the couch. The fact that Al and Peggy rarely slept together anymore, and some serious prolonged seven year itch ("Did you miss me, honey?" "With every bullet so far") were prime fodder for the show, as well as Al's obvious "newspaper under the left arm" signal telegraphing his intent to spend prolonged amounts of time in the men's room. In the days post-Jerry Springer, with Family Guy and others openly making abortion jokes this seems rather tame, but for the time it was a serious risk to take.
And part of the reason it worked was that Fox was a new network with limited market penetration, so the show had time to develop without being in the harsh spotlight. And by the time it had found some traction, the 1990s were in full swing, and it was in opposition to the zeitgeist of the era.
Because by the time the 1990s started, the world went into a serious eco-hugging, politically correct mania. Whereas most political correctness these days is seen as an appropriate response to centuries of boorish culture, at the time it came in like a blitzkrieg, and it was angry. People puzzled over the real difference between saying "people of color" versus "colored people" and why the latter was a crime worthy of losing your job and the former gave you brownie points. Sebastian Bach had frontlined a concert only two years previous wearing a T-shirt that says "AIDS KILLS FAGS DEAD" without that much hue and cry. Suddenly we had to care as a society about the spotted owl and triaging our garbage, and change was a-comin.
At the same time, the bottom fell out of the economy. Clinton had not yet started to pull the country out of its slump, and it was one of the last body blows to the blue collar society that up until that point could be reasonably certain of some kind of good job. And they found a hero in the gurning, constantly beaten down by life Al Bundy.
The genius of Ed O'Neill's performance cannot be understated. Al may have been one to make fat jokes to a fat woman's face, and read "Big Un's" magazine with a pubescent glee. He was certainly ready to use his fists whenever possible, and he was a misanthrope of the first order. He'd stick his hands down his pants and almost worshipped the toilet. But he did it with a series of gurning faces and comic turns of vocal expression that made him nonthreatening. His gait was a shambling one, his ex-athlete's lanky tall body moving in a jerky, almost simian manner. Al Bundy was a jerk, most certainly - but he was definitely a lovable jerk.
The character was softened by the fact that he was a simple man with simple tastes, the hero of Polk High's football team enroute to college, until derailed by an unplanned pregnancy, making his summer job at the shoe store his permanent career. (Ed O'Neill himself was a college football player and almost a Pittsburgh Steeler but was cut from the team in 1969, and having found that out they wrote Al being a former football hero into the scripts.) Saddled with a Dodge that was barely holding together, a wife with nothing but seeming contempt for him, and a day job that entailed being abused by frankly truly obnoxious fat women, you would almost sympathize with him. All he wanted to do was go down to the nudie bar with his friends and watch the kinds of breasts his wife lost years ago, only to find it had been turned into a feminist slam poetry venue.
Whatever temporary glory or fortune Al might come across would certainly evaporate by the show's end. It was all the sweeter to see him surrounded by young beautiful women or coming into money simply because you knew it wasn't going to last. And so did he, so he gleefully enjoyed it when and while it happened.
As time went on it was pretty clear he deeply loved his family, and vice versa, regardless of the truly toxic and dysfunctional way they interacted with each other. When the chips were down, the Bundys hung together. In fact, Al Bundy ends up in hell, having sold his soul at some point, and challenges Satan to a game to win his soul back (he's tired of eternity with the neighbours and his family). By sheer fortune Al and his family, up against Genghis Khan, Erik the Red and others in a five-a-side game of football almost win that game, and Satan stops Darcy's throw mid-air just as Al is to catch it - to offer Al a tempting offer - if he drops the ball and loses the game, he gets to leave Hell but in losing keeps the rest of his family and the Darcys in Hell - replacing them with four beautiful women with tons of money. (Al catches the ball). When Buck, the family dog, is slated to be executed at the pound, Al gives up the coveted chance to "first oil" the reigning mud wrestling champion down at "the nudie bar" - Ms. Maria "Canta" Lopez in order to make it to the pound in time.
And there were legions of men and women who truly loved the show. They saw themselves in the characters one way or another, and there were days when Al's appearance on set led to such cheering and screaming that they had to stop taping and re-start the scene because of the length of the cheers. If you listen to the cheering at any point, you can hear "AL!" being screamed here and there. It was a farrango of lowbrow humor, bouncing breasts, chiselled abs, toilet jokes and bon-bons. You had to love it for what it was, and leap into the fray with joyous abandon. And people did.
It ran for eleven zany, wonderful seasons. They kidnapped Jerry Springer, they started a church of misogyny (which collapsed when Marcy Darcy shows the congregation footage of Al enjoying dinner with his wife). Al went toe to toe with Bubba Smith. King Kong Bundy made an appearance as an extended family member, as almost did drag legend and John Waters associate Divine - who sadly died before the first day of taping. (He was set to play Peggy's mother). Al started a political movement, NO MA'AM, and ventured to England to find the source of the Bundy family curse. Many a cheer was cheered, many a good looking man went shirtless and many a woman appeared in barely-containing bikini tops.
There were touching moments as well. Bud Bundy gives a soliloquy on air about how unfair beautiful women were to less-than alpha men, and that if they actually were decent human beings they'd condescend to give others a deserving chance. It was echoed by an even more crowning moment of awesome when a plain young woman interrupts Bud suddenly swarmed over by swimsuit models saying that plain girls get overlooked even harder, and whereas the beautiful girls are just in competition with each other over him, she'd love him for who he is, knowing full well what being invisible and unloved is really like. (He decides to take the road of short-lived fantasy with the harem swarming him).
And then one day, the last show aired. The cast itself weren't even aware it was the last show. Decreasing revenues and increased costs meant that they simply pulled the plug. They simply slapped a "thanks" message at the end of "How to marry a moron (part 2)" and faded to a black background under the final credits. The cast was understandably bitter that there was no final episode, no winding up of the story, no ending to the story of the Bundy clan, just simply an abrupt smash cut to black, thank you. It wasn't the horror of the finale of ALF but the show deserved better.
The cast met for reunions, still deeply in love with each other. The actor who played Bud came of age on the show, and it's obvious that Ed O'Neill loved Katey Segal as a friend, and felt deep almost fatherly affection for the two actors who played his children - in contrast to the actors of the Bill Cosby show, especially the female ones, who have "no comment" about questions as to whether they were sexually approached or abused. Married With Children left a legacy, both in catchphrases and a deep and still-fanatic fan base. The Cosby show's legacy is jokes about Rohypnol, and the disturbing fact that the inspiration for Ennis was gunned down next to his broken down car. Not the Cosbys, indeed.
But not only had it put FOX on the map, but it had been copied in many countries, adapted for regional markets. It was their international smash hit, and still today you can buy replica "Polk High" football shirts and "NO MA'AM" T-shirts. It deserved far better, for what it did for that network, then to be dropped without warning or notice, fanfare or even the barest of respects from the network. But perhaps that, given the nature of the Bundy narrative, is the most fitting end of all.