Married with Children is an iconic show in TV history, but back at the start, it took a controversial episode and an angry viewer to make it a hit. At this point, the FOX network has been a major player in the broadcast TV scene for so long, it can be hard to remember that in the grand scheme of things, it’s still pretty young. While competitors CBS, ABC, and NBC trace back to the beginnings of the medium, FOX emerged out of nowhere in 1987 as a young upstart entrant into the mix.
Married with Children was literally one of the first shows ever aired on FOX, occupying a spot in its original Sunday night prime-time lineup alongside The Tracey Ullman Show, which itself would go on to spinoff fellow early FOX hit The Simpsons. The whole idea behind Married with Children was to serve as a counterpoint to all the wholesome family sitcoms currently occupying the airwaves, such as The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Growing Pains.
Instead of portraying home as a refuge, money as abundant, and families as happy and stable, Married with Children went the other direction, presenting the poor, unlucky, bickering, and crass Bundy clan. While Married with Children was a highly exaggerated take on the perils of an average American life, its themes of economic insecurity and a harsh world often devoid of pleasant outcomes resonated with many. Still, it wasn’t until a particularly controversial, adult-themed episode aired during season 3 that Married with Children truly caught on with the masses, helping establish FOX in the process.
Married With Children’s “Her Cups Runneth Over” Controversy Explained
The cheekily titled Married With Children episode “Her Cups Runneth Over” first aired on FOX on January 8, 1989, as episode 6 of season 3. The plot of the episode sees Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill) and his friend/neighbor Steve Rhoades head to a lingerie store in order to locate Peggy’s favorite kind of bra, which has been discontinued by the manufacturer but can still be found at this particular store. As usual for Married with Children, this story sets up lots of decidedly not family-friendly humor once Al and Steve are inside the store. Some of the antics include an old man wearing undergarments traditionally worn by women, Steve groping a mannequin clad in BDSM attire, and multiple scantily clad female customers. There’s also a particularly questionable gay joke, which definitely wouldn’t fly today.
While this kind of fare was nothing that unusual for Married with Children at the time, a Michigan woman named Terry Rakolta happened to see the episode and was so upset by what she saw that she took it upon herself to lead a boycott of the show. Rakolta attempted to do this by writing to companies who ran ads during Married with Children, demanding they pull their sponsorships. This approach actually worked briefly, with some companies pulling ads, and FOX insisting Married with Children tone itself down, even refusing to air an ultimately “lost” episode called “I’ll See You in Court,” in which Al and Peggy are secretly filmed while having sex in a hotel room.
Ironically, as a result of all the mainstream news coverage of Rakolta and her boycott charge, audiences began tuning into Married with Children in droves, presumably to see what all the fuss was about. Ratings shot through the roof, and for the first time, FOX had a real hit on its hands. Sponsors eventually all returned, and Married with Children would stay on the air for eight more seasons, dialing the raunchiness back up as it went. In this case, Rakolta’s outrage backfired in a big way, and the show really ended up none the worse for wear.