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LIFE ON THE COUCH: 'Married ... With Children' stars break from Bundy personas

November 15th, 2009 by CHRISTOPHER LAWRENCE LIFE ON THE COUCH Maybe it's time to give that Urkel kid a second chance. "Married ... With Children" perfected the Fox brand of rudely funny anarchy years before "Family Guy" was even a twinkle in Seth MacFarlane's eye. And it was nearly as cartoonish. Each episode of the comedy -- which can be seen a staggering 10 times each weekday (4:30-7 a.m. on TBS, 10 a.m.-noon on Spike and 10:30 p.m. on KTUD-TV, Channel 25) -- found Peg Bundy (Katey Sagal) not wanting to cook, Al Bundy (Ed O'Neill) not wanting to have sex, and problems being resolved with a family huddle and a cheer of "Whoa, Bundy!" So who could have guessed that underneath Peg's outlandish leopard prints and red bouffant was a serious, dramatic actress yearning to break free? Or that behind the hand-in-his-pants, dreaming-of-hooters Al, whose every exaggerated move played to those who couldn't even afford the cheap seats, was a gifted, subtle actor? It's taken a dozen years, but Sagal and O'Neill have shaken off their signature roles and are experiencing a career renaissance: Sagal in the rough-and-tumble biker drama "Sons of Anarchy" (10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX) and O'Neill in the season's most consistently hilarious comedy, "Modern Family" (9 p.m. Wednesdays, KTNV-TV, Channel 13). As "Sons of Anarchy's" tattooed, multiple-pistol-packin' Gemma, Sagal is the scariest woman on TV outside of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." For proof, check out the scene last season when she broke a girl's face with a skateboard because she thought the girl was after her man. But for most of this year, Gemma has been an emotional six-car pileup after being kidnapped, beaten, chained to a fence and brutally gang raped in the season premiere. The jaw-dropping assault was carried out by white supremacists who wanted SAMCRO -- the motorcycle club led by Gemma's husband, Clay (Ron Perlman), and son, Jax (Charlie Hunnam) -- to stop selling guns to black and Mexican gangs. "This isn't about me. What those animals did was to hurt Clay (and) Jax," she reasoned. "Anyone finds out, they win. I can't let that happen." For nine episodes, she bottled up the shame, fear and rage. She questioned her faith and her worth. Then last week, as a last-ditch attempt at ending the dangerous rift between the men in her life, she finally told Clay and Jax what happened. Her few, measured words left them, and viewers, reeling. Many actresses would have reached straight for their bag of histrionics, raging and flailing their way toward Emmy glory. But in Sagal's hands, the mesmerizing scene was beautifully underplayed and achingly raw. Much like "Sons of Anarchy," Sagal seems to have found a higher gear this season, and I'm fully expecting to stand up in my living room and cheer when she's finally avenged. O'Neill is in slightly more familiar territory in that "Modern Family" is a comedy, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. Unlike Al Bundy, O'Neill's Jay is wealthy, confident and can't keep his hands off his wife. And this time, there's no studio audience hooting and hollering like they just came straight from a night out at "The Arsenio Hall Show" and Harry's Jiggle Hut. "Jay and I are buds, for sure. But with kind of an invisible asterisk," his scene-stealing son-in-law, Phil (Ty Burrell), says. "He's not a talker. Or a hugger. Once, he ran over my foot with his car. To be fair, he had just given up smoking. But basically, we're buds." But despite the rare outburst, most of Jay's scenes involve being confounded by his precocious stepson, Manny (Rico Rodriguez). "I'll give you 50 bucks not to do this," Jay pleads as Manny is about to recite a love poem to a much older girl. Manny: "I'm 11 years old. What am I going to do with money?" Jay: "What are you going to do with a 16-year-old?" The role also showcases O'Neill's little-known prowess as a straight man. As the swinging-from-the-chandeliers Phil, Burrell may be TV's hardest-working comedy actor. You get the very real feeling that he'd fall off a roof if the right joke called for it. Yet O'Neill often earns just as many belly laughs with his simple line readings and exasperated reactions. Try as they might, actors rarely recover from being associated with iconic roles. Henry Winkler will always be Fonzie, Michael Richards will always be Kramer and Dustin Diamond will always be annoying. And at this stage of their careers, when the laws of Hollywood dictate they should be signing autographs at car shows, it's refreshing that Sagal and O'Neill have been given the chance to reinvent themselves. It's downright astounding that they've pulled it off. Whoa, Bundy, indeed.
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