Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re beginning our coverage on the best episodes from one of the best sitcoms of all time, All In The Family (1971-1979, CBS). I’m thrilled to announce that every single episode of the series has been released on DVD.
Archie Bunker, a conservative working-class family man with outdated and bigoted views, clashes with his liberal son-in-law, Michael Stivic (nicknamed “Meathead” by Archie), over important issues of the day. Also in the house are Archie’s sweet, but dingy wife, Edith, and their daughter, Gloria, who is caught between the ideals of her father and her husband. All In The Family stars CARROLL O’CONNOR as Archie Bunker, JEAN STAPLETON as Edith Bunker, ROB REINER as Mike Stivic, and SALLY STRUTHERS as Gloria Bunker-Stivic.
Pretty much everything attributed to this series is true. It revolutionized television; there was nothing before it and nothing since that has ever come close to replicating its deep-seated effects on both culture and the television landscape. For the first time ever, issues of the day (politics, religion, race, sexuality, gender, etc.) were allowed to be debated on primetime TV — and in a situation comedy, no less — kicking the door open for every television series that followed. Based on a British series, Norman Lear fought for nearly three years to bring All In The Family to American television. (One of my first Wildcard Wednesday posts was about the two unaired pilots. Do a search to see clips and read my thoughts.) By the time it debuted in January 1971, it quickly became a smash hit and rocketed its brilliant cast to situation comedy stardom. (They each won multiple Emmys over the course of the series.) These initial 13 episodes, while still raw in their formation of the characters (particularly the women), are perhaps some of the most topical of the series. But this is balanced with some truly outstanding comedy, the likes of which, again, had never been seen before. While the show will get better in Seasons Two and Three, this first season is an excellent taste of what the series had to offer — in its early years (the later years are a completely different story). So I have picked five episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. (Remember, there are only 13.) For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the five best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by John Rich.
01) Episode 1: “Meet The Bunkers” (Aired: 01/12/71)
Mike and Gloria plan a surprise anniversary brunch for her folks, but the meal soon turns contentious.
Written by Norman Lear
I did a lengthy post containing my thoughts on the pilot episode of this series — the third go-round for Norman Lear, Carroll O’Connor, and Jean Stapleton — but I’ll briefly recap my thoughts here. The foursome makes utter magic together in this installment, which runs like a one-act play in the Bunker living room and serves as a highlight reel, containing debates about many of the topics that will come into play over and over again in the series: race (Archie’s views on blacks), religion (Archie’s views on Jews and atheists), sex (Archie’s views on “decency”), etc. It’s a great example of what the series will be like, and though it does feel a bit cramped with topics and light on story, there are too many gigantic laughs to care. This is an excellent episode, and surprisingly (as this isn’t often the case), I recommend that interested new parties begin here.
02) Episode 4: “Archie Gives Blood” (Aired: 02/02/71)
Archie balks at the idea of giving blood, especially since he doesn’t know who will be the recipient.
Written by Norman Lear
The first episode written by Norman Lear following the pilot, this installment’s principal issue du jour is Archie’s racism against African Americans, which rears its head when he and Mike venture down to the blood bank to donate. At this point in the series’ run, every joke and beat is fresh enough that nothing feels tired or repetitive, and there are, as usual, lots of laughs. I also want to note the first act, which plays in real time around the dinner table as the foursome plays Monopoly. It’s a great example of comedic writing that establishes character (particularly Edith, who tells a story about sharing blood with Katharine Hepburn) without letting on about its machinations. Very funny, and so well written.
03) Episode 9: “Edith Has Jury Duty” (Aired: 03/09/71)
Edith is the lone holdout on a jury charged with determining the fate of an accused murderer.
Story by Susan Harris | Teleplay by Susan Harris, and Don Nicholl & Bryan Joseph
Of all the episodes this season, this one is probably the least topical. That is, it’s pure situation comedy with a principal focus on making its audience laugh. While the premise is unbearably tired, (how many times have we seen “the lone juror” story — three? four?) it’s another excellent way of establishing character, as Stapleton’s Edith is afforded nearly the entire half-hour to shine. Sitcom fans should also note the presence of Doris Singleton, better known as Lucy’s frenemy Carolyn Appleby, as Edith’s annoyed roommate, and the writing credit — Susan Harris, who went on to create both Soap (1977-1981, ABC) and The Golden Girls (1985-1992, NBC). A real “laugh-riot” episode that demonstrates how effortlessly hilarious this show could be in its early days.
04) Episode 10: “Archie Is Worried About His Job” (Aired: 03/16/71)
The Bunkers spend a sleepless night worrying about potential layoffs at Archie’s loading dock.
Story by William Bickley, Jr. | Teleplay by Norman Lear, and Don Nicholl & Bryan Joseph
Here we have another episode that takes a large part of its appeal from the theatricality — it’s set exclusively in the Bunker home one evening in which Archie can’t sleep because of anxiety about the possibility of him being laid-off. By now the series has really established its tone and its characters, so the “one topic per episode” rule that dominated the early part of the season has been abandoned, allowing for a more natural form of storytelling that plays more organically. The dialogue is particularly pointed, evoking several BIG laughs — again, that all come from these marvelous characters — and lots of nice running gags (like the drunk caller). Another very funny and exquisitely written episode.
05) Episode 13: “The First And Last Supper” (Aired: 04/06/71)
Archie objects when Edith agrees to come to dinner at their black neighbors’, the Jeffersons’, house.
Written by Jerry Mayer
The first season finale turns its sights once again to the Jeffersons, the first black family to move onto the block, a point of which, as we learned a few episodes prior, is quite contentious for Archie. Though not the first appearance of Lionel or Louise, this is the first appearance of Henry, Lionel’s uncle, who will serve as a placeholder until Sherman Hemsley joins the show in Season Four. Episodes with the Jeffersons usually work because the issue of racism is shown as a two-way street, which really helps to multi-demensionalize all the characters (and provide for even MORE laughs). A great way to conclude the season, this episode is also a great starting point for new fans.
Other notable episodes that didn’t make the list above (and I know I’m including most of the season, but almost every episode is worthwhile) include: “Oh, My Aching Back” [a.k.a. “Archie’s Aching Back”], in which Archie intends to sue a driver, but only if he can get a Jewish lawyer, “Judging Books By Covers,” in which Archie is chided by the family for his views on gays (and most deserves to make the above list), “Gloria Has A Belly Full” [a.k.a. “Gloria’s Pregnancy”], a dramatic episode (with not enough laughs) in which Gloria finds herself pregnant, “Mike’s Hippie Friends Come To Visit,” which has a self-explanatory title, and “Lionel Moves Into The Neighborhood,” in which the Jeffersons first move onto Hauser Street.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of All In The Family goes to…..
“Meet The Bunkers”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!