Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re continuing 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Archie Bunker, a conservative working-class family man with outdated and bigoted views, clashes with his liberal son-in-law, Michael Stivic (nicknamed “Meathead” by Archie), over important issues of the day.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.
After a short but unexpectedly solid first season in which the series discovered both its characters and its storytelling, All In The Family enters its second year as both the funniest and best written sitcom that TV had seen in over half a decade. The characters are fully established, the stories are fresh, and the comedy is better than it will ever be. Season Two of All In The Family is the series at its peak. Season Two of All In The Family is the ’70s sitcom at its peak. Along with some truly outstanding scripts, credit must once again be given to the extraordinarily talented ensemble, composed of four dynamic performers who each embody the realism enabled by the theatricality of the multi-camera live audience format. It’s often electrifying — and so, so funny. And while the series will remain excellent for at least one more season (maybe two), I don’t think it will ever be quite as exciting as it is here. So this was a TOUGH list to make. But I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. 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 ten best episodes of Season Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by John Rich.
01) Episode 14: “The Saga Of Cousin Oscar” (Aired: 09/18/71)
Archie’s freeloading cousin dies in the attic during his visit with the Bunkers.
Story by Burt Styler | Teleplay by Burt Styler & Norman Lear
Many sitcoms over the past several decades have tried whatever they could to make death funny. And usually, they’ve failed miserably. This episode, however, which is probably the first time mortality was ever handled so directly, cavalierly, and hilariously on television, is one of the best examples (along with MTM‘s “Chuckles Bites The Dust,” four years later). It’s classic AITF — the jokes are rapid-fire, and the premise is (as of 1971) absolutely original. It is a revolutionary episode, although you’d never know it because not only is the script hysterical, but it’s never preachy. A great start to an excellent season.
02) Episode 19: “The Election Story” (Aired: 10/30/71)
Archie and the kids quarrel over the candidates in an upcoming local election.
Written by Michael Ross & Bernie West
Elections would be natural fodder for this series, whose principal draw (as far as I’m concerned) is the recognition in its storytelling of current events and the changing times through which the country was living. What works so well about this episode is its effortlessness. Not a false word is uttered by any of the characters, and the laughs move consistently throughout the simple (but again, completely original) story. Like the above, I’d wager that it’s nearly impossible to keep yourself from laughing out loud during this installment. Favorite moment: when Edith meets the gay liberator and the daughter of Sappho.
03) Episode 20: “Edith’s Accident” (Aired: 11/06/71)
Edith is in an accident involving a can of cling peaches.
Story by Tom & Helen August | Teleplay by Michael Ross & Bernie West
Much like Seinfeld two decades later, one of the subliminal (and perhaps unintentional) facets of this series’ storytelling is its recognition of the trivial as a source for comedy. Though I’m speaking generally, many of the great sitcom episodes from the ’50s and ’60s involve silly (though often brilliantly constructed) scenarios, from which much humor is gleaned. In this episode, it’s not so much the off-screen accident itself that provides comedy, but the simple fact that the dent in (what we soon learn is) a Catholic Priest’s fender, is a result of a can of cling peaches. Or “mmm-mmmm” in heavy syrup. Absolutely hysterical.
04) Episode 23: “The Insurance Is Cancelled” (Aired: 11/27/71)
Archie must fire one of the men in his workforce, while contending with a cancelled insurance policy.
Written by Lee Kalcheim
This installment makes great use of its design as a veritable one act play as two opposing stories converge in surprising ways. As Archie contends with Edith’s foppish nephew, who tells him their home insurance has been canceled because they are now in a “high risk neighborhood,” he is also forced to fire Little Emanuel, the dock’s token Puerto Rican, who although the hardest worker, is neither black nor white, and is thus the one Archie selects. Life isn’t fair, and while Archie is being screwed by the system, he’s part of the system that’s screwing others. Strong episode… and not without its big laughs either.
05) Episode 25: “Cousin Maude’s Visit” (Aired: 12/11/71)
Edith’s liberal cousin comes to help her take care of an ailing Archie, Mike, and Gloria.
Story by Philip Mishkin | Teleplay by Philip Mishkin and Michael Ross & Bernie West
Broadway diva Bea Arthur’s career changed in an instant with her guest appearance as Edith’s ultra-liberal cousin Maude, who clashes with Archie in the most delicious of ways, providing several snappy zingers that are so good, you may want to rewind to hear them twice. From the success of this episode, a backdoor pilot was produced at the end of this season, yielding the obviously titled spin-of. (Though not nearly as good as AITF, Maude was probably Lear’s second most prestigious show of the ’70s, and it’s likely I’ll be covering it here on my blog.) Maude’s debut, however, is not to be missed!
06) Episode 27: “The Elevator Story” (Aired: 01/01/72)
Archie is trapped in an elevator during Edith’s birthday celebration.
Written by Alan J. Levitt
People trapped in an elevator. Contrasting people trapped in an elevator. It’s nothing new, and in fact, it’s sort of a disgustingly predictable sitcom story, especially when it includes a pregnant woman who goes into labor. Yes, the premise of this episode is trite. But it’s surprisingly funny and features great guests in Eileen Brennan, Hector Elizondo, and Roscoe Lee Browne. As usual, issues of race are addressed, as Archie is trapped with not only a black man (who gets some great lines), but a Puerto Rican couple too. Meanwhile, Edith gets smashed while celebrating her birthday. Very funny episode (that created lots of backstage havoc — check out Norman Lear’s new book).
07) Episode 28: “Edith’s Problem” (Aired: 01/08/72)
Edith’s mood swings throw the Bunker household into disarray.
Story by Burt Styler & Steve Zacharias | Teleplay by Burt Styler
Like “Edith’s Accident,” this episode serves as a showcase for the brilliant Jean Stapleton, who had won an Emmy Award for her work in the first season. Edith enters into menopause (or “the change of life”) as the series tackles yet another issue never before addressed in situation comedy. As you may expect, there are several big laughs, many of them brought about by Edith’s sudden and random outbursts of venom — the exact opposite from what we’ve come to expect from our lovable dingbat. Great installment (even if the story seems to end with the episode). Favorite moment: Archie telling Edith to hurry up and change.
08) Episode 31: “Archie Sees A Mugging” (Aired: 01/29/72)
Archie may be in trouble with the mafia after he lies about witnessing a mugging.
Story by Henry Garson | Teleplay by Philip Mishkin & Don Nicholl
Of all the episodes fortunate enough to make my list, this is the one whose inclusion I struggled with the most. That is, the other nine episodes I didn’t think twice about including, but this one, like many of the honorable mentions which you will see below, is just an example of a simple and non-flashy episode of All In The Family in its prime. So, why did I choose this one and not the ones below? Well, I think it makes me laugh out loud more often, and since I am a tough audience (especially when it comes to genuine laughter), my laugh quotient is a good barometer of an episode’s success. Solid. Well done.
09) Episode 33: “Edith Gets A Mink” (Aired: 02/12/72)
Archie demands Edith return a mink cape that she has been gifted by her wealthy cousin.
Story by David Pollock & Elias Davis | Teleplay by David Pollock & Elias Davis and Don Nicholl
Archie’s inability to ever achieve any real kind of success helps to humanize his character and justify some of his crotchetiness. So it’s easy to forgive him for jealousy over others’ success, especially when they’re as annoying and ostentatious as Edith’s cousin and her husband. Yet, it’s difficult (especially for younger audiences) to accept Archie’s occasionally selfish and cruel treatment of Edith, so this episode also gains points for its refusal to let Archie get away with his scheme. Again, Archie tries to screw others, thus he gets screwed in return. Comedy 101, and with a good story and some laughs, it always works.
10) Episode 34: “Sammy’s Visit” (Aired: 02/19/72)
Sammy Davis, Jr. pays a visit to the Bunker household after riding in Archie’s cab.
Written by Bill Dana
Yes, this is the classic installment that many times has been voted as one of the best sitcom episodes of all time. I’d love to be able to disagree, because so many times people over-credit certain episodes and under-credit others. But this episode is just as good as everyone thinks it is. It hits to the core of the series’ premise, handles Archie’s racism in ways that are screamingly funny, and features the always wonderful (that’s a bit of a pun) Sammy Davis, Jr. Perhaps the only episode of the series built around a special guest (as many of the shows of the era frequently did), this one’s a bit of an anomaly. But it’s a truly hilarious one. And it’s great for newbies: an excellent way to meet the characters.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed making the list above include: “Gloria Poses In The Nude,” which features an excellent joke involving Carnal Knowledge, “Archie And The Lock-Up,” in which Archie is arrested along with a bunch of protestors, “Edith Writes A Song,” which is way too scenery-chewing and preachy, despite a great premise, “Flashback: Mike Meets Archie,” a gimmicky episode that shows us exactly what the title promises, “Christmas Day At The Bunkers,” which is the exact opposite of every joyful Christmas episode of the ’50s and ’60s (and for its ground-breaking originality, most deserves to make the above list), “Archie And Edith, Alone,” in which O’Connor and Stapleton are both dynamite, and “Edith The Judge,” which is just another really solid episode from the show’s golden era.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of All In The Family goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the third season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!