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Archie Bunker, a conservative working-class family man with outdated and bigoted views, clashes with his liberal son-in-law, Michael Stivic (nicknamed “Meathead” by Archie), over important issues of the day.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.
The brilliance of Season Two extends into much of Season Three, as the series produces some of its funniest episodes of all time. And while the stories begin to get over-so-slightly routine, the scripts still manage to excite and the cast continues to exude excellence. Like last season, this is classic All In The Family, and though I think the previous year is the series’ freshest and most consistent (as a whole), the high points in this season are higher than anything the show had ever done before or since. 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 Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by both John Rich and Bob LaHendro, unless otherwise noted.
01) Episode 38: “Archie And The Editorial” (Aired: 09/16/72)
Archie takes his views on gun control to the local news station.
Story by George Bloom | Teleplay by George Bloom and Don Nicholl | Directed by Norman Campbell
The season begins with a bang (pun intended) when Archie marches down to a local news station to rebut an editorial from the previous evening that advocated stricter gun laws. In addition to some fine comedy and great character moments, audiences of 2014 will be surprised at how topical this episode remains… 42 years after it first aired. Archie’s on-air rebuttal, in which he advocates that every airline passenger pack a rod to prevent hijackers, is not to be missed. However, the ending (in which the Bunkers are mugged at gun point), while fitting, is telegraphed from the start of the episode and thus isn’t as funny as it should be.
02) Episode 39: “Archie’s Fraud” (Aired: 09/23/72)
Archie is audited for undeclared earnings from driving Munson’s taxicab.
Written by Michael Ross & Bernie West | Directed by Norman Campbell
Archie, a more prejudiced and much more deceitful ’70s version of Ralph Kramden, is always looking for a fast buck, often at the expense of others. This time he’s cheating the IRS out of taxes off undeclared income he’s earned from driving the cab. The extended sequence where Archie and Edith go down to the IRS office is undoubtedly the highlight of the installment, as Archie puts his foot in his mouth again and again with the agent (who, naturally, for maximum comic value, happens to be black). As usual, Archie never wins when he schemes (rightfully so), and this is a highly entertaining episode — good from start to finish.
03) Episode 42: “Lionel Steps Out” (Aired: 10/14/72)
Archie is displeased when his niece goes on a date with Lionel.
Story by Terry Ryan and Michael Ross & Bernie West | Teleplay by Michael Ross & Bernie West | Directed by John Rich (only)
The subject of interracial coupling (which would become a HUGE factor on The Jeffersons) seems like something this series would have explored sooner, but it took until Season Three for them to get there. This nicely plotted installment concerns Archie’s disgust when he learns that his niece has gone out on a date with Lionel Jefferson. The build-up to Archie’s discovery of this fact is humorous and well done (we know his character so well by this point, the anticipation is half the comedy). But, it’s also satisfying to see Lionel speak to Archie so directly for once, and fans of The Jeffersons will enjoy this one.
04) Episode 44: “The Bunkers And The Swingers” (Aired: 10/28/72)
Edith’s innocent quest for new friends leads to a date with a pair of swingers.
Story by Norman Lear | Teleplay by Michael Ross & Bernie West and Lee Kalcheim
Vincent Gardenia and Rue McClanahan (who got a role on Maude from her appearance in this episode, which was originally slated for Doris Roberts) play a couple that comes to the Bunkers for a little partner swapping in this hilarious episode that has since been copied by many an inferior sitcom. This installment, which takes much of its comedy from Archie and Edith being one step behind the audience in regard to the “swingers”, is a laugh riot from start to finish. Edith’s realization, thanks to Louise Jefferson, is the highlight of the episode and one of Jean Stapleton’s best moments. Classic episode — among the series’ finest.
05) Episode 45: “Mike Comes Into Money” (Aired: 11/04/72)
Mike donates his newfound inheritance to the McGovern campaign, much to Archie’s chagrin.
Written by Michael Ross & Bernie West | Directed by John Rich (only)
It’s fascinating to watch characters in a situation comedy discuss the politics of over 40-years ago, and this episode, which aired the week of Nixon’s re-election, is a real time capsule. The premise is excellent, hitting upon the series’ narrative roots. Mike donates recently acquired money to the McGovern campaign, naturally upsetting Archie, who, in addition to being against McGovern in the upcoming election, believes that Mike should pay back some of his debt to him. It’s not a riotous episode, but it’s one that represents the series unbelievably well — its characters, its themes, and its conflicts. Very solid excursion.
06) Episode 49: “Mike’s Appendix” (Aired: 12/02/72)
When Mike needs an appendectomy, Archie and Gloria argue over the gender of the preferred surgeon.
Written by Michael Ross & Bernie West
While Sally Struthers is a fine comedienne and a shockingly capable actress, episodes that feature a lot of Gloria rarely end up as highlights. (I always maintain that she had the toughest role — the go-between for Archie and Mike, forced to always waver back and forth.) The character, intentionally, and by design, isn’t as multi-faceted as the others, so often her material (especially when she, in aid of the weekly story, goes ultra-feminist… out of nowhere) pales. But this episode is an exception. With a unique premise, plenty of comedy coming directly from the characters, and more laughs than you’d expect, this is a great installment.
07) Episode 56: “Hot Watch” (Aired: 02/17/73)
Archie gets a bargain on a watch that may or may not be “hot.”
Written by Sam Locke and Olga Vallance
In my commentary on the season above, I mentioned that the stories were starting to get “ever-so-slightly” routine. As evidence: four episodes this year involve Archie’s amorality when it comes to money. In addition to the IRS installment, there are two others (that made the honorable mentions) where Archie tries to cheat others out of money/property. This particular one has Archie purchasing a potentially “hot” watch (at an unbelievably discounted price). These episodes are all structured similarly with Archie punished in the end for his scheming. Between this and the two honorable mentions below, this one has the most laughs.
08) Episode 57: “Archie Is Branded” (Aired: 02/24/73)
The Bunkers are startled to find a swastika painted on their front door.
Written by Vincent Bogert
Probably the best episode of the entire series, this installment is All In The Family functioning at its most brilliant. The combination of humor and intense drama is a tricky thing to balance (even for this series), and often times, in an attempt to let a serious issue play with the weight it deserves, there’s a shortage of comedy. Not here. This episode, amidst some pretty heavy-handed stuff, will keep you laughing from the very beginning until thirty seconds before the fade out, where something truly unexpected happens that will give you chills. I hate when this series preaches at me, but when it’s as artful as this episode — achingly funny (the Homo Sapiens joke — actually two jokes — is a highlight) and gut-wrenchingly tragic, all complaints are thrown out the door. Superb — truly. Everyone should see this episode.
09) Episode 58: “Everybody Tells The Truth” (Aired: 03/03/73)
Archie and Mike have contrasting recollections of an encounter with a repairman and his black apprentice.
Written by Don Nicholl
While the Rashomon design is one of the situation comedy’s classic gimmicks, these episodes often produce some great character-driven comedy (despite the machinations of the premise) because the audience is treated to exaggerated accounts of individual points-of-view. Naturally, this episode gives us Mike’s reality vs. Archie’s reality, as they each recount what happened when a refrigerator repairman came to the house with a black assistant. The episode is way too cartoonish and broad to really be considered great (like last season’s “Edith Writes A Song,” which didn’t make my list), but there are laughs-a-plenty.
10) Episode 59: “Archie Learns His Lesson” (Aired: 03/10/73)
In hope of a promotion, Archie goes back to school to earn his high school diploma.
Story by John Christopher Strong III & Michael R. Stein | Teleplay by Michael Ross & Bernie West
This episode, unlike many that made this list, is simply a good old-fashioned situation comedy episode. The premise is an unoriginal but tried-and-true one that finds Archie returning to earn his school diploma in the hopes of earning a promotion. Naturally, given Archie’s character, he decides to make crib notes and cheat on his exam. The biggest laugh of the episode is Edith’s unintentional foiling of his plan (which I won’t spoil if you have yet to see it). Interestingly, while other shows (like The Lucy Show or Married… With Children) show the adult pupil in the classroom, AITF leaves that to our imagination. A wise choice.
Other notable episodes that didn’t quite make the list above include: “Gloria And The Riddle,” an episode about feminism, “Edith Flips Her Wig,” in which Edith thinks she’s a kleptomaniac, “The Locket,” another entry in the ‘Archie schemes’ series, “Edith’s Winning Ticket,” yet another entry in the ‘Archie schemes’ series, “Archie And The Bowling Team,” where Archie hopes to, you guessed it, make the bowling team, “Archie Goes To The Hospital,” in which Archie finds that his hospital roommate is a black man, “Archie Goes To Far,” a lightweight episode that actually has a few laughs, and “The Battle Of The Month,” a loud episode that basically serves as a 25-minute argument.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of All In The Family goes to…..
“Archie Is Branded”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fourth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!