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Archie Bunker, a conservative working-class family man with outdated and bigoted views, clashes with his liberal son-in-law, Michael Stivic (nicknamed “Meathead” by Archie), over important issues of the day.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.
No longer a new and fresh series, the fourth season of All In The Family transitions the show into its middle years, revealing a sitcom that, although not shining quite as bright as it had in years past, is still able to produce episodes of a consistent (and most often hilarious) lot. Like Seasons Two and Three, there really aren’t any duds that completely miss the mark. (This will be the last season for which I can say that truthfully.) However, Season Four slowly begins the show’s descent into schizophrenia: one week a “serious” topical episode, the next week one that is silly and entirely too trivial. This will grow more pronounced as the series goes along, and with inferior scripts, the series won’t be able to pull of the dichotomy as well as it does here. Meanwhile, Betty Garrett and Vincent Gardenia join the cast as Irene and Frank Lorenzo, and while the latter will be phased out by the end of the season, Garrett holds on until late 1975, providing yet another wonderful foil for the Archie character (and a friend to Edith and the kids). So, 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 Four. (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 62: “We’re Having A Heat Wave” (Aired: 09/15/73)
Archie and Henry Jefferson join forces to keep a Puerto Rican couple from moving into the neighborhood.
Written by Don Nicholl
In this superb start to the fourth season, the street is up in arms due to both a heat wave (while the Bunkers’ air conditioner is broken) and the possible arrival of Puerto Ricans into the neighborhood. What works particularly well about this episode is the unlikely alliance between Archie and Henry Jefferson, as the series explores the truism that racism exists in all ethnicities. Also, in addition to the introduction of the Lorenzos, a Catholic couple with reversed gender stereotypes (designed to clash with Archie), this episode is notable for its topicality, as Archie and Mike spend part of the episode screaming at each other about Nixon and Watergate. Great episode — fast-paced and funny.
02) Episode 64: “Edith Finds An Old Man” (Aired: 09/29/73)
Edith brings home a senior citizen who’s escaped from his nursing home.
Story by Susan Harris | Teleplay by Michael Ross & Bernie West
Yes, I’m a sucker for sitcom episodes that guest star such wonderful performers as Burt Mustin (whose face you’ll undoubtedly recognize) and Ruth McDevitt (another face you’ll recognize). While addressing the mildly topical issue of the poor care afforded to senior citizens, something that writer Susan Harris will explore more explicitly in The Golden Girls, this episode remains surprisingly funny. And it’s not that the script is excellent; it’s merely good, but Mustin makes even the most routine joke a great one. And the final twist involving Ruth McDevitt, even if you see it coming, is a tried-and-true laugh getter. Fun episode.
03) Episode 68: “Archie And The Computer” (Aired: 10/27/73)
Edith becomes rich thanks to a prune company’s faulty computer, while another computer mistakingly declares Archie dead.
Written by Lloyd Turner & Gordon Mitchell and Don Nicholl
This is probably the best episode of the season, and this can be attributed to a number of factors. As you may expect, the script is great — well-plotted and over-stuffed with big laughs (always a plus) — and the performances are as brilliant as usual. But what most impresses about this episode is the intertwining of the two stories. As Edith faces a computer screw-up involving a prune company and a ceaseless income of quarters (that Archie wants to exploit), Archie faces complications when another computer declares him dead. While the latter story gets most of the laughs, the juxtaposition of technology (and more importantly, computers) screwing the Bunker family is most well done. Fabulous installment.
04) Episode 69: “The Games Bunkers Play” (Aired: 11/03/73)
Mike throws a temper tantrum during a board game called “Group Therapy.”
Story by Susan Perkis Haven and Dan Klein and Michael Ross and Bernie West | Teleplay by Michael Ross and Bernie West
This is perhaps the only time in the series where the show explores Mike’s faults with the same intensity and comedic determination that it usually reserves for Archie. This is wonderful to watch, not only because it gives Rob Reiner the chance to really deliver a home-run performance (something he’s not often afforded), but also because the series is FINALLY evening the score in regards to the Archie and Mike conflict, which is often slanted and, thus, takes the sting out of their rivalry. This episode explores deeper issues, examines the Mike character in new and exciting ways, and does so with big laughs. It’s superb.
05) Episode 71: “Archie In The Cellar” (Aired: 11/17/73)
Archie gets locked in the cellar while the others are away for the weekend.
Written by Don Nicholl
You see stories like this on sitcoms all the time. Usually it’s two people instead of one who get locked into a freezer/cellar/basement/closet/etc. (and this series will do something similar four years from now). But this episode is almost given entirely to Carroll O’Connor, who gives a tour de force performance as Archie gets drunk and delirious while being locked in the cellar for the weekend. There are some excitingly big laughs in this installment, and the best may occur when a smashed Archie mistakes the black man who’s rescued him as God. One of the series’ most memorable, this is also one of the absolute funniest.
06) Episode 74: “The Taxi Caper” (Aired: 12/08/73)
A politician bribes Archie not to press charges on a boy who mugged Archie at gunpoint.
Written by Dennis Klein
Of the ten episodes that made my list, this was the only one on the bubble. (This happens sometimes when I have eight or nine episodes that are definitely going to make the list, and I need to choose one or two more from the honorable mentions to bring the count up to that nice round ten.) As usual, what bumped this episode up was its laugh quotient, which is slightly higher than the others. Also, this is just a solid example of 1973 All In The Family functioning at its homeostatic quality, serving as a fine showcase for the kinds of stories that the series was doing at that this point in its run.
07) Episode 80: “Gloria’s Boyfriend” (Aired: 02/02/74)
Archie is responsible for getting a mildly retarded grocery boy fired from his job
Written by Bud Wiser and Don Nicholl | Directed by John Rich (only)
Though it may seem like this installment runs the risk of becoming a “very special episode” about mental retardation, you’ll be pleased to know that this is among the funniest scripts of the season. Archie’s treatment of George is cringeworthy (in the absolute funniest of ways, however), and Richard Masur (from One Day At A Time and Rhoda) is great, especially when he gets the last laugh over Archie. It’s shocking how funny this episode actually is, given the slight (and understandable) preaching that goes on from George’s father, but thanks to a tight script and an original premise, this is one of the greats.
08) Episode 81: “Lionel’s Engagement” (Aired: 02/09/74)
Lionel gets engaged to a woman who’s half black and half white.
Written by Michael Ross and Bernie West | Directed by John Rich (only)
This is a Jeffersons heavy episode, so it’s a must-watch for fans of the spin-off series. George Jefferson makes his third appearance in this installment that’s set primarily at Lionel’s engagement party. George is up in arms over his “zebra” soon-to-be daughter-in-law, whose dad is white and mom is black. A great showcase for Sherman Hemsley (it’s likely that a spin-off was already in the works at this point, and certainly after this episode), this episode has plenty of good comedy. However, Archie still takes the MVP award, as his many reactions during the party remain priceless. Really funny episode — a favorite.
09) Episode 82: “Archie Eats And Runs” (Aired: 02/16/74)
Archie fears that he may have eaten poison mushrooms.
Written by Paul Wayne and George Burditt | Directed by John Rich (only)
This seems to be a fan favorite, and while it’s an episode I like a lot, I would never rank it among the best of the series (or even in my top five from Season Four). I think what’s appealing about this episode, and what ultimately, keeps me from loving it unashamedly is that it feels so broad — way too cartoonish for this series, especially at this point in its run. (Things will get zanier in the last few years, as the series wavers between dramatic laugh-less installments and the aforementioned over-the-top “sitcom hijinks” episodes.) The best thing about this excursion, and why I actually do think it’s great, is the marvelous performances, which dominate the episode in a fun and engaging way. And I have to admit, it’s very, very funny.
10) Episode 84: “Pay The Twenty Dollars” (Aired: 03/09/74)
George Jefferson is furious when Archie gives him a counterfeit $20 bill.
Written by Robert L. Goodwin & Woody King
All In The Family does several episodes over the course of the series that highlight the theatricality of its presentation. That is, the show emphasizes the fact that it takes place on few sets with a handful of characters who loudly exchange dialogue in extended sequences that play in realtime. This is one of those, and it’s among the best because everyone’s in rare form — particularly the Jeffersons, who, as they did in “Lionel’s Engagement,” seem primed for their spin-off (and this will become increasingly more obvious in their early Season Five appearances). It’s a strong episode that takes great advantage of its ensemble.
Other notable episodes that didn’t quite make the list above include: “We’re Still Having A Heat Wave,” the follow-up to the season premiere, “Archie And The Kiss,” in which Archie and Gloria quarrel over a risque statue, “Henry’s Farewell,” in which we finally meet George Jefferson, “Edith’s Conversion,” which finds Archie fearing that Edith has gone Catholic, “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Wig,” a typical silly sitcom plot that’s surprisingly well done, “Second Honeymoon,” in which O’Connor and Stapleton shine, and “Archie Is Cursed,” in which Archie takes on Irene Lorenzo in a pool hall.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of All In The Family goes to…..
“Archie And The Computer”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fifth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!