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Archie Bunker, a conservative working-class family man with outdated and bigoted views, clashes with his liberal son-in-law, Michael Stivic (nicknamed “Meathead” by Archie), over important issues of the day.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 around 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.
While the seventh season of All In The Family saw the series earn its lowest ratings and least acclaim, I am of the opinion that, although Season Six was still able to bring us a handful of installments that reminded us of “the golden era” of the series, Season Seven is generally a much stronger year. Simply, I think that the series is taking more risks (some of which you’ll see below), and while there are shifts in tone, there’s less variation in episodic quality. (That is, there aren’t as many outright duds.) And though my opinion is probably not a popular one, I think Season Seven is the best year following Mike and Gloria’s move next door. The only real misfire this season is the addition of Teresa as the Bunkers’ boarder, who feels like a one-episode joke that got bumped up to a recurring feature just to give the show some ethnic flair. Other than that, this is a fairly strong bunch of stories. 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 Seven. (They are in AIRING ORDER and hour-long installments are considered two separate entries.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Paul Bogart.
01) Episode 135: “Archie’s Brief Encounter (II)” (Aired: 09/22/76)
Archie tries to cover his tracks after meeting with Denise the waitress.
Written by Mel Tolkin and Larry Rhine
The second half-hour of the season premiere (and the second of a three part arc) in which Archie considers having an affair with a flirtatious waitress (Janis Paige) is the best of the trilogy. Following a passionate kiss, Archie decides that he can’t go through with the infidelity but still tries his hardest to keep Edith from finding out where he went. Cue the comedy. Of course, she catches on, and the episode goes from hilarity to pathos in a seamless transition. This is a bold, exciting start to the season, and though I’m only including part two, if you want to view this one, watch all three.
02) Episode 138: “The Unemployment Story (II)” (Aired: 10/13/76)
Archie finally gets a new job, but the man he beat out becomes suicidal.
Written by Chuck Stewart & Ben Starr
The waitress trilogy leads immediately into another multi-episode arc that finds Archie out of work. While the first part, which is included below in the honorable mentions, is another humorous and well written episode, this installment is definitely superior, as the story climaxes with Archie getting a job as a janitor. Unfortunately, the man who applied unsuccessfully goes out on the ledge intending to jump. It’s up to Archie to talk him down — a comedic premise with unlimited possibilities. Another excitingly fresh, original episode.
03) Episode 139: “Archie’s Operation (I)” (Aired: 10/20/76)
Archie frets as he goes into the hospital for surgery.
Story by Calvin Kelly and Jim Tisdale | Teleplay by Milt Josefsberg and Mort Lachman
Without a doubt, this is the funniest half-hour of the season, as Archie goes to the hospital for his operation. From a hilarious waiting room scene (involving Edith and a copy of Playgirl magazine) that boasts Archie’s first encounter with the over-the-top Nurse Teresa through all of Archie’s hospital room hijinks, in which his black female doctor steps up to give him a transfusion, the laughs flow like black blood! While the topic of race and transfusions were explored on this series way back in Season One, the perhaps recycled bit doesn’t hinder the episode because the comedy is so well realized. A gem!
04) Episode 140: “Archie’s Operation (II)” (Aired: 10/27/76)
Archie comes back home from the hospital.
Written by Larry Rhine and Mel Tolkin
While the second part isn’t quite as hilarious as the first, this amusing episode caps the serialized storytelling that launched the season during its first seven installments, infusing the show with a fresh and long-lost sense of unpredictability. However, this episode is notable because of a political discussion that Archie and Mike have (shortly before the 1976 election) about Jimmy Carter. While politics were a common talking point in the first four seasons, it’s rare to see them addressed at this point in the series. Not only is the debate welcome, it’s very funny.
05) Episode 141: “Beverly Rides Again” (Aired: 11/06/76)
Archie sets up a friend with Beverly LaSalle in retaliation over a practical joke.
Written by Phil Doran & Douglas Arango
Beverly LaSalle returns in her first appearance since she made her introduction in last year’s excellent “Archie The Hero.” This is the least socially motivated of her installments, as the principal aim of this episode is comedy. Archie retaliates against Pinky Peterson and his practical jokes by setting him up on a date with Beverly. Of course, we anticipate the evening to be a disaster and blow up in Archie’s face (and Pinky does catch on), but the episode is given a twist when Pinky’s girlfriend catches him out with another “woman.” Very funny.
06) Episode 148: “The Draft Dodger” (Aired: 12/25/76)
The Bunkers are joined on Christmas by a man whose son died in Vietnam and a man who left the country to avoid the draft.
Written by Jay Moriarty and Mike Milligan
Aside from next season’s two-parter in which Edith is almost raped, this is perhaps the most famous episode of All In The Family‘s later seasons. Aired on Christmas of 1976, this powerful installment addresses the topic of draft dodging when Mike’s friend comes over for dinner at the same time as Pinky Peterson, who still grieves for the son he lost in Vietnam. Archie’s angry monologue is chilling. Yet while this episode is dramatically memorable, it’s not funny enough. (I know many fans adore this episode and will tell me that it wasn’t supposed to be a laugh riot. I get that.) So, though a definite highlight of the season, I do not consider it the strongest.
07) Episode 150: “Archie’s Chair” (Aired: 01/15/77)
Mike panics when he accidentally breaks Archie’s chair.
Written by Phil Doran & Douglas Arango
This episode largely feels like a prophetic response to the fact that Archie Bunker’s notorious chair was later added to the Smithsonian Institute. So this episode takes on an added layer of meaning with hindsight, as the episode crescendos when the Bunkers discover that Archie’s chair is the centerpiece of an art exhibit. The laughs abound in this silly episode (in which I give MVP to the recently bare-lipped Rob Reiner) that sort of winks to the audience. It’s a fun, kind of gimmicky, but nevertheless amusing installment.
08) Episode 152: “Stretch Cunningham, Goodbye” (Aired: 01/29/77)
Archie is called to eulogize his friend Stretch Cunningham, unaware that he was Jewish.
Written by Phil Doran & Douglas Arnago and Milt Josefsberg
The majority of this episode trucks along in a rather undistinguished way, as the show seeks to find humor in death. (It’s something that every good sitcom tries to make funny. Few succeed. This series did — back in Season Two with “The Saga of Cousin Oscar.”) The episode doesn’t become excellent until the brilliant final scene, in which Archie arrives at the funeral to eulogize his friend — only to learn that he was Jewish. Archie’s speech is expertly written; very funny, but not at the expense of his character or the moment. It’s a great twist, and a truly hilarious scene.
09) Episode 154: “Mike The Pacifist” (Aired: 02/12/77)
Mike feels guilty for punching a man who was accosting his wife on the subway.
Written by Phil Doran & Douglas Arango
Many of my regular readers probably won’t be surprised that this episode appeals to me — it plays like a one-act in realtime on one set: a subway car. The environment fosters an air of claustrophobia that works well for the story, as Mike grapples with his feelings toward violence. The guest stars (whom you see all the time on ’70s sitcoms) are perfectly cast, the script is sharp, and both the premise and the setting are completely original. The only drawback is the absence of Jean Stapleton. Otherwise this would be a near perfect installment.
10) Episode 157: “Archie The Liberal” (Aired: 03/05/77)
A civil rights group criticizes Archie’s lodge for practicing discrimination.
Written by Ben Starr & Chuck Stewart
Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about this episode — besides a moderately funny and gag-heavy script — is the fact that the story sort of returns Archie to his early season roots with its exploration of bigotry. (Wonderfully, the episode also shows us the subtle ways in which Archie has grown.) When the lodge is chided for not practicing diversity with its membership, Archie decides to induct a token black and a token Jew. And best of all, he’s found a guy who fits both requirements. It’s a very funny episode — like vintage All In The Family, but more jokey.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above (and this was a pretty good year, so these are ALL worthy installments) include: “The Unemployment Story (I),” which sets up the excellent episode discussed above, “Mr. Edith Bunker,” in which Archie is jealous of the attention Edith gets when she saves a man’s life, “The Boarder Patrol,” in which Edith and Teresa try to keep Archie from finding out that the latter was spending the evening with a man, “The Joys Of Sex,” in which Gloria forces Mike to confront Archie about his sex life, “Fire,” in which Archie tries to claim insurance after a small house fire, and “Mike And Gloria Split,” in which the Stivics turn to the Bunkers for support after an argument. All of these episodes are good enough to make the above list — a rarity (especially for a series this late in its run, with two middling seasons before it).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of All In The Family goes to…..
“Archie’s Operation (I)”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the eighth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!