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Archie Bunker, a conservative working-class family man with outdated and bigoted views, clashes with his liberal son-in-law, Michael Stivic (nicknamed “Meathead” by Archie), over important issues of the day.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.
Though many fans consider this, the final season with Mike and Gloria, a “return to form” following several years of middling quality, I am of the opinion that Season Eight is another mediocre outing. (In fact, I think the underrated seventh season is, over all, a better collection of episodes.) While there are several BIG installments that contend with heavy dramatic issues (rape, addiction, gay bashing, the KKK, etc.), the rest of the season is comprised of stories filled with typical sitcom hijinks (far beneath the talents of this once mighty series). Meanwhile, it’s rare to find scripts here that can balance the heavy and the light, which this series could once do so divinely. And while the “silly” episodes are a huge fall from grace for this series, as regular readers of my blog know, I am not a sucker for “very special” episodes either. (Spoiler alert: I do not think the KKK two-parter is funny nor well-written.) I want 25 minutes — no matter if it’s a happy or sad story — of entertainment. And given the brilliance of this series in its glory days, Season Eight compares unfavorably. But the departure of Mike and Gloria truly marks the end of All In The Family as we know it. (Though next season bears the same title, it doesn’t deserve to be classified with the rest.) And it’s the last year to regularly produce good scripts. 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 Eight. (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 161: “Cousin Liz” (Aired: 10/09/77)
Edith is shocked to discover that her deceased cousin’s roommate was actually her lover.
Story by Barry Harman & Harve Brosten | Teleplay by Bob Weiskopf & Bob Schiller
Though this is a “very special episode” (one that lacks both Mike and Gloria), this script is clearly a step above some of the year’s other heavy-handed installments. Much of this is a result of the fresh premise, and while this series has dealt with homosexuality before, this is the strongest exploration of it. (Note that this episode introduces Weiskopf & Schiller, two of Lucy’s writers, who are clearly relishing the ability to write topical scripts — but are also responsible for the season’s violent shifts in tone.) There are some laughs and a couple of great performances.
02) Episode 163: “Edith’s 50th Birthday (II)” (Aired: 10/16/77)
The family deals with the ramifications following the attack on Edith.
Written by Bob Weiskopf & Bob Schiller
Yes, this is the second part of the infamous two-partner in which Edith is nearly raped. This is funnier than the first half-hour, but naturally, if you’re going to watch Part II, I’d suggest watching Part I first, which is almost laugh free and intentionally uncomfortable. The second part does a better job of balancing the gut-wrenching drama with some genuine belly laughs. And while I feel like this story was already done in Season Three with Gloria, the series (wisely) makes this a plot point, as Gloria must convince her mother to help identify the man. Powerful episode.
03) Episode 165: “Archie’s Grand Opening” (Aired: 10/30/77)
The family fills in for the staff on the disastrous opening night of Archie’s bar.
Written by Mel Tolkin and Larry Rhine
The season launched with a story arc in which Archie buys Kelsey’s Bar. This episode features the grand opening, and as sitcom law dictates, nothing is allowed to go right. This is one of the aforementioned “hijinks” episodes, as the story is motivated by laughter rather than a social issue. Given the dichotomy in genres, it’s almost difficult to compare this episode with the two above. It certainly feels trivial, but it’s solidly written and consistently entertaining — making great use of its talented ensemble.
04) Episode 166: “Archie’s Bitter Pill (I)” (Aired: 11/06/77)
Archie takes pills to help deal with the stress of his new business.
Written by Mel Tolkin and Larry Rhine and William C. Rader, M.D.
This is the first part in a pair of episodes that tackles the heavy subject of addiction. (Hooray! A subject the series hasn’t explored yet!) As usual, I’m including this part because it’s funnier than the conclusion, but I would suggest watching both — even though Part II never really lives up to the high expectations set up here in Part I. Carroll O’Connor on pills is a comic (and dramatic) tour de force, and he really carries the episode. So, not a great installment, but it has its merits. (And it was co-written by Struthers’ soon-to-be husband.)
05) Episode 170: “Mike And Gloria Meet” (Aired: 12/11/77)
Flashbacks show Mike and Gloria’s first date.
Written by Bob Weiskopf & Bob Schiller
And, we’re back with another gimmicky sitcom episode. Regular readers know what I think of flashbacks (a cheap ploy), but I judge them with the same criteria as all episodes, seeking both an original premise and plenty of comedy. And this episode largely succeeds, making much use of beats that turn into big laughs as a result of our knowledge of the characters and what’s to come for them. They’re easy jokes, but nevertheless effective. And because our time with Mike and Gloria is running out, this episode seems like a special treat — a reminder of the golden days.
06) Episode 171: “Edith’s Crisis Of Faith (I)” (Aired: 12/18/77)
The family is shocked when Mike and Beverly LaSalle are attacked on their way to the bus station.
Story by Erik Tarloff | Teleplay by Bob Schiller & Bob Weiskopf
As the first part in a two-part episode that finds Edith stricken with grief and denouncing religion following the brutal murder of Beverly LaSalle, this episode is mostly set up for the second half hour, but it’s almost just as powerful. Why? The first half of Part I is incredibly funny (unlike the dull beginning of “Edith’s 50th Birthday (I)”), heightening the drama that follows by revealing this contrast. Beverly is always a welcome guest, and her death is quite startling. I think this is the most interesting story of the season, and it’s not lacking in laughs. Good stuff.
07) Episode 172: “Edith’s Crisis Of Faith (II)” (Aired: 12/25/77)
Edith’s grief over Beverly’s murder impedes upon the family’s Christmas spirit.
Story by Erik Tarloff | Teleplay by Erik Tarloff and Mel Tolkin & Larry Rhine
Part II is even better than Part I. Set on Christmas morning and featuring only the iconic foursome, the focus shifts from Beverly’s murder to Edith’s difficulty reconciling her religious beliefs with the violent death of her friend. As the series has long presented Edith as a good-natured and fairly religious woman, the stark change in her behavior is riveting. The performances in this episode are outstanding. And, again, there are some laughs — mostly from Archie and Mike (as was the case with “Edith’s 50th Birthday”). But this is easily the highlight of the season. A late season classic.
08) Episode 173: “The Commercial” (Aired: 01/08/78)
Edith is chosen to star in a new commercial for laundry detergent.
Story by Ron Bloombery | Teleplay by Ben Starr and Ron Bloomberg
Quite the opposite of the two-parter above, this episode finds us in perhaps one of the most overtly unoriginal stories of the year. This installment wouldn’t have made this list if not for two things: one, the fact that this isn’t a great season and the competion isn’t as fierce, and two, the fact that this episode is actually really funny. I think what makes it work so well is that the comedy comes organically from Edith’s character. Her messing up of each take isn’t just a silly joke, it’s because she’s so honest. So it’s motivated. (And, admittedly, the silliness is refreshing here.)
09) Episode 175: “Aunt Iola’s Visit” (Aired: 01/22/78)
Archie fears that Edith’s Aunt Iola will make her visit a permanent one.
Story by Michael Loman | Teleplay by Albert E. Lewin
Nedra Volz turns in a wonderfully multi-dimensional performance as Edith’s eponymous Aunt Iola in this enjoyable episode that does a pretty good job of striking a balance between comedy and some of the deeper themes at the root of the premise. This series has addressed some of society’s mistreatment of the elderly before (when Edith began working at the Sunshine Home), but this script still manages to be fresh. And once again, this episode is made excellent by the rich and genuine performances of its ensemble and guest star.
10) Episode 177: “Two’s A Crowd” (Aired: 02/12/78)
Archie and Mike are locked in the storeroom of Archie’s Place.
Written by Phil Sharp
This is another fan favorite that takes an ordinary sitcom idea — two characters trapped together — and uses it to try and produce some heavy moments predicated on their conflicts. Surprisingly, I think the dramatic beats are what make this episode work (particularly Archie’s discussion about his father), while the comedy — largely brought about by Archie and Mike getting drunk — feels like stuff we’ve seen elsewhere (and better). So, this episode could be much stronger than it actually is, but given its proximity to Reiner’s departure, it’s rendered a little more invaluable.
Other notable episodes that failed to make the list above include: “Edith’s 50th Birthday (I)” and “Archie’s Bitter Pill (II)” [a.k.a. “Archie’s Road Back”], both of which were mentioned alongside their better halves, “Unequal Partners,” a sitcom-y episode where Edith throws a wedding for two members of the Sunshine Home, “Archie’s Brother” [a.k.a. “The Brother”], in which Archie’s brother returns, and the final three episodes of the season that set up Mike and Gloria’s departure, “Mike’s New Job” (which most deserves to be on the list above), “The Dinner Guest,” and “The Stivics Go West,” which don’t have enough laughs, but deserve to be watched by dedicated fans.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of All In The Family goes to…..
“Edith’s Crisis Of Faith (II)”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the final season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!