Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re beginning our coverage on the best episodes from The Jeffersons (1975-1985, CBS), the longest running spin-off from Norman Lear’s flagship series, All In The Family (1971-1979, CBS). I am happy to announce that the entire series has finally been released on DVD.
Dry cleaning mogul George Jefferson hits the big time when he moves from Queens to the Upper East Side with his wife Louise and son Lionel — unknowingly into the apartment building that houses his son’s future in-laws, an interracial couple. The Jeffersons stars SHERMAN HEMSLEY as George Jefferson, ISABEL SANFORD as Louise “Wheezy” Jefferson, MIKE EVANS as Lionel Jefferson, ROXIE ROKER as Helen Willis, FRANKLIN COVER as Tom Willis, PAUL BENEDICT as Harry Bentley, BERLINDA TOLBERT as Jenny Willis, MARLA GIBBS as Florence Johnston, and ZARA CULLY as Mother Jefferson.
Norman Lear was smart to wait for Sherman Hemsley to finish his stage commitments before introducing the Jefferson patriarch on All In The Family. George Jefferson’s quick season-and-a-half on the aforementioned series really does make a strong case for spinning off the family, and just from”Lionel’s Engagement” near the end of AITF‘s fourth season, it’s clear that there was a lot of potential — Zara Cully, zebras, and big laughs — to be mined. By the start of the fifth season, it’s obvious that Hemsley and Sanford are capable of handling their own series, so it’s no surprise when, in the middle of the year, the Jeffersons announce their move and head off for New York (and top billing)! The series would last eleven seasons, more than any other sitcom spin-off until Frasier (1993-2004). While I hate comparing The Jeffersons to other sitcoms with black casts from the decade (because we wouldn’t compare The Odd Couple and The Bob Newhart Show, for instance, based on the fact that they have white casts), this series really does seem a response to Lear’s other black ensemble shows, particularly Good Times.
While Sanford And Son has the distinction of being the first entirely black series since the ’50s Amos ‘N’ Andy, it didn’t have any inherent social aims aside from showcasing wonderful African American comics (most of whom had never been on TV before), Good Times was created with a definite purpose. It desired to show the “black experience” as it existed for an impoverished family in the Chicago slums. However, both of these shows purposely play in a seemingly black world, giving audiences of all kinds a glimpse into a specific way of life. The Jeffersons is designed to show the opposite. George and Louise Jefferson are black people who exist in an almost exclusively white world. Their story is about the struggle to integrate in this society. This, along with George’s personal reaction to the intermingling of the races (by way of the Willises) forms much of the premise’s conflict. Thus with plenty of story opportunity, The Jeffersons seems the most poised of these “black shows” to discuss matters of race. And fortunately, both the performances and the writing allows the series to do so with great, character driven humor.
Not surprisingly, the early years are the best able to manage this balance, for they feature many of the same creative people involved with All In The Family and other Lear projects, including series creators Nicholl, Ross, and West (who would go on to do Three’s Company). As the series progresses, the comedy becomes strained and the emphasis on topicality is all but eliminated — virtually nonexistent by 1982. So there’s something special about early Jeffersons, and while I think next season may be the peak in terms of hilarity, this initial collection of 13 episodes features some of the show’s most interesting story ideas, as most explore race through the experiences of these well-defined characters, including the always delightful Cully as Mother Jefferson (whose departure in Season Four will prove a definite loss for the series). So I have picked five 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 five best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Jack Shea.
01) Episode 2: “George’s Family Tree” (Aired: 01/25/75)
George believes he’s descended from a line of African kings.
Written by Perry Grant and Dick Bensfield
Many of the stories from the early seasons deal with Louise’s reaction to George’s new uppity personality (now that he has the money to back up his attitude). This episode features one of those classic boastful George moments as his ancestry reveals that he is descended from a group of supposed African kings. Naturally, this leads to some hilarious posturing on Hemsley’s part, but of course, true to sitcom form, George is in for a rude awakening when he finds out the truth — SPOILER ALART: his family is actually descended from the royal family’s slaves. In other words, his people come from the slaves of the slaves. It’s a very funny offering. An early season classic.
02) Episode 5: “Mr. Piano Man” (Aired: 02/15/75)
George hopes to impress his rich neighbors by throwing a swanky party.
Written by Lloyd Turner and Gordon Mitchell
I’ve been told by several readers that they check out my pick for the MVE before reading the other selections, so if you’re one of those people, you’ll note that I consider this the best of the bunch. Not only is it the funniest installment from today’s list, but it’s also another ideal premise for the show in its first season, as George’s desire to fit in with the upper crust white crowd in the building yields humorous complications. Also, this offering is notable for incorporating physical comedy (and slight farce), both of which will be used occasionally as the show progresses. As a result, this episode, which makes great use of Florence, also feels like a taste of what’s to come.
03) Episode 8: “Mother Jefferson’s Boyfriend” (Aired: 03/08/75)
George is shocked when his mother announces her plans to marry.
Written by Gordon Farr and Arnold Kane
My appreciation for Mother Jefferson is noted above in my introduction, but I understand that there are a percentage of fans who feel exactly the opposite. Generally their disfavor seems to hinge on the simple fact that she’s SUCH a character, and whenever Cully’s around, she commands both the story and the laughs. Thus, if you’re not a fan of her character, this episode, which is all about Mother Jefferson (and George’s accompanying reaction), will not be a favorite. However, what makes her such a strong and worthwhile presence, in my eyes, is the different effect she has on both George and Louise. This episode is a great example — her best of the season.
04) Episode 10: “Rich Man’s Disease” (Aired: 03/22/75)
George is diagnosed with an ulcer — the “rich man’s disease”.
Written by Bruce Howard
Louise’s character is the one that probably changes the most over the course of the show (and frankly, not for the better), and while it wouldn’t be unusual to see her clowning around in the latter half of the series, this episode — perhaps more than any other from this truncated debut season — gives her the opportunity to go broad with her comedy. This is wonderful because, as the character who grounds both the series and her husband, it’s hysterical to see her go against type and, for instance, slam the door in the Willis’ faces. Sanford is the show’s not-so-secret weapon and any installment that uses her appropriately (important distinction) is generally a good one.
05) Episode 12: “Like Father, Like Son” (Aired: 04/05/75)
Tom and Helen find themselves on opposite sides of an election.
Written by Frank Tarloff
As an example of this series dealing with race relations in a fresh and unique way, this installment takes on the idea of voting based on race. At a time when this wasn’t as big a point of discussion as it is today, it’s truly fascinating to see the series inject a point-of-view. Also, this story allows another opportunity to explore the reverse racism employed by George Jefferson himself (who really is Archie Bunker’s counterpart), which always enables plenty of laughs — especially in this case, when he finds himself allied with Tom against Helen, who’s voting for the white candidate. Great story for this series to explore. Funny too, with a fitting subplot involving Lionel.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “A Friend In Need,” the strong official opening to the series that features a handful of really big laughs (and absolutely would have been highlighted in today’s post if I chose six offerings), “Lionel Cries Uncle,” which deals with a visit from Louise’s Uncle, whom George considers to be an “Uncle Tom,” a black man who cowers to the white man, and “Jenny’s Low,” which features a fascinating premise about color (and some big laughs) but is completely ruined by an awful performance from a guest star.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of The Jeffersons goes to…..
“Mr. Piano Man”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!