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!
As the series progressed, THE JEFFERSONS was really carried disproportionately by Sherman Hemsley and Marla Gibbs. Beyond them, one of its biggest weaknesses by the late ’70s was a subpar supporting cast. Yes, Zara Cully was great in the very early installments as Mother Jefferson, but in general, George didn’t have a lot of worthy foils save for Florence.
Another thing worth mentioning at some point was how much Lionel–the original Jefferson character on the very first episodes of ALL IN THE FAMILY–slipped into the background on THE JEFFERSONS and became a character without much purpose. Mike Evans was terrific on AITF, but he’s not given a lot to do on THE JEFFERSONS, and, when he is replaced for a couple of seasons by (unrelated) Damon Evans, the character actually becomes a weak link.
(Then, of course, Mike Evans returned to the role, in much the same manner that Lecy Goransen would as the elder Connor daughter on Roseanne in the 1990s.)
Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I get what you’re saying, but I’m actually bothered by none of the above. I think Louise, Tom, and Helen all proved as able foils for George as Florence — when the series was still engaging with its original premise, that is.
My issues with the progression of THE JEFFERSONS actually have nothing to do with the supporting cast and everything to do with the evolution and treatment of the principals, specifically George and Louise, who became inconsistent and regressive. In fact, I don’t think the supporting cast let down Hemsley anywhere near the way he was eventually let down by tired scripts and the complete abandonment of the core premise. While Florence quickly became an easy way to get big laughs, and the show certainly knew to write for Hemsley’s individual strengths as a performer, they still didn’t monopolize all the stories (in fact, at a certain point, they BOTH were pushed aside, unfortunately). Nor were they the only characters with a big comedic presence. The real sin is simply that THE JEFFERSONS ran into an era of television in which it didn’t fit, and when it adapted to the times, the show lost all of its potency. (There’ll, naturally, be much more on this later . . .)
As for Lionel, although I think the casting issues kept the character from being a major player, the way he was written — even in this season — is very different from how he was portrayed in ALL IN THE FAMILY, particularly the early years. Somewhere in AITF’s fourth season, around the time we meet George, Lionel becomes less wise and more headstrong — fighting with his father because the plot needs him to do so. That continues here. From the start of the spin-off, if Lionel is going to be used in any real capacity, it’s generally because he’s part of the conflict (and that’s regardless of who’s playing him). Structurally, he’s important because he links the Jeffersons and the Willises, but even here, Lionel isn’t particularly likable, funny, or (as far as I’m concerned) a reason to watch.
However, the character that I think never fit with George or the show is Harry Bentley; the series NEVER knew how to use him. Also, to your point, I do think that the show could have cultivated a better ensemble of true recurring players, especially during the long stretches when no one was playing Lionel. Maybe this could have helped the show handle the growing difficulties with its own premise. Unfortunately, THE JEFFERSONS runs out of steam a little bit each year after the second, which (SPOILER ALERT) I think is the strongest. But stay tuned for more on that subject . . .
I absolutely agree with this, and it’s part of a larger issue that the Jeffersons we see on AITF really are not the Jeffersons any longer once THE JEFFERSONS is a few years old. And what became of Henry Jefferson in this series? An integral character on AITF was put on a bus and Chuck Cunninghammed once THE JEFFERSONS debuted.
You’re right — a definite missed opportunity! Also, not a single visit from Louise’s good friend Edith?
But, I do have to add: I don’t mind that the Jeffersons change. Growth is unavoidable in real life, so when characters stagnate (or worse, regress), it’s glaring. Also, we could anticipate that new wealth, new friends, and new surroundings would make an impact on George and Louise. I don’t want them to be the same people they were on ALL IN THE FAMILY because it wouldn’t make sense.
But there’s a big difference between Louise going from natural hair/house dresses to nice wigs/fancy clothes and Louise going from “voice of reason” to “paranoid loon.” The former is evolution as a result of circumstantial changes; the latter is a complete reimagining of the character. I have a big problem with that. Yet — although it’s a gradual shift, I do think most of the damage is done within a one-two year period, and fortunately, it’s later in the run than I initially remembered. (Frankly, if this happened early, I wouldn’t have covered the series.) Of course, once the premise goes, the characters soon follow.
The same thing happened on ALL IN THE FAMILY. As infinitely well written as it was in its early years, the show proved not immune to the effects of hinging so much of its power on the content, rather than the characters. And while we’re on the subject of the Bunkers, I suppose now’s as good a time as any to announce that I’ve changed my mind about covering ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE, so look for two Wildcard Wednesday posts on my favorite episodes in December. Definitely not a great sitcom, but there are a few “can’t miss” moments, especially for ALL IN THE FAMILY fans . . .
I cannot wait to hear your opinion on the sixth season (prob in my top 5 seasons), Garrett Morris’ character Jimmy and the show’s progression in the 1980s
Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Stay tuned for Season Six on December 8th! (Technically, December 7th at 10:00 PM EST.)
Great show! They started streaming this on Crackle a couple of months ago, but then it just disappeared. I surprised because they’ve had All In The Family on there for a while now.
Hi, Minoring In Baseball!
Thanks for reading and commenting. Again, I’d recommend picking this one up on DVD. Shout! did a truly fantastic job with this set. (My favorite, however, still is their MAUDE release, which gave us two unaired episodes!)
I think THE JEFFERSONS is one of those shows whose reputation would be better if it had run only half as long as it did. The series slipped badly in its last seasons.
Hi, James! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I agree, but I think the same can be said for every long running show, even the upcoming CHEERS, which is a rarity for being able to find a consistent high level of quality on which to coast (despite the fact that the early years were the strongest). But we see this everywhere. ALL IN THE FAMILY outlived its purpose once Nixon left office. BEWITCHED continued even though it couldn’t be bothered to think up original stories. SEINFELD stopped being about nothing when the storytelling became stylized. So I think THE JEFFERSONS living beyond its natural expiration date is nothing unexpected.
In fact, one of the risks that’s always been inherent in series television is maintenance. And because I can’t think of a single show covered here in which the final season is the strongest, it isn’t a stretch to say that every series ran past its “prime”. Therefore the real question is: are the continuing flashes of excellence worth the overall decline? In the case of THE JEFFERSONS, I think there’s a point where the answer becomes no. But again, that point is closer to its actual end that even I initially anticipated. Stay tuned . . .
One long-running series you may well never cover which is one I believe defied sitcom physics by enjoying some of its best seasons late in its run is EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, which was a much sharper show in Seasons 7 and 8 than it ever was in Seasons 1 and 2.
I thought CHEERS was still pretty great in its final (11th) season, although it slipped a bit a season or two before that.
I will absolutely be covering EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (as I’ve said several times here in the past), but I can tell you now that I have as many qualms with the first three seasons as I have with the last three (although they’re entirely different, of course).
However, unlike THE JEFFERSONS, the decline in quality never overtakes the moments of greatness, so I consider the run, in total, a definite success story.
Actually, I have to amend myself — I just thought of a series that may have had its best year as its last year: HERE’S LUCY. Most people generally lump THE LUCY SHOW and HERE’S LUCY together because they ran consecutively, and in that frame of mind, nothing tops the first year of THE LUCY SHOW. However, taking HERE’S LUCY on its own merits, Season Six has a shockingly high number of laughs, more logic than you’d expect, and far fewer duds than were present in the early years. As usual, there’s an exception to every rule! (And I’m sure there are others too . . .)
So I don’t think that The Jeffersons jumped the shark but I admit the last really good season was the eighth season. But it’s decline wasn’t noticeable until the last two imo
As for Cheers, this might be controversial but I think that that show had the best final season.
Track, I’ll confirm now that, aside from the shortened seventh season (for which I only selected eight), I have picked ten episodes for every season of THE JEFFERSONS except the final two, which should give some indication about my thoughts on the show’s trajectory.
Regarding CHEERS, I’ve already noted that I like the early years best, but for more of my thoughts, stay tuned — it’ll be here on Sitcom Tuesdays before you know it!
Wow, what a GREAT article! An AWESOME observation by our friend, “Upperco.” Thanks for this because I was definitely looking for some GOOD ADVICE on which seasons to purchase on AMAZON! Thanks a MILLION!
Hi, Donnie! Thanks for reading and commenting.
As is usually the case, the early seasons are the strongest. However, if you’re a big fan of the series, I’d recommend going for the complete set. It’s a wonderful release and a great deal.
Hi Jackson, Realize that you are on the 80’s right now in reviews, however if you do ever re-visit the 70’s; antenna tv is airing re-runs right now of the parentless season 5 of “Good Times” and it being an interesting comparison show to the Jeffersons’ plus all the behind the scenes between Norman Lear, Ester Rolle and John Amos would seem to make this the perfect show for your imput
Hi, Bob! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I find GOOD TIMES consistently inferior, so I have no plans to reconsider discussing the series at this time. I’m actually satisfied, for once, with our look at the ’70s as a whole, and I don’t think the decade will be revisited in the same way that I’m intending for the ’50s and ’60s (and even the ’80s, courtesy of NEWHART). But, again, that’s about three years away, so WHO KNOWS what will happen? Stay tuned…
Thanks, also had not realized you were starting on the Cosby Show today and that will be an interesting read as well as the series goes along. Will “A Different World” be reviewed as well or does that kind of fall into the :”Good Times” category?
Track asked me that just this morning!
I have no plans to discuss A DIFFERENT WORLD (outside of these posts on THE COSBY SHOW) at this time.
Incidentally, the shows for the rest of this year are as follows: THE COSBY SHOW, THE GOLDEN GIRLS, IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW, and MARRIED… WITH CHILDREN. Following the latter, which will take us well into 2017, will be the complete run of MURPHY BROWN.