Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re continuing 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, DAMON 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.
Despite the replacement of Mike Evans with Damon Evans (no relation) as Lionel Jefferson — a casting decision that isn’t for the better (even though Lionel rarely gets good material, no matter who’s playing him) — the second season of The Jeffersons is undoubtedly the show at its comedic peak. Now, don’t worry; just because the show’s best year is now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some really good stuff to follow. It simply happens that this season is the most consistent, the truest to its premise (after the first season, of course), and the year with the biggest and most well-motivated laughs. The stories focus mostly on George and Louise, giving the season a hearty center, allowing for the (still slow growing) cultivation of the ensemble. But for fans of Mother Jefferson, in particular, this year features a handful of really great episodes for Zara Cully, who’s used with greater frequency than ever. (Due to ill health, she’ll make only a few more appearances over the next two years.) Meanwhile, this season features a lot of relevant and topical episodes — most of them done comedically and without self-righteous posturing. The Norman Lear elements, which will slowly be diluted after this season, are still present, and many of the better writers in today’s post did indeed come from All In The Family. (In fact, based on the comedy, I think The Jeffersons had a better ’75-’76 season that any other Lear series, including AITF.) So this list was much harder to make than last week’s. But, as always, 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 Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Jack Shea.
01) Episode 14: “A Dinner For Harry” (Aired: 09/13/75)
The Jeffersons host an eventful dinner party for Mr. Bentley’s birthday.
Written by Don Nicholl, Michael Ross, and Bernie West
As the last episode written expressly by the series creators, Nicholl, Ross, and West, who nevertheless remained producers for the next three seasons, this is an interesting opener to the second year, reinforcing the idea that, while George and Louise are at the heart of the show, there is an ensemble of vital characters who really help give the series its flavor. This installment aims to put them all in the same room at the same time, and in addition to the natural conflict that will develop, we have some potentially relevant drama regarding Helen and crime in New York City (very topical for the era). It’s not a fantastic installment, but everyone is well used, and it all come across like effortless fun.
02) Episode 15: “George’s First Vacation” (Aired: 09/20/75)
Mother Jefferson incorrectly assumes she’s going on a cruise with George and Louise.
Written by Frank Tarloff
Mother Jefferson is undoubtedly the star of this installment (as she is for a few others this season), as her habitual lack of boundaries and inability to use self-awareness to recognize that there’s a conflict, creates the conflict. It’s a wonderful place to mine comedy, for not only is Cully a daffily unique presence, but the character always brings out comical reactions from the other players, especially George, who doesn’t appreciate the smothering but won’t hurt her feelings, and Louise, who does her best to hold her tongue in the face of some truly masterful put-downs. There’s plenty of great moments for all three of them in this episode, another easy fun offering with a refreshingly simple premise.
03) Episode 18: “Mother Jefferson’s Fall” (Aired: 10/11/75)
Mother Jefferson fakes a fall to get more attention from her family.
Written by Erik Tarloff
The first half of the second season, as mentioned above, features a string of episodes that take stories from the relationship between Mother Jefferson and her son and daughter-in-law. This is easily the best installment for fans of both the character and the actress, for this script puts Mama J in the metaphorical driver’s seat — she’s the schemer who fakes a fall to get more attention and thus, knowingly (as opposed to unknowingly, like in the above episode) creates the story. As you can imagine, the results are hysterical, as the character’s hammy portrayal of her “injury” is a delicious, if not typically sitcom (i.e. unoriginal), source of big juicy unforgettable laughs. Hysterical, hysterical, hysterical.
04) Episode 21: “Movin’ On Down” (Aired: 11/01/75)
George has money problems — from every direction.
Written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs
What’s most appreciated about this simple premise installment, scripted by the young team of Ken Levine (who has a great blog) and David Isaacs, (both of whom would go on, of course, to write for Cheers and Frasier), is that it’s focused so acutely on George and his financial worries, as he fears that less profits means he’ll be “movin’ on down”. Adding insult to his injury is the fact that both Lionel and Florence are hounding him for money. So there are a lot of comedic moments that emanate from George’s financial woes, and while this isn’t a fantastic episode (it wasn’t in my initial draft of this list), it’s tight, bright, and gets the characters’ voices right. A typically well done episode from this era.
05) Episode 24: “George’s Best Friend” (Aired: 11/22/75)
George’s old navy friend is relentless in his pursuit of Louise.
Story by Calvin Kelly | Teleplay by Calvin Kelly, Lloyd Turner, and Gordon Mitchell
In early viewings, I found this episode a bit unsavory in its premise and, in terms of the comedy, overwhelmingly overrated — lauded simply because of the casting of Lou Gossett, Jr. as George’s lecherous friend. But now I know that my initial disappointment was due to faulty expectations and a strong desire to ensure that the comedy didn’t coast on gimmick; as it turns out, there’s a lot to enjoy here — from Gossett’s total commitment to his role, Sanford’s consistent fusion of comedy with reality, and Hemsley’s energetic explosion in the climax. Once more, however, Mother Jefferson steals the entire show. And while I still find this one generally overvalued by fans, it actually has become a favorite.
06) Episode 27: “Lunch With Mama” (Aired: 12/13/75)
George must break a monthly date with Mother Jefferson to go with Louise to a funeral.
Written by Lloyd Turner and Gordon Mitchell
It’s not difficult to cite this installment as the funniest of the season, for it uses the characters’ established relationships to extract some really big laughs — among the strongest of the entire series! The conflict is perfect for the show: George is stuck in the middle of Louise and his mother. Does he break his date with Mama and join Louise at a funeral, or does he prove he really is a Mama’s Boy and go against Louise? Well, naturally, Mother Jefferson just decides to go along with them to the funeral, yielding a hysterical sequence in which tears are shed — but maybe not in regards to the deceased. It’s a marvelous climax to a very funny and smartly structured installment. A veritable classic and one of the highlights of the ’75-’76 TV season.
07) Episode 29: “The Break-Up (I)” (Aired: 01/03/76)
Chaos ensues when George buys Lionel a term paper on homosexuality.
Written by Dixie Brown Grossman
This two-parter is well liked, and I think it’s for the wrong reason. Let me rephrase: unlike some viewers, I don’t appreciate a situation comedy for its dramatic moments. If I appreciate the drama, it’s only going to be because it’s organic to the surrounding comedy. This installment, which is humorously superior to the second half (though it’s also recommended), is a prime example of this principle. The big fight that splits Lionel and Jenny does nothing for me — it’s easy drama and we know they’ll soon reunite — but the quality of the character beats that precede this climatic moment are very funny. Also, the show just seems to work well when both the Jeffersons and Willises are heavily involved.
08) Episode 34: “George Meets Whittendale” (Aired: 02/14/76)
George prepares to meet Mr. Whittendale, but that means canceling plans with Bentley.
Written by Lloyd Turner and Gordon Mitchell
Of all the offerings in today’s list, this installment is the best showcase for the Willises, who will grow in prominence once Mother Jefferson and the kids are phased out. The highlight of this offering is the sequence in which George is stuck in the bathroom with Tom and Helen, a situation that’s to none of their likings. It’s an unoriginal laugh-getting exercise: trap characters with conflict together for an extended period of time. But the laughs do deliver, and there’s some character defining bits along the way, especially for George, who not only seems to grow closer to his future in-laws, but also to Bentley, whom he chooses over Whittendale. (I also love this one for a great bit involving Ralph!)
09) Episode 35: “Lionel’s Problem” (Aired: 02/21/76)
The family tries to hide Lionel’s drinking problem from George.
Story by Mia Abbott | Teleplay by James Ritz
Damon Evans’ three season stint as Lionel Jefferson is defined by forgettable moments. Aside from the wedding episode next season (which is notable for the obvious major development), this is unequivocally his best showcase. The comedic highlight of the episode — and maybe his whole tenure, actually, is the beat where Louise chases around a drunk Lionel, while Jenny sits on the couch trying to distract George from seeing that his son has cultivated a drinking problem. The alcoholism beat does seem to come out of nowhere (one of those single episode problems you never hear about again), but there are plenty of well earned laughs, and fine performances from all around. Underrated.
10) Episode 37: “The Wedding” (Aired: 03/06/76)
Louise refuses to renew her vows with George until he makes her an equal partner.
Written by John Donley, Lloyd Turner, and Gordon Mitchell
The strength of this episode is entirely dependent on the interactions between George and Louise, who are in conflict over his refusal to establish her as an equal partner in the business, and by proxy, in their marriage. Naturally, this comes as George has the idea to renew his vows (á la Harry Belafonte), leading to a sequence, as you might expect, where it all comes to an embarrassing climax at the wedding. It’s interesting to see Louise be so forceful, for although she’s often the voice of reason in the early seasons, she eventually becomes a bit hyperactive and kooky. While we’re far away from that era yet, the boldness of her typically more reasonable actions is memorable — and here, it works.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Jefferson Vs. Jefferson,” which makes amusing and solid parallels between why Louise lies and why George lies, “George Won’t Talk,” which features a few memorable guest stars and a nice issue related premise, and “Mother Jefferson’s Birthday,” another good Cully episode in which Mother Jefferson waits for a birthday surprise that no one has planned. All three are wonderful outings.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of The Jeffersons goes to…..
“Lunch With Mama”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the third season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!