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.
Although the third season is a noticeable comedown from the peak quality of the second year, this remains a solid collection of offerings, retaining its connection to the first two seasons with a hearty emphasis on character-driven comedy and an exploration of its racially motivated premise — with a healthy level of brains (generally) in support. But the stories, not surprisingly, begin to grow ever-so-slightly broader, and with Florence appearing almost weekly, a divide starts to develop among the ensemble. On one side we have characters who are used frequently: George, Louise, Florence, Tom, and Helen — and on the other, the characters that aren’t: Lionel and Jenny (who finally get married in the middle of the season and still get a few stories), Bentley, who is never well integrated into the scripts, and Mother Jefferson, who pops up for a few episodes near the end of the season looking very frail. (As discussed last week, Cully’s declining health precluded her from being as much a player this season as she was before.) But as a result of this unequal narrative divide, coupled with the phasing out of the early writers (like Turner and Mitchell) in favor of new teams (like Moriarty and Milligan), the show begins its lengthy run of being very clearly hit-and-miss. Some shows just don’t work, and while the bad ones aren’t as bad as they will become in later seasons, their lack of quality is noticeable. Nevertheless, there are plenty of really strong offerings here, and this is undoubtedly the most enjoyable season after the second (rivaling only the first for this honor). As usual, 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 Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Jack Shea.
01) Episode 38: “George And The President” (Aired: 09/25/76)
George’s latest ad campaign has him masquerading as a descendant of Thomas Jefferson.
Written by Howard Albrecht and Sol Weinstein
Season Three starts rollickingly with this wonderfully original installment that has George launching a Bicentennial themed advertising campaign in which he hails himself as the great-great-great grandson of Thomas Jefferson. Not only is this a hilarious premise with which the characters can engage, but the inclusion of historical motifs (and the accompanying race relations) is great fodder for this series and its comedy. (Remember “George’s Family Tree” from Season One?) Also, the third president is a particularly appropriate figure to highlight given his obvious association with our protagonist. So for its great story, and from its sharp and laugh-filled execution, this is an easy classic and favorite.
02) Episode 39: “Louise Gets Her Way” (Aired: 10/02/76)
Louise hires Florence as a live-in maid, without consulting George first.
Written by Lloyd Turner and Gordon Mitchell
Functional episodes generally don’t earn my favor because they have to do a lot of heavy-lifting for the story and the necessary narrative developments, thus leaving little time for character oriented laughs. Fortunately, this offering, which has the mission of making Florence a full-time presence around the apartment (and soon enough, on the series itself), actually does meet the necessary comedy quotient. This shouldn’t be a surprise, however, given how amusingly acrimonious the relationship between George and Florence is drawn. In fact, starting with this season, many good episodes are made great by a comedically sharp exchange between these two bold characters. Ultimately well done.
03) Episode 40: “Louise Suspects” (Aired: 10/09/76)
George doesn’t discourage Louise’s belief that he’s fooling around with another woman.
Written by Lloyd Turner and Gordon Mitchell
This episode, written by two writers who started in the first year after making the jump from All In The Family, is the first instance of Louise “loosing her cool”. A voice of reason in the early years, she eventually becomes a zanier, more excitable figure, and by the last few seasons, the characterization has become exceedingly manic. But here in Season Three, it’s a novelty, and much of this episode’s comedy comes from the fact that Louise’s crazy jealous behavior is knowingly out-of-character with how she normally responds. Acknowledging that the story does this intentionally allows one to view the episode as the superior comic outing that it is — and it really is among the year’s funniest, for both Louise and George.
04) Episode 45: “Tom The Hero” (Aired: 11/17/76)
George has trouble with gratitude after Tom saves his life.
Written by Jay Moriarty and Mike Milligan
We’ve seen this premise on many different shows in some form or another (because the “you-saved-my-life” angle is one done with regularity), so this installment can’t get any points for creativity. However, it’s always appreciated when a script is able to make a routine story work by way of the uniquely designed characters, and that’s part of the reason that this installment is included in today’s list. Not only are the dynamics perfect for the relationship established and already shared between George and Tom Willis, but the script is consistently loaded with big character laughs. This design — a simple story made fresher by solid characters — will be seen frequently as the show, and these posts, continue.
05) Episode 47: “The Agreement” (Aired: 12/08/76)
George’s suggestion of a pre-nup sparks a fight between Lionel and Jenny.
Written by Lloyd Turner and Gordon Mitchell
George’s willfully and overtly antagonistic streak regarding the Willises — including his future-daughter-in-law — is purposely diluted as time passes (and understandably; the more time they spend together, the closer they would likely become), but this season, the year in which Lionel and Jenny marry no less, things are still kept pretty insult-heavy. So the idea of George knowingly setting out to cause trouble in the relationship makes plenty of sense within the context of his development, and his accompanying glee is a delight. But this installment remains a favorite for its simplicity: it’s all about characters and their relationships, and it doesn’t have to do anything or go anywhere special to produce its comedy.
06) Episode 48: “Florence In Love” (Aired: 12/15/76)
Florence quits after George forbids her from having overnight male guests.
Story by Paul M. Belous and Robert Wolterstorff | Teleplay by Richard Freiman and Stephen Young
As mentioned above, this is another installment contingent on the adversarial relationship shared by George and Florence. But this happens to be her best showcase from the first three seasons, as Gibbs, now a de facto regular, carries the story and its trajectory. The teleplay, by two newcomers to the series, is delightfully crisp, with plenty of jabs and reasonably plotted motivations for all of the characters. The conflict, which again isn’t new to situation comedy, is nevertheless something worth exploring on this often topical (in the early years, at least) series, and as always, when it’s supported by huge comedy (see the picture), an easy victory. Great show for Florence fans — with really huge laughs too.
07) Episode 54: “A Case Of Black And White” (Aired: 01/31/77)
George hopes to make a business deal with a black man married to a white woman.
Written by Fred S. Fox, Seaman Jacobs, Lloyd Turner, and Gordon Mitchell
One of the series’ most outrageous farces, this installment is easily the funniest of the season. The premise has George trying to placate a potential major client after putting his foot into his mouth, not realizing that the man, who’s black, is married to a white woman. To smooth things over, George turns to the only other zebra couple he knows: the Willises. But after insulting them, he calls upon Florence and Ralph to fill in at the last minute for their three-couple dinner party. The mistaken identity bit is classic screwball (and let’s note that the episode is co-written by two of Lucy’s gaggiest men — Fox and Jacobs), and although the comedy only exists from prior knowledge of the characters, nothing else this year quite reaches the same heights. Series classic and one of my absolute favorites.
08) Episode 55: “Louise Vs. Jenny” (Aired: 02/07/77)
Louise and Jenny compete over how to care for a sickly Lionel.
Written by John Ashby
Mother Jefferson returns for the first of two shows this year in this appropriate (by that I mean, this story is a logical and natural beat for the series) installment that draws parallels between Louise’s relationship with Jenny and Mother Jefferson’s relationship with Louise. Whenever a show is allowed to make statements about the inner dynamics of the ensemble — and draw comparisons — we’re usually in for a lot of laughs, and this episode, which actually isn’t uproariously hysterical, is generally able to supply the worthy premise with fine reasonable comedy. Sanford, who is fabulous when well utilized, “owns” the episode, helping to make her slightly out-of-character material believable.
09) Episode 56: “The Marriage Counselors” (Aired: 02/21/77)
The Willises give the Jeffersons tips on how to improve their marriage.
Written by John V. Hanrahan
Of all the installments on today’s list, this is the offering that seems most hinged on a simple premise — George and Louise taking marital advice from the Willises after a magazine quiz they take goes awry and turns into a fight. Like several of the above offerings, the script must then contend with drawing all of its comedy from the relationships between the leads, and so the success of the episode is based entirely on how well written the proceedings manage to be. This episode is truthfully, a bit hit and miss on that front, but the performers are game, and because there are a lot of memorable bits (including the pillow fight that will soon make the opening credits), this one becomes a winner.
10) Episode 58: “The Old Flame” (Aired: 03/07/77)
Mother Jefferson invites one of George’s scheming ex-girlfriends over for dinner.
Written by Jim Moriarty and Mike Milligan
George’s mother is scheming again as she invites George’s old flame, played by Lillian Lehman (who had been a regular on Susan Harris’ short-lived Fay), over for dinner. Based on the premise, this is an easy episode to enjoy, for the antagonism between Louise and Mother Jefferson has been greatly missed over the course of the season, and this entry is guaranteed to overcompensate. However, the focus of the show is mostly on George’s interaction with his ex, who comes over to extort money out of her old beau by hoping he’ll become her benefactor (or, as is commonly called today, “sugar daddy”). There are lots of big laughs in this memorable offering. Mother Jefferson’s last worthwhile performance, sadly.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “The Christmas Wedding,” in which Lionel and Jenny finally get married (the episode closest to making today’s list), “Louise Forgets,” in which Louise tries to improve her memory, and “Louise’s Friend,” in which George is jealous of Louise’s relationship with her French classmate.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of The Jeffersons goes to…..
“A Case Of Black And White”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fourth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!