The Ten Best THE JEFFERSONS Episodes of Season Four

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. 

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Dry cleaning mogul George Jefferson and his wife Louise continue to adjust to life in a posh — and almost exclusively white — high rise on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. 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.

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While the fourth season sees a small, but noticeable drop in quality from the year prior, the show manages to plateau itself onto a very enjoyable (and relatively dud-light) consistency that will typify the next few years of the series. This is the last season for Zara Cully’s Mother Jefferson, who appears in three shows before passing without fanfare (i.e. a very special episode) off-screen, and Damon Evans as Lionel, who leaves the series before the end of the year and creates a void that isn’t filled until Mike Evans returns at the start of the ’79-’80 season. As with last year, the divide between characters who invite stories (George, Louise, Florence, Tom, and Helen) and all the rest grows even wider, and the show begin to rely on this group almost exclusively. Meanwhile, two semi-recurring characters from the store are added: Vernon Washington’s doltish Leroy and Ernest Harden Jr.’s Marcus, a kid from the street whom George is cajoled into hiring. They both factor into a few of the stories, especially Marcus, and allow the series’ scope to expand a bit. This is necessary, for the scripts begin to feel very routinized. Viewers may have felt similarly, for this is the first season in which the show fell out of the top 30. CBS moved the show around every season (and even once in the middle of a season), and when it was put back on CBS’ now demystified Saturday night line-up, it was a part of Nielsen’s no-man land. (Of course, this is a much better year than some of the ensuing seasons that actually DID make the top 30.) But 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.

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Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Jack Shea, unless otherwise noted, and as always, installments originally broadcast in a one hour block are represented here as two separate half-hour entries.

 

01) Episode 63: “The Grand Opening (II)” (Aired: 09/24/77)

The Jeffersons learn that Louise is safe — it’s Florence who’s been kidnapped.

Written by Jay Moriarty, Mike Milligan, Roger Shulman, and John Baskin

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My complicated relationship regarding two-parters is well documented on Sitcom Tuesdays, and this double length installment is a textbook example of why: it utilizes an overtly melodramatic premise (one character being kidnapped for ransom) and can be described as one half build-up and one-half comedy. Naturally, the half being highlighted here is the comedic portion, and for as amusing as it is (and Florence’s interaction with the kidnappers is among the funniest material of the season), the first part leaves us wanting. Thus, while I’ll never recommend watching only one part of a two-parter, note the disparity in quality between this one and its weaker half.

02) Episode 64: “Once A Friend” (Aired: 10/01/77)

A misunderstanding erupts when George’s old navy friend is now a woman.

Written by Michael S. Baser and Kim Weiskopf

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Although this installment has the reputation of being a “very special episode”, akin to the kind of hokum that was regularly being produced on All In The Family in its last few years, this notable offering, about George’s old navy friend Eddie transitioning into Edie, is probably the funniest episode of the season. Veronica Redd is great casting as Edie, and Vernon Washington makes his debut appearance — and maybe the strongest of his entire run — as Leroy (whom George makes dress up in drag to pretend to be Edie). The misunderstanding that develops regarding Eddie and Edie is par for this series’ course, but it delivers the anticipated laughs and then some. Strong script by this Three’s Company pair. A definite favorite.

03) Episode 66: “George’s Legacy” (Aired: 10/15/77)

George commissions a bust of himself so that he can be immortalized.

Written by Don Segall

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We’re starting to reach the point in the run where the show begins to riff on itself in an effort to extract comedy. This is almost a companion to Season Eight’s equally superior “The House That George Built,” for both installments, which deal with George’s desire to leave behind a legacy, take on the persona of George Jefferson (loud, arrogant, and excitable) and craft stories that heighten — and almost parody — his established traits. What keeps the character from becoming a caricature in an episode such as this is the deftness of the ensuing laughs and the earnestness with which Hemsley imbues George. Great sight gags, earned comedy.

04) Episode 68: “The Visitors” (Aired: 10/29/77)

Florence’s bickering parents cause havoc in the Jefferson home.

Written by Roger Shulman and John Baskin

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This installment is plain comedy, filled with big laughs that center around the parade of insults that Florence’s bickering parents, who’ve come to announce their divorce plans, hurl at one another. Jinaki and Hank Rolike, who play Dora and Don Johnston, respectively, are such interesting performers, delivering their lines with a unique and uproarious style that elevates the otherwise good-but-not-great dialogue into the stratosphere of hilarity. Although much of the episode remains memorable for the guest stars, who also take home the prize for giving us many of the big laughs, the show still keeps Geore, Louise, and Florence integrated and comedic.

05) Episode 70: “The Last Leaf” (Aired: 11/12/77)

Louise panics when she loses her lucky wedding corsage.

Written by Laura Levine

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You’ll notice that the seeds of Louise’s unfortunate character transformation do indeed begin around this time, in the show’s enjoyable, yet sometimes narratively challenged middle seasons. But because her manic and unreasonable behavior is presently an exception instead of the rule, it can often be used for successful comedy. And that’s partly the case here, as Louise’s superstitious belief that her lost corsage means trouble for her marriage gets a few laughs; really, the episode is here on my list for the relationships explored, particularly George’s deep affection for his wife. (Also, this is Zara Cully’s last official appearance, but she’s frailer than frail.)

06) Episode 73: “Florence Gets Lucky” (Aired: 12/03/77)

George asks Florence to insult him in the hopes of securing a business deal.

Written by Bob DeVinney

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Insult comedy, which forms the entirety of the existing relationship shared by George and Florence, becomes the actual crux of this episode, which takes its premise from the idea that George’s potential client is delighted when Florence insults George. So in an attempt to secure the man’s business, George persuades Florence to insult him repeatedly in front of the client. It’s a fresh and unique premise, which works very well because of the established relationship that the characters share, and although the laughs do seem like cheap ones (that have been brought about easily and without much thought), a great laugh is a great laugh.

07) Episode 75: “The Jefferson Curve” (Aired: 12/17/77)

Marcus secures a date by telling her he’s George Jefferson’s son.

Written by Paul M. Belous and Paul Wolterstorff

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A misunderstanding naturally develops when Marcus tells a pretty young girl in the cleaners that he’s the boss’ son in an attempt to secure her affections. The laughs are present and scored with seemingly little strain, but because the pay-off is, not surprisingly, very rewarding, one can imagine that plotting the story wasn’t as effortless as it looks. Also, as one of the last episodes with Damon Evans as Lionel, it should be noted that he maybe gets the biggest laugh of the outing, when his whole family accuses him of stepping out on Jenny with this woman, to whom he responds with indignation. It’s a nice big ensemble scene. Silly sitcom fun.

08) Episode 76: “984 W. 124th Street, Apt. 5C” (Aired: 12/24/77)

Louise learns that George is sending gifts to someone in Harlem.

Written by Roger Shulman and John Baskin

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Sentimentality is often a suppressant to comedy, and that’s why holiday shows don’t show up a lot here on Sitcom Tuesdays. They’re generally a good opportunity for extensive character driven stories, but unless the laughs are there, it’s not worth it (for me). Fortunately, this outing, which does tug on the heart strings a bit — but never in a way that feels schmaltzy or unwarranted — has plenty of funny. Once again, the story centers on a misunderstanding, and once again, one of the Jeffersons fears another Jefferson is being unfaithful. This time, the plot is heightened, as all evidence points to George having a love child in Harlem.

09) Episode 80: “Florence’s Union” (Aired: 01/28/78)

George is caught between Whittendale and the building’s unionizing maids.

Story by Patt Shea and Jack Shea | Teleplay by Andy Guerdat and Steve Kreinberg

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A fan favorite, this is one of many episodes that Marla Gibbs steals and puts in her back pocket, as the story revolves around Florence mobilizing the maids in the building into forming a union. Believing that this is with the support of the heretofore unseen Mr. Whittendale, George agrees to host the meeting at his place. But when he learns that Whittendale is not in support of this movement (duh), he forbids the meeting from occurring. Do you think Florence obeys? Absolutely not! And with a great group of hilarious maids, the first appearance of Whittendale, and plenty of amusing shtick for Hemsley, this is a clear winner — very funny.

10) Episode 82: “Thomas H. Willis And Co.” (Aired: 02/11/78)

Tom wants Helen to eat crow after an argument with George.

Written by Jay Moriarty & Mike Milligan

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There are a lot of good character laughs in this offering, which puts the antagonism between George and Helen on blast, as the pair erupts into one of their funniest fights of the series. Unfortunately for Helen, this is soon followed by Tom’s plea that she make up with George so that he’ll co-sign Tom’s loan for a new publishing company. The conflict between Helen and Tom affords them both some good moments, but it’s really the stuff with George and Helen that’s most amusing, followed closely by George’s smugness when Helen complies and goes down to apologize (only to be interrupted by Tom, whose deal has fallen through).

 

Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “The Camp-Out,” in which George goes camping with Marcus, “Louise’s New Interest,” in which Louise agrees to go on a trip with an archaeologist (Percy Rodrigues), not knowing that they’re the only two going, and “The Costume Party,” in which George’s scheme to drum up business backfires.

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*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of The Jeffersons goes to…..

“Once A Friend”

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Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fifth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!

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15 thoughts on “The Ten Best THE JEFFERSONS Episodes of Season Four

  1. Well aware of your distaste for pathos and sentimentality in sitcoms, I thought you might bypass “984 W. 124th Street, Apt. 5C,” and I am glad that you included it. It is actually one of my favorite sitcom Christmas episodes from that era, touching without being overtly sappy and done with a restraint usually foreign to this series.
    Now, having said that, I guess we have not reached the season with the episode where the Jeffersons dog-sit Whittendale’s German Shepherd. For me, that’s an all-time howler, but I guess we’re still a few years away yet.

    • Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      No, I don’t mind sitcoms having pathos. In fact, they need it. (After all, comedy comes from pain.) I take issue when they don’t use it well. And unfortunately, most sitcoms don’t handle drama as well as they think they do. There are two main reasons why it doesn’t work:

      1) The drama doesn’t ring true and/or is blatantly manipulative (“very special episodes”, story over character, etc.)
      2) The drama doesn’t have an appropriate relationship with the comedy (I, personally, want to laugh more than anything else, but not at the expense of story, so I recognize that there’s no desirable ratio here — just a sense of symbiosis and cohesion)

      I responded to this more verbosely in the comments of a WKRP post last month. I think this excerpt does a good job of making my point-of-view clearer.

      “Now, I believe that heavier motifs can be weaved into a situation comedy, but it takes a mastery that is incredibly hard to discern. I think that the only series that ever did this with regular success was ALL IN THE FAMILY, and that must be clarified as pertaining to only the first three seasons. There’s a big difference between an episode like “Archie Is Branded,” which I believe to be among the show’s most seminal installments, and the following season’s “Edith’s Christmas Story.” The former incorporates a debate about the necessity of violence (in relation to the Israeli-Palestine conflict) into its narrative, all the while presenting side-splitting humor (see: the Homo Sapiens gag). It earns its dramatic ending, which is made all the more powerful by the strength of the script and its humor. The latter, on the other hand, is singularly about the breast cancer issue and it suffocates the comedy, imposing its objective so intensely that it becomes a dreaded VERY SPECIAL EPISODE. This happens all the time in the show’s later seasons, and my principal complaint with AITF is that the show spends its later years trying to bounce back and forth between light and heavy, rarely achieving the balance that had made the initial seasons so electric.

      “There are certainly cases of other shows occasionally doing heavier moments that work. Other Lear shows come to mind. MAUDE’s early years could do the balancing act well — sometimes. The strength of the drama is always dependent on the strength of the comedy, and that’s why when the show becomes funnier (somewhere around 1974), the scripts simply become more potent. Also, THE JEFFERSONS, which is fresh in my mind because I’m very close to finishing my coverage of the series, seems to thrive in its early years on tackling stories that deal with race relations. And, a lot of the time, I find myself appreciating these installments because they connect more with the show’s principal thematic construct of George and Louise having to adjust to life in the almost exclusively white world of NYC’s Upper East Side. Narratively, these stories work — but again, only because they have the laughs there in support.”

      Regarding this particular episode of THE JEFFERSONS, it’s both funny (with the kitchen scene between Louise, Helen, and Florence as a highlight) and uses character-driven drama logically. Furthermore, the “sentimentality” in the apartment is the natural pay-off to all that’s transpired and therefore doesn’t seem like an inhibitor to any potential comedy. In short, it just works!

      As for “Dog-Gone,” stay tuned for four more weeks, as that may or may not be highlighted in my picks for the best from Season Eight! (Hint: it will be!)

        • Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.

          Yes, this is Gibbs’ first season as a full-time cast member, and by now she’s already proven herself as a guaranteed laugh-getter. She’ll remain the go-to for easy one-liners throughout the rest of the series’ duration, a role she fulfills most effectively up until the time she makes her brief sojourn to that disastrous spin-off. (I think it never was quite the same with Florence after that, but I’m getting ahead of myself.) Stay tuned . . .

  2. I also appreciate “984 W. 124th Street, Apt. 5C” for coming up with a fresh idea for a holiday episode in an era when far too many sitcom Christmas shows contented themselves with just riffing on either “It’s a Wonderful Life” or Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

    • Hi, James! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, this is probably my favorite of the series’ Christmas shows, but there’ll be at least one more Yuletide offering highlighted here soon! Stay tuned . . .

  3. Yes, this was the season when CBS’s Saturday night lineup suddenly collapsed without “Mary Tyler Moore” and “All in the Family”. Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett (minus Harvey Korman) sank to the bottom 10 and were joined by “Tony Randall” and “We’ve Got Each Other” (I’d still like to see that one). “Maude” was sent there to die at midseason. I guess “The Jeffersons” fared the best out of all of them, though it would struggle for another season (and more disastrous schedule changes) before its fortunes were reversed in fall 1979.

    • WE’VE GOT EACH OTHER was a completely nondescript sitcom with no edge to it. THE TONY RANDALL SHOW, though, could occasionally verge on brilliance and should have lasted longer.

      • I’ve only seen the pilot for WE”VE GOT EACH OTHER and I agree that it’s lackluster — no voice.

        But I covered THE TONY RANDALL SHOW in great detail this past May (and just received one of the two episodes I was missing). As with several other one or two season wonders of the era that have since earned the reputation of “lost gem”, I think a lot of the show’s praise is a result of its short life and not its actual merit. We’re almost able to convince ourselves that it’s better than it actually is (like THE ASSOCIATES), because it makes for a better memory. Another direct quote:

        “I am of the opinion that the show was well cast. All of the adult regulars were unique and amusing; furthermore, the kids were fresh and uncloying. The problem is the writing, which was neither as sharp nor as funny as MTM’s earlier successes. Many episodes, from both seasons, are forgettable. The series’ strongest moments occur between Randall and McLerie, but even that’s not enough to completely redeem this intermittently enjoyable sitcom.”

        Additionally, it wasn’t suited for ’76-’78. More here: http://jacksonupperco.com/2015/05/13/you-may-be-seated-trying-the-tony-randall-show/

      • Though, to be fair, Guy, if I had to pick shows with the most potential from the ones we’ve highlighted on Wildcard Wednesday, THE TONY RANDALL SHOW’s class of talent both behind and in front of the camera easily earn it distinction. The MTM brand does generally yield a more intelligent product, even without the ‘IT’ factor. The only other WW show that I’ve enjoyed in a similar capacity has been Steve Gordon’s THE PRACTICE (1976-1977, NBC), which I covered last November. (However, I think the shows’ failings are entirely different — the former simply needed to be more generously comedic, while the latter had ensemble structural issues, although never a shortage of laughs.)

        However, there are two series coming up — one in December and one in January — that may be joining the above. (Well, the FIRST season of the December show, at least — not the second.) Stay tuned . . .

        • One of the best of those two-season wonder sitcoms of the mid-70s to early 80s was BOSOM BUDDIES, which started with a hideously juvenile concept and gradually spun it into freewheeling improvisational gold by its second season, when the series seem to say “to hell with it” about sitcom conventions and just cut loose with some incredibly fresh and daring comedy unlike anything that was on network TV at that time.

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