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 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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of The Jeffersons goes to…..
“Once A Friend”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fifth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!