The Best of ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE (Seasons One & Two)

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! In November 2014, I did a post on the Thanksgiving two-parter from the first season of Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-1983), the Archie-centric continuation of All In The Family. In the entry, I discussed the hour-long installment, “Thanksgiving Reunion,” and claimed that I was almost certain that I would never cover the series here in full. Well, I changed my mind again. Although only the first season is on DVD, my curiosity won’t let me alone, and because I have multiple copies of each episode (and because we’re getting ready to cover another, better, sitcom set in a bar), discussing this series felt right. I’m going to cover two seasons per entry (because, again, this isn’t a show of great comedic quality), so look for my thoughts on the last two years next month.

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The first season begins where the last year of All In The Family finished, with Archie (Carroll O’Connor) and his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) caring for Stephanie (Danielle Brisebois). But Stapleton only committed to a few appearances, and as we discussed in that aforementioned Thanksgiving post, Edith appears in only five half hours, all of which were shot consecutively and aired in the fall of 1979. So with Edith only a tiny presence, most of the stories are set in the bar. The catalyst for the action occurs in the double-length pilot when bartender and co-owner Harry Snowden (Jason Wingreen) sells his share of the bar to Murray Klein (Martin Balsam), a liberal Jew, who naturally, is designed to both clash with and balance out Archie. (There’s the source of conflict, folks!)

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Other regular characters include Allan Melvin’s Barney, Archie’s friend whom we met all the way back in 1972, Bill Quinn as the blind patron Mr. Van Ranseleer, who made a few appearances near the end of All In The Family, and Danny Dayton as Hank Pivnik, another of Archie’s friends from the AITF days. New characters included Veronica Rooney, the feisty Irish chef played by Anne Meara, who comes in for the last two-thirds of the season after Archie and Murray decide to expand the bar into a restaurant, and Abraham Alvarez as Jose, her assistant chef. As with before, the show was shot without an audience, but played back during One Day At A Time tapings for real responses. The first season, which was as narratively strong as the final season of All In The Family, performed well in its Sunday night slot (beating Mork And Mindy, the #3 show in the ’78-’79 season), but Stapleton had already decided that she would never come back full-time.

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Because the series couldn’t do non-bar stories without Edith, the decision — the show’s most controversial — was made to kill off her character when the show returned for its second season in the fall of 1980. After an inevitable delay from the 1980 Actors Strike, the infamous two-part season premiere, “Archie Alone,” found the characters coping with Edith’s off-screen stroke and death. Many of the episodes that followed used the tragedy as impetus for story, like Archie’s need for domestic help, which he finds in Ellen Canby (Barbara Meek), a black live-in maid who joins the main cast and helps him with Stephanie. Additionally, Hank Pivnik is mysteriously written out, while Jose Perez joins the cast, in a very small capacity, as Raoul, another assistant chef.

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Interestingly, the second season, which I find largely dark, somber, and unfunny, continued to perform well in the ratings and was even more of a critical success. But I do look to this year as the season in which Archie Bunker’s character is deconstructed, as several episodes deal with both his commitment to raising Stephanie and his convictions about prejudice and racial intolerance, which are almost completely evaporated by year’s end. (Of course, this may not be good for the comedy, but it is indicative of the change in style between ’70s television and ’80s television.) But Balsam was unhappy with the way his character was being written, and reportedly clashed with O’Connor, who called many of the shots. Balsam decided to leave the series and was written out at the season’s end. While his inclusion initially seemed like the show’s most interesting hook, the writers never did make him work, particularly comedically, and although his departure isn’t a good thing for the series, it’s perfectly understandable why he was dissatisfied. I’m dissatisfied just watching how they use him. But the show went on for two more successful seasons, so “go figure”.

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24 episodes were produced for Season One. I’ve said that the quality of the shows are as good as the final season of All In The Family, so I’ve chosen seven to highlight today. Season Two, delayed by the strike, produced 24 installments, but four were held over for Season Three. So I’m only choosing six worthy episodes from Season Two. As usual, they are listed in airing order, and episodes that originally aired in a one-hour block are considered two separate entries, as they would be seen in syndication. (If this series is ever released in full, which I think it will be, I’ll update the screen caps.)

 

SEASON ONE (1979-80)

01) Episode 1: “Archie’s New Partner (I)” (Aired: 09/23/79)

Archie tries to get a loan to buy out Harry’s share of the bar.

Written by Patt Shea & Harriett Weiss | Directed by Paul Bogart

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As the first half of the hourlong series premiere, this episode does a fine job of establishing the premise. Part I is featured over Part II because the script, written by showrunners Shea and Weiss (who contributed several installments in All In The Family‘s last season), is much funnier, playing more for laughs than drama. The scene where Archie tries to get a loan is choice.

02) Episode 10: “Thanksgiving Reunion (I)” (Aired: 11/18/79)

Mike and Gloria surprise Archie at Thanksgiving.

Written by Patt Shea & Harriett Weiss | Directed by Paul Bogart

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I covered this two-parter in more detail in last year’s Thanksgiving themed entry, which you can read again here. For fans of All In The Family, this episode and the one following, which aired together in a one-hour block, are the two that you owe it to yourself to see, for it’s the last time that Reiner plays Mike Stivic and the last time these iconic characters are together.

03) Episode 11: “Thanksgiving Reunion (II)” (Aired: 11/18/79)

Mike and Gloria’s secret causes family strife.

Written by Bob Schiller & Bob Weiskopf | Directed by Paul Bogart

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Part II continues where Part I left off, and I am ambivalent with regards to a preference for one half over the other. Obviously, if you’re going to watch Part I, Part II should naturally follow. Another thing of note is that these two episodes are the only offerings from the entire run of the series to be videotaped in front of a live audience — like classic AITF. 

04) Episode 14: “The Shabbat Dinner” (Aired: 12/09/79)

Edith and Stephanie throw a traditional Shabbat dinner.

Written by Bob Schiller & Bob Weiskopf | Directed by Paul Bogart

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In last year’s Thanksgiving post, I mentioned that this installment, Stapleton’s last (and thus, the last time we ever see Edith), is the best of her five episodes. Not only is the script amusing, but the story harkens back to the former series, as a conflict is caused when Edith invites Murray’s mother (Connie Sawyer) over to dinner not knowing that Murray is coming with his girlfriend, who’s not Jewish. (Florence Halop also guests as Murray’s aunt.) Although more like All In The Family than Archie Bunker’s Place, this is easily the year’s funniest.

05) Episode 18: “The Ambush” (Aired: 01/27/80)

Archie fears the bar will be next in a string of burglaries.

Written by Bob Schiller & Bob Weiskopf | Directed by Peter Bonerz

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This installment is only here for the climactic sequence in which Archie and Murray get drunk in the back room (easy laughs, but laughs nevertheless) while waiting for a potential burglary. Sure enough, it happens, but playing against type, the two bandits turn out to be pretty white women. Interestingly, this is one of several episodes directed by Peter Bonerz.

06) Episode 19: “The Return Of Sammy” (Aired: 02/03/80)

Sammy Davis, Jr. drops by the bar for a reunion with Archie.

Written by Bill Larkin and Richard Baer | Directed by Dick Martin

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While Sammy Davis Jr.’s second run in with Archie Bunker is nowhere near as sharp as his first, it’s much better than the episode of The Jeffersons in which he appears (and we may or may not be covering that in several weeks). Also, this is a great installment to illustrate just how much Archie’s character has evolved — for better or worse — since his introduction.

07) Episode 23: “Veronica’s Ex” (Aired: 03/09/80)

Veronica’s ex-husband returns and they rekindle their romance.

Written by Larry Rhine & Mel Tolkin | Directed by Jon Sharp

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Anne Meara, the show’s closest thing to a leading lady following Stapleton’s departure, gets about two or three episodes per year thrown all to her. Sometimes they’re geared too dramatically, but this one, featuring Jerry Stiller as her ex-husband (a tired and easy bit to be sure) has plenty of delightful laughs, and remains a great showcase for the late actress.

 

Other notable episodes not featured in the list above include “Edith Versus The Energy Crisis,” which bears mentioning for its incorporation of Carter politics into the narrative, and “Murray And The Liquor Board,” which deals with Murray’s past protestation of the Vietnam war.

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SEASON TWO (1980-81)

08) Episode 26: “Archie Alone (II)” (Aired: 11/02/80)

Archie continues to struggle with Edith’s death.

Written by Fred Rubin & Alan Rosen | Directed by Carroll O’Connor and Gary Shimokawa

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This is the second half of an episode that originally aired in a one hour block, and it’s included here for a powerful final monologue that Archie delivers to Edith’s shoe, as he comes to terms with the grief he’s been suppressing over his wife’s death. Because of our deep affection for Edith, this drama is well earned, and the lack of humor is understood and excused.

09) Episode 30: “Veronica And The Health Inspector” (Aired: 11/30/80)

Veronica begins dating a man young enough to be her son.

Written by Patt Shea & Harriett Weiss | Directed by Marlene Laird

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Like the Season One episode centered around Veronica, this installment makes today’s list over another more popular Season Two installment (about Veronica’s alcoholism, which earned both Meara and the director Emmy nods), because there’s more of a focus on comedy. As with Murray, Veronica is a character that’s never used as much as she could be.

10) Episode 33: “The Incident” (Aired: 12/21/80)

Archie punches a fellow lodge member for comments made about Mrs. Canby.

Written by Stephen A. Miller & Mark Fink | Directed by Gary Shimokawa

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Archie Bunker’s character changes with this installment, as the former bigot, who’s taken in a black housekeeper, jeopardizes his standing in his beloved lodge when Mrs. Canby (and dare I say it, his new friend) is the subject of cruel taunting. This is another humorless offering, but it’s solidly scripted and important viewing for Archie’s development.

11) Episode 37: “Murray Klein’s Place” (Aired: 02/15/81)

Murray decides to end his partnership with Archie.

Written by Fred Rubin & Alan Rosen | Directed by Gary Shimokawa

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Murray seems to get more to do in the second half of the year (no doubt due to some complaints made about how he was being written), and this installment, which otherwise features a boring an unoriginal premise, is scripted just a little bit better than most this year, with ample comedy and a story focused on (what should be) the show’s principal relationship.

12) Episode 38: “Weekend Away” (Aired: 02/22/81)

At a convention, Murray gets tied up and robbed by a woman he picks up.

Written by Stephen A Miller. & Mark Fink | Directed by Gary Shimokawa

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Finally — an offering where comedy is the primary objective! This installment concerns the hijinks that befall both men when they go out of town together for a weekend convention. While Archie is harassed by a woman in a bar who flirts with him relentlessly, Murray goes back to his room with a woman who ties him up and mugs him at gunpoint. Plenty of laughs in this surprisingly enjoyable outing.

13) Episode 42: “La Cage Aux Bunker” (Aired: 04/05/81)

To secure her a spot in the chorus, Archie dates Stephanie’s music teacher.

Story by Carroll O’Connor | Teleplay by Duncan Scott McGibbon | Directed by Gary Shimokawa

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Carroll O’Connor is credited as crafting the story for this very amusing episode in which Archie romances a homely music teacher (Olive Dunbar) in the hopes of getting Stephanie a spot on the school’s chorus. After dragging Murray along for an awkward double date at her place, Archie ends up escaping the woman’s advances by pretending that he and Murray are a couple.

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!

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12 thoughts on “The Best of ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE (Seasons One & Two)

  1. ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE was a sleepy, quiet, somber series without any remotely interesting supporting characters to serve as foils for Archie (I found Allan Melvin’s blubbering, buffoonish Barney especially grating), and it was a series that took the antithetical approach in every way (gentle, muted and serene) to what early, raucous, sharp-as-a-tack ALL IN THE FAMILY was.
    But the new incarnation still had one thing going for it: Carroll O’Connor, whom I believe to have been the greatest actor in the entire history of the sitcom genre (and, while there are other very worthy performers much deserving of their due, I don’t think it’s even close). Anyone who doubts this needs to see the last 15 minutes of “Archie Alone (II).” It’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen on television, but, frankly, the scene is so deeply affecting (and it involves the death of one of the most truly beloved characters of all time) that I find it extremely difficult to watch more than once.

    • Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I largely agree, but I think the first season of ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE is tonally identical to the final year of ALL IN THE FAMILY, and while the stories are obviously different (and greatly missing Edith), the pacing and style are related — contingent on the lack of a live audience, which zapped the performances of energy. It’s really not until Archie becomes a widower that the entire show starts wallowing in sadness.

      Now, my appreciation for O’Connor is less enthusiastic, for as talented as he was as a performer, he, perhaps not unlike Lucille Ball, had absolutely no idea WHAT made a show work. When ALL IN THE FAMILY lost its firm hand in Norman Lear and the day-to-day creative decisions were being made by writers who wouldn’t stand up to O’Connor, the product noticeably suffered. This was exacerbated in ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE, and while there are a number of reasons for this show’s lower quality (along with the sharp decline of ALL IN THE FAMILY, which I maintain had the most devastating and drastic fall from excellence of any major contender — certainly hampering its overall legacy), I do think there is a correlation here with O’Connor’s growing power. When the material suffers, the performances inevitably follow; O’Connor was no exception. The slipper scene remains iconic because of the history of emotion associated with Archie and Edith’s relationship, but the years of repeated excellence from O’Connor ended YEARS before, and so his work here isn’t material-elevating or worthy of significant praise (on my end, at least).

      Stay tuned next month for my thoughts on Seasons Three and Four!

      • While I stand by my assessment of Carroll O’Connor’s status as a performer, there is no doubt that long-running series have a time-honored history of suffering as they relent and allow their on-screen talent to wrest more creative control of the program. And, yes, O’Connor was famously difficult to deal with. We saw the same thing with Alan Alda on MASH, Ed Asner on LOU GRANT and Jack Klugman on QUINCY when they gained too much power over their own series in later seasons.
        I would also posit that latter-day SEINFELD seasons displayed at least as precipitous a falloff from their creative peak as did ALL IN THE FAMILY (which, as you had said, did have one later season when the show did spike again creatively) after Larry David left as showrunner.

        • I agree about SEINFELD’s notable and dramatic decline (made worse, in my opinion, by the show’s smugness in refusing to admit such), but I do think the last two seasons are slightly more watchable than ALL IN THE FAMILY’s. Also, SEINFELD took longer to establish its comedic rhythm, so its peak occurred a bit later, thereby following a more traditional arc for a long-running series. Meanwhile, ALL IN THE FAMILY exploded in its first season, was tops in Seasons Two and Three, and then declined a little bit with each passing year, leaving a LONG stretch of time (not even including ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE) where the show was palpably less well-made. (Now, I think this model is much more common in today’s television landscape, where only the runaway hits survive their first seasons, only to creatively burn out earlier in their runs than they should.) But, you’re right to link both shows; SEINFELD’s fall-from-grace would be the second on my list as most devastating. ALL IN THE FAMILY’s is first, simply, because I think its peak years are funnier than SEINFELD’s. But, stay tuned, because I will definitely be covering the series on Sitcom Tuesday!

            • Thanks — me too! I’m eight posts into CHEERS right now, and I already know it will be difficult to ground my expectations for the remaining sitcoms of the decade because the bar has been raised. In fact, the launch of CHEERS coupled with the cutback to three posts per week has contributed to an elevation of my standards with regard to what’s being covered here. (I can’t tell you how many shows I’ve screened in full these past two months with an actual intent to cover, like BOSOM BUDDIES, only to change my mind at completion.) ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE only got featured because I wanted to be able to mentally note the difference in how this series uses the bar with how CHEERS does. Needless to say, there’s no comparison. But trust that there’s going to be some really good stuff ahead — things you won’t find elsewhere . . .

  2. It’s interesting you include Archie Alone(II) on the list, because Norman Lear–as written in his autobiography”Even This I Get to Experience”– stated he disliked the Archie crying to Edith’s slipper scene. He felt that the scene was far too maudlin and somber, he felt it needed to have been balanced with humor. He alluded to an episode where Gloria and Archie talk after Gloria has just had a miscarriage and Archie awkwardly tries to talks to her about it which provided the humor for the scene. What do you think of Lear’s sentiment? Do you feel that it isn’t deserved?

    • Hi, David! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      As I told Guy, I think the scene works solely because of the emotional investment that the audience has placed in the characters and their relationship. The moment isn’t funny — at all — but it gets away with being entirely dramatic due to the gravitas that comes from our history with Archie and Edith. I personally would have felt cheated if the show had tried to turn the moment into a comedic one, simply because it wouldn’t make sense (and also, they probably wouldn’t have done it well). So I do disagree with Lear in this case.

      But I think he is absolutely right about the necessity of balance, something that ALL IN THE FAMILY often needed after Lear became less hands on creatively, and I agree with him about the lack of humor within the two-parter itself. Unfortunately, as noted above, this period of mourning is observed throughout the entirety of the season, and only the last two Season Two episodes highlighted on my list actually approach anything resembling comedic merit, so if we’re going to chide the show for its inability to balance the darker moments with laughs, we should look, at the very least, to the entire second season and not just “Archie Alone.”

      (I must add, however, that I think he’s always oversold the quality of “Gloria’s Pregnancy,” which though perhaps novel in its subject matter, is not a funny entry — especially in comparison to other offerings from the first season.)

    • Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      How could you tell? (I’m kidding — mostly.) Although I’ve never been a fan of the series, I don’t think, on its best days, that it reached the heights of either ALL IN THE FAMILY or SEINFELD; therefore, any lows that were hit — as awful as they might have been — weren’t as steep or as tragic. Disappointment only exists as a result of expectations, and that requires a precedent first being set. The better the show, the more likely it will eventually disappoint. It’s the gap between the best and the worst that informs my opinion of ALL IN THE FAMILY (and SEINFELD). I don’t think WELCOME BACK, KOTTER hit as high or had a gap as wide. (But, truthfully, I’ve only sampled a handful of offerings from each season, so I haven’t seen them all . . .)

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