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, ROXIE ROKER as Helen Willis, FRANKLIN COVER as Tom Willis, PAUL BENEDICT as Harry Bentley, BERLINDA TOLBERT as Jenny Willis, JAY HAMMER as Allan Willis, and MARLA GIBBS as Florence Johnston.
Although I believe Season Five exists in the same realm of quality as Season Four, it must be noted that the stories are getting less grounded in reality, and the comedy is more repeatedly mined from easier, anticipated, places. Yet there’s a renewed sense of energy this season, which, due to the ratings decline (mostly due to poor scheduling, the show didn’t crack the top 30 in either this season or the fourth) necessitated a lot of bottle shows. That is, there are a high volume of episodes here that utilize only the core cast and take place on very few sets. (These are easier to produce, and are surely the mark of a show with a reduced budget.) But this can often be a benefit, for this design forces the scripts to rely on the characters and their relationships — no other pomp and circumstance. Thus, there are a lot of enjoyable episodes that, if not remarkable, are notable for the strong ensemble performances. (That is, strong stuff from the two primary couples. Everyone else is either absent, or minimally used.) As noted last week, Damon Evans has officially left the series, so Lionel Jefferson is nowhere to be found (and Jenny appears only once). Also, Mother Jefferson has passed away off screen.
In their stead is Jay Hammer as Allan Willis, Jenny’s white brother, who stays with the Jeffersons due to a fraught relationship with his own father. While Hammer is better than the actor who played the role in Season One, he adds nothing of note to the series — because the racially charged material, while appropriate to the premise, is no longer vital in the show’s weekly storytelling, meaning that he’s rarely afforded the opportunity to make a case for his inclusion. The character won’t make it past the season, but his presence is the year’s biggest misfire, which otherwise remains solidly enjoyable. 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 Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Jack Shea.
01) Episode 88: “Louise’s Painting” (Aired: 09/20/78)
Helen and Louise attend an art class where there’s a nude male model.
Written by Nancy Vince and Ted Dale
Season Five begins with much needed energy, as the ensemble cast sinks their collective teeth into a delightfully “sitcom” teleplay that has George (and Florence, in a seldom seen alliance between the two) outraged when Louise comes home from an art class with the sketch of a nude male model. The bulk of the story concerns the fallout from the Jeffersons’ argument, made worse when George accidentally destroys her work. However the most comedic part of the episode, and the reason it makes for the season’s most effortlessly funny offering, are the reactions — first Louise’s shock at seeing a naked man and then George’s delight at viewing a naked woman. It’s quite funny; an obvious series classic.
02) Episode 92: “George’s Dream” (Aired: 10/18/78)
George dreams about what life is like in 1996.
Written by Bob Baublitz
Is this a gimmicky episode? Yes, but I must admit that I am generally less bothered by the gimmicks trotted out for this show (in comparison to purely character-driven shows like The Bob Newhart Show or Taxi), for instead of symbolizing an inhibition of creativity, these installments often yield some of the show’s funniest material. This offering is a prime example, as George dreams the future, in which he’s dead and Louise is a widowed sugar mama. There’s lots of fine laughs, and though they’re crafted rather easily from the presupposed premise, comedy is comedy, and the scripts, at this point in the run, are generally strong enough to overcompensate for any potential lack of originality. Very good.
03) Episode 93: “George’s New Stockbroker” (Aired: 11/01/78)
George’s new stockbroker, a ventriloquist, spent time in a mental institution.
Story by Jim Rogers | Teleplay by Jim Rogers, Bryan Joseph, Jay Moriarty, and Mike Milligan
With the guest appearance of TV ventriloquist Willie Tyler (with his “friend” Leroy), this is another installment that seems built around a gimmick — that is, an easy and somewhat less thoughtful source of comedy. But Tyler is a funny performer, and his interactions with the core cast do indeed yield big laughs. Then, when the metaphorical bomb is dropped about his past tenure in a mental hospital, there’s a worry that the show is going to get heavy-handed. Fortunately ( and frankly surprisingly), it doesn’t, as George’s worthwhile reaction to learning this information becomes the source of most of the excursion’s laughs. And because it’s in character, this is a much stronger episode than it looks.
04) Episode 94: “Me And Billy Dee” (Aired: 11/04/78)
George tries to get Billy Dee Williams for a benefit, but may have to settle for lookalike.
Story by Jay Moriarty and Mike Milligan | Teleplay by Bryan Joseph
Yet another episode built around a gimmick, this installment remains viable for several reasons. First, as the first celebrity-oriented installment of the show (to which shows like even All In The Family were not immune), the installment has the feeling of taking part in a classic sitcom tradition, the kind dating back to Lucy and Jack Benny, during which stars informed the weekly premise. Thus, there’s a sense of — “okay, you’ve earned this one” — about the installment’s design, and although it’s not original, the guest is well suited to the story and the comedy. The second reason this episode earns distinction is Marla Gibbs, whose portrayal is seldom funnier. (Note that this episode aired in a special time.)
05) Episode 99: “George Finds A Father” (Aired: 12/20/78)
George learns that an old family friend was his late mother’s lover.
Story by Kurt Taylor and John Donley | Teleplay by Kurt Taylor, John Donley, Paul M. Belous, and Robert Wolterstorff
This Christmas themed installment is one of a few offerings in which there’s drama that I really appreciate, and it’s because the conflict is connected to George and his memories of his mother, a character who, before the actress’ untimely passing, was a pivotal part of the series. In other words, there’s a real weight to the proceedings — both for George and for the audience. As always, what makes the drama work is the comedy, which finds ways to coexist both in the premise and in the smart script these two writing pairs have crafted. It’s better than most holiday shows, and for its balance of light and dark (reminiscent of the glory days of All In The Family), this is a series classic, making you both laugh and think — effortlessly.
06) Episode 100: “Louise’s Sister” (Aired: 01/03/79)
George aims to reunite Louise with her sister, not knowing why they’re estranged.
Written by Bob Baublitz
Josephine Premice, a chanteuse with a unique line delivery, plays Louise’s estranged sister in this, another heavier episode, that aims to juxtapose comedy with its meatier and more emotional elements. It’s a fan favorite offering, and while I do agree it succeeds far more than it fails, it must be noted that the comedy does seem to take a back seat to the drama (which isn’t the case for the installment included directly above). Nevertheless, the quality of the scripting is superior and the installment remains unique for showing us new sides to the characters, particularly Louise, whose family we hear about much less often than George’s. So because it works for the characters, this is a very memorable outing.
07) Episode 101: “Louise’s Reunion” (Aired: 01/10/79)
George and Louise have a fight on the night of her high school reunion.
Written by Howard Albrecht and Sol Weinstein
Although this episode utilizes a big new set and plenty of guests, I tend to think of this installment as belonging to that group of quieter fifth season shows, for the comedy is based entirely on the relationship shared between George and Louise. The premise, which may remind some of a second season Maude episode, has a fight breaking out between George and Louise when the latter learns that she’ll only get George’s estate on the stipulation that she never re-marry. Naturally, both sides of the argument are motivated (and universally relatable) and the reunion angle, which complicates things by way of an old school crush, makes things deliciously fresh. A fun episode for the performances of the two primary leads.
08) Episode 102: “A Bedtime Story” (Aired: 01/24/79)
George seeks a cure for his recent impotence.
Written by Stephen Neigher
Stephen Neigher, contributor of only three scripts to the series (two of which are from this season, one of which is in the last) is not a big gag writer; instead, his scripts flow looser with less concrete structure and more of an emphasis on character exploration. Naturally, this is appreciated, for although the episodes generally aren’t among the most hilarious, they end up being great showcases for the characters, and like several in today’s post, are therefore distinctly enjoyable (especially at this time in the run). This one boasts a risqué premise and some unforgettable Hemsley moments. (Neigher’s other fifth season offering, “The Ones You Love,” is an honorable mention and was close to making the list.)
09) Episode 108: “Every Night Fever” (Aired: 03/28/79)
George catches disco fever and wants to boogie every night.
Written by Bryan Joseph
In contrast to the above, this is a very gag-heavy installment, seemingly built on a single comedic premise (and one can imagine it being pitched as such): “George Jefferson gets disco fever.” Okay, easy laughs ensue. And that’s pretty much all this episode is — an excuse to put George (and Louise, Tom, and Helen) in a situation and location where we wouldn’t ordinarily find them, thus evoking laughter from the sheer spectacle (and this is a huge sight gag reliant installment). Also, it’s a chance for Hemsley, who was actually a musical comedy performer on Broadway before taking on the role of George Jefferson, to strut his stuff and show off some of his impressive skills. But the laughs are so big and unforgettable, that this becomes another classic, overcoming its weak design and earning favor as the year’s best.
10) Episode 109: “Three Faces Of Florence” (Aired: 04/04/79)
Florence’s plan to attract men involves multiple personalities.
Story by Bernard Burnell Mack | Teleplay by Paul M. Belous and Robert Wolterstorff
An outing I use in evidence of the scripts’ growing trend towards broadness (a trap into which most long running shows fall), this one works because of the committed performance of the always hysterical Marla Gibbs, who’s singlehandedly responsible for many of The Jeffersons laughs, particularly in these middle seasons. In fact, she’s a consistent and reliable supplier of comedy (akin to Louie on Taxi or Carla on Cheers, both of whom, like Florence, serve to insult and antagonize the others). So the wilder story, which tries to entertain elements of farce, ends up being an excuse for the audience to enjoy the silliness that is Florence; and although logic isn’t as imperative to the story as I’d like, I appreciate Gibbs.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Florence Meets Mr. Right,” in which Florence becomes engaged to an overly religious man, “The Ones You Love,” in which George and Louise fight just before they’re to be interviewed by Black Life Magazine (easily the strongest of this trio, and very close to making the above list), and “Louise’s Convention,” in which Louise becomes suspicious when George isn’t upset when she has to go out of town for their anniversary.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of The Jeffersons goes to…..
“Every Night Fever”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the sixth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!