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, MIKE EVANS as Lionel Jefferson, ROXIE ROKER as Helen Willis, FRANKLIN COVER as Tom Willis, PAUL BENEDICT as Harry Bentley, BERLINDA TOLBERT as Jenny Willis, and MARLA GIBBS as Florence Johnston.
The sixth season, the first to air as part of CBS’ strong Sunday night line-up, saw the series climb back into the top 30 (at #8), making it the most successful season — commercially — since the initial 13 week run in Spring 1975. Creatively, the sixth season is, like the two years prior, collectively on par with what we’ve come to expect from mid-era Jeffersons. However, there are some features that make this season unique. First, Season Six marks the return of Mike Evans, as Lionel and Jenny prepare for the birth of their child. It’s an arc devoid of originality, but bringing the two characters back into the stories, and using them with regularity, is ultimately a boon for the series and the range of material it can cover (even though baby stuff is rarely comedic). Additionally, while the show gets a little less realistic with each passing season (going for bigger, and cheaper laughs — like all long-running shows), this year sees a notable effort to maximize the value of the regular cast, as many episodes seem tailored specifically to their talents — in ways we haven’t seen previously. Moriarty and Milligan are still supervising, while many of the best scripts come in from two writing teams whose first contributions came in Season Five: Perzigian & Seigel and Casey & Lee. These are talented scribes, but a very different breed than the Lear folks that launched the show. Thus, The Jeffersons, one notices most particularly this season, is written very differently than it was initially. Race issues are used less often for drama, and social relevance is more novelty than regular facet. Regardless, the show is still a comedic guarantor and succeeds more often than it fails. So 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 Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Bob Lally.
01) Episode 112: “The Announcement” (Aired: 09/23/79)
Lionel and Jenny try to keep news of their pregnancy a secret from George.
Written by Jay Moriarty and Mike Milligan
With the return of the original Lionel and the decision to make his baby with Jenny (whom we haven’t seen since early last year) a major focal point of the season, this premiere has a goal: set-up the arc. Sometimes these ambitious episodes, with aims that are story-oriented, comedically fall short, relying more on narrative or sentiment. Admittedly, I enjoy this episode most for its charm and less for its humor, but they’re both intertwined, as the new trajectory infuses the production with a sense of giddy excitement. The only thing one must excuse is the lame and unmotivated way that Florence moronically spills the beans. (Why not just have have her be a blabbermouth? That’s more in character.) Memorable start to the year.
02) Episode 113: “A Short Story” (Aired: 09/30/79)
George gets an award for being a small businessman — that is, a short businessman.
Written by Neil Lebowitz
Although this installment seems based entirely on a single joke — George thinking he’s being honored as a small businessman, only for Louise to learn that it’s not the size of his business that they’re considering small, but really his height — the results are hysterical. The reveal is a very funny beat, and as a result, the premise makes this episode among the season’s funniest. But praise must be given to to the writer, Neil Lebowitz, for crafting an entire teleplay from this simple idea. Not surprisingly, aside from the obvious jokes, the script provides a lot of character-driven humor in which the actors, particularly Hemsley and Sanford (who each have fabulous moments), shine. One of my (perhaps underrated) favorites).
03) Episode 114: “Louise’s Old Boyfriend” (Aired: 10/07/79)
Florence goes out on a date with Louise’s ex-boyfriend, pretending to be Louise.
Written by Jerry Perzigian and Donald L. Seigel
Farce becomes a more frequent element as this series progresses, and this installment is a classic example. The staple of the genre, which Three’s Company did better than anybody (and Frasier will do spectacularly), is the case of mistaken identity. In this case, it’s Louise’s old beau who’s out-of-the-know, as Florence impishly decides to go out on a date with him — pretending to be Louise. Again, this installment derives most of its laughs from the story as it exists, but what makes the episode come alive are the performances, and this particular offering seems most geared to Gibbs’ Florence, who has one of her best episodes (and seasons) to date. It’s a fan favorite, and while I wished everyone behaved with slightly more logic, I like it too.
04) Episode 117: “Where’s Papa?” (Aired: 11/04/79)
Louise discovers that George’s father is not in the grave assigned to him.
Written by Peter Casey and David Lee
This is a very jokey episode by Casey and Lee that features two big comedic ideas. The first is the story itself, which has George wanting to move his father’s body so that he can be next to Mother Jefferson (in a rare posthumous mention), only to discover that the cemetery has misplaced the body (hence the title). It’s very funny in that gallows way that many shows (post-Lear) have since indulged, yet it’s strong enough to work on its own. But the episode also goes into another block comedy scene, the second aforementioned idea, which makes use of character revealing drama when George undergoes hypnosis to remember where the body is located. It’s very broad and unrealistic, but impactful — and a great moment for Hemsley.
05) Episode 119: “Joltin’ George” (Aired: 11/18/79)
George is challenged to a boxing match and must prepare.
Written by Jerry Perzigian and Donald L. Seigel
In evidence of my argument that this season is performance geared, this episode is all about George getting challenged by a boxer to a match in the ring, and many of the laughs come from the big scene, in which neither one hits the other (because the man has been paid off not to touch George). This is another fantastic showing for Hemsley, who is nearly singlehandedly responsible for the episode’s high comedy quotient and its high quality. And even though the story isn’t very original (at all), it’s easily one of my favorites from the season. Also, this is the last episode — and the only this season — to feature the characters of both Marcus and Leroy, who’ve leant spotty support since Season Four. Good for George fans.
06) Episode 121: “Louise Vs. Florence” (Aired: 12/09/79)
Louise fires Florence after a huge fight erupts between the pair.
Story by Paul M. Belous and Robert Wolterstorff | Teleplay by Jerry Perzigian and Donald L. Seigel
Probably the most classic installment of the season, I must agree with the consensus and cite this offering as Season Six’s funniest and most memorable offering. Part of the reason the episode delights is that it gives us something we’ve never seen before: Louise vs. Florence, with George attempting to play mediator. (There’s a switch, huh?) This inevitably yields plenty of laughs as the two bicker in a way that’s fresh, exciting, and actually pretty believable for two characters who’ve spent so much time together without ever really having an issue. But the climax, with Florence and Louise allying against a snooty couple that George has invited over and is hoping to impress, is just as satisfying; it’s a smart, understandable, and quick way to get things back to normal. My favorite of the year!
07) Episode 123: “One Flew Into The Cuckoo’s Nest” (Aired: 01/06/80)
While delivering laundry, George is mistaken for a patient at a mental institution.
Written by Peter Casey and David Lee
A really, really, really broad installment, which in some ways is a bit socially relevant due to its incorporation of mental illness into its premise, this offering is otherwise all about Sherman Hemsley’s clowning, as a misunderstanding erupts when George is mistaken for a patient when he comes to the mental institution to deliver some laundry. This teleplay, by Casey and Lee, who were generally good about crafting fresh stories, is unlike any other episode this series, and in addition to the unavoidable laughs, the novelty is appreciated and part of why I think this installment is well regarded among the fan base. It’s a bit too cartoony to be a series classic or even a paragon of fine situation comedy, but it’s still enjoyable (for Season Six).
08) Episode 125: “Brother Tom” (Aired: 01/27/80)
Tom feels like an outsider when with Helen and her black company.
Written by Jerry Perzigian and Donald L. Seigel
Of all the episodes on this list, this is the one that makes most use of the series’ fundamentally race related premise, as the story, which almost seems like an idea that should have been exploited earlier in the run, has Tom feeling excluded around Helen and her black friends. So Tom appeals to George to teach him to be black. It’s a very humorous idea, and as you can imagine, this leads to some hilarity, and Cover, an under-sung presence, is magnificent (just take a look at the picture for an example of his clowning). And, also, because this episode actually decides to explore the concept of race (as the series is most poised to do) and how it can/can’t be performed, the series’ premise feels fulfilled. Definitely the MVE runner-up.
09) Episode 129: “The Longest Day” (Aired: 02/24/80)
The men spend the afternoon trying to prove they can care for Jessica.
Written by Bob Baublitz
Surprisingly, while my notes insisted that this was an episode to include in today’s list, my original draft of the post excluded this installment. (Fortunately, as you can see, this was rectified before publication.) It’s actually a very funny excursion, with several laugh-out-loud moments that come from the anticipated chaos that ensues when George, Tom, and Lionel are left in charge of Jenny (with Bentley providing some rare comedically worthwhile support). Sure, the premise is unoriginal and way too “typical sitcom” to be narratively appreciated, but the laughs are undeniable, and despite the social agenda that’s employed without any subtly (a natural deterrent, of course), the entire episode is as enjoyable as it is worthy of recognition.
10) Episode 131: “A Night To Remember” (Aired: 03/09/80)
Louise suspects that George is having an affair with his secretary.
Story by Stephen A. Miller | Teleplay by Peter Casey and David Lee
The last quarter of Season Six consists entirely of a string of okay installments, all of which contain a few memorable moments here and there. (The last two episodes are creative, but not great, exceptions.) With one spot left to fill, this is the offering that seemed the most worthy, because it’s the funniest. However, the laughs aren’t dispersed evenly; the climactic scene when Louise comes to visit George in the hotel room (where his secretary has innocently arrived) is a joke-a-minute, but the build-up is hit and miss. So while I don’t think this is a fantastic episode, or among the better of this list, I appreciate the efforts the script takes to get to the centerpiece and believe that the end, as it so often does with this series, justifies the means.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Baby Love,” in which Florence’s ticking biological clock sees her visiting a matchmaking service, “The Loan,” in which the parents interfere on behalf of Lionel and Jenny and try to get them a loan to purchase their own home, and “The First Store,” a dramatic installment that takes place in 1968, and concerns the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of The Jeffersons goes to…..
“Louise Vs. Florence”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the seventh season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!
I might be in minority here but this is my favorite season of the show
Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I like Season Six as well, especially given its placement in the series’ overall arc. Stay tuned next week for my thoughts on Season Seven!
Also I know you hate two part episodes so I am not surprised that Now You See Me Now You Don’t isn’t here.
I believe Brother Tom is the funniest think they gave to Franklin Cover.
Finally I believe this is the season where the show became more slapstick but still touch on serious issues.
Would you consider the show’s change of pace as equivalent to All In The Family
I agree with you about “Brother Tom,” but I have to note that I don’t hate two-parters. They’re just often disappointing, because the types of stories that sitcoms usually decide are fodder for multi-part installments are either tired and drawn out or WAY too lofty (expect some surprise melodrama) for shows and characters that were designed to be seen in 25 minute increments. In the case of “Now You See It, Now You Don’t,” I think there actually are some laughs. But the premise stretches the bounds of credibility, and the lack of intelligence within the writing makes it difficult to overcome the shortcomings, rendering the comedy not worth the aggravation.
I think ALL IN THE FAMILY started in a more revolutionary and exceptionally comedic place than THE JEFFERSONS, so its fall from quality is worse. Also, because THE JEFFERSONS was only superb in the very beginning, I tend to define the show by these solid, but not spectacular, middle seasons, whereas I’m more willing to remember ALL IN THE FAMILY for its first three years of brilliance. Also, I don’t really notice a difference in broadness between Seasons Five and Six, but I think Season Seven sees a slight uptick in slapstick — just in time for Season Eight, which (to me) is the season that links the middle years to the later years. Stay tuned . . .
I recall a few of these fondly but thought they came later in the series. I saw “Joltin’ George” a few times and remember Luis Avalos (his boxing opponent) from The Electric Company. “One Flew Into The Cuckoo’s Nest” was hilarious for me, with Florence’s line “I wish I had my camera” the funniest. “Brother Tom” had a hysterical mangled line by Tom to Helen “And you cook like a chihuahua!”, and I think that screen grab you have of Tom was used in the later seasons’ opening credits. I also liked the nostalgia in “The First Store” and how George was helping the poor widow in 1980 who’d given him his first business back in 1968. The widow was played by Mina Kolb, who was soon to play Terri Alden’s mom on Three’s Company & later to play Jeff Greene’s mom on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
I have to admit I enjoyed the dumb fun of The Jeffersons in its later seasons. It wasn’t trying so hard to be socially conscious, so it was more fun for me personally. I think you can agree with me here, Jackson, as I know you enjoyed Three’s Company well enough to cover its seasons on Sitcom Tuesdays. There’s a later slapstick plot & specific scene from Season 8 that I’ll mention when we get there in a couple weeks that I found hilarious too.
Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.
“The First Store” is about George attempting to get a loan in the aftermath of MLK’s murder. The episode with Kolb is from Season Nine, “Change Of A Dollar,” and will likely not be featured here.
While I enjoy THREE’S COMPANY because it, as you noted, didn’t want to be socially conscious, THE JEFFERSONS was set up with different aims. So instead of appreciating its growing lack of relevance, I consider it a disappointment when the show no longer has anything smart or important that it wants to say, because this implies that the show is failing to live up to its premise and obligation to the audience. Also, because the characters go through transformations that are unnatural and unflattering, any possibility of fun is greatly reduced. I don’t enjoy the later seasons more than the early seasons, and I can’t agree that there’s something about them that’s more fundamentally enjoyable. Nevertheless, there are flashes of quality ahead, and if you do enjoy ’80s era THE JEFFERSONS, be sure to stay tuned!
While I understand and usually agree with your distaste for dramatic installments in sitcoms, I consider “The First Store” to be one of the more memorable episodes in THE JEFFERSONS’ run. This was not a series given to making a lot of big social statements the way GOOD TIMES did (in its usually strident and overarching manner), so when it did, the results were usually good.
Hi, Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.
As we’ve discussed in past weeks, I agree with you about THE JEFFERSONS’ ability to do weightier episodes with more finesse than other series of the era, but once again, I must qualify that my distaste isn’t reserved for dramatic episodes, but specifically dramatic episodes that don’t work.
Okay. I was hoping someone would stick up for “The First Store,” which, incidentally, is a dramatic episode that DOES work. However, the problem I have with the installment can best be explained by contrasting the offering with a heavier entry from the prior season, “George Finds A Father,” a character driven piece that explores one of the most important relationships to inform George’s youth, forcing him to confront a shocking revelation that alters his entire view of the past. It’s about George and the memory of his late mother; it works because of the characters and what we know about them.
“The First Store” is about MLK’s death, and while the script tries to add some individual flavor by setting the action at precisely the time George intends to open his first store, the nature of the story is such that it could exist on any predominantly African American show of the decade, illustrating how they reacted to his untimely murder. The script is not particularly revealing in terms of character, because the episode knows it’s going to be “relevant” and “emotional” regardless of anything that happens to them. The fact that the drama is solid is almost irrelevant, because that quality has nothing to do with the episode itself and everything to do with how we feel about MLK and his assassination. That said, I agree with you — it’s memorable and worth mentioning (but actually not as one of this show’s finest or best written).