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 last season under Milligan and Moriarty, Season Seven, despite some despicable misfires (like the Hawaiian arc), is just as comedic as the last few seasons we’ve been covering. Unfortunately, the lengths to which the show will go to achieve laughs is starting to get ever-so-slighly embarrassing, as many of the offerings in today’s post are built on gimmicks — with cheaper constructs that favor comedy over character, instead of using them in tandem. This is a growing trend that becomes more noticeable with each season; Season Seven is one of the last years where the ends justify the means, and Isabel Sanford actually won an Emmy for her work this year (deservedly). Also of note: the end of this season saw the four-episode disaster spin-off, Checking In, starring Marla Gibbs as Florence. It’s barely worth mentioning (it WON’T be covered here), and Gibbs will be back here next season.
Meanwhile, like all shows of the ’80-’81 season, The Jeffersons was impacted by the 1980 Actors’ Strike, which pushed the premiere back until November. As a result, although 24 episodes were produced, four were held over for broadcast with Season Eight, leaving only 20 installments for today’s post. Because of the reduced number of offerings, I have hyphenated the total selections in today’s post, for although I think the season is strong enough to earn ten picks, it is not of the exceptional quality of, say, Taxi, the 1980-81 season of which I did a full set — because there was no way I could ever reduce. Yet, although Season Seven’s list will be shorter than the other seasons proceeding it, I consider this year of the same quality as the last few. (This will be the last year for which I can say this . . . ) In today’s post, I have picked eight 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 eight best episodes of Season Seven. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Bob Lally, and that episodes originally aired as part of a hour-hour block are considered two separate installments (as they would be in syndication).
01) Episode 136: “Marathon Men” (Aired: 11/02/80)
George and Tom compete against each other in a 26-mile marathon.
Written by Howard Bendetson and Bob Bendetson
The delayed seventh season premiere is a fine representation of what’s to come this year, utilizing a very silly premise with broadly exaggerated depictions of the characters, but nevertheless earning its laughs through the sheer boldness of its aims and the determined performances of its players. Also, the show seems to get more of an interest in physical comedy, as there are several slapstick-y bits here (most notably George on the treadmill) that didn’t really occur very often in the early years. This isn’t a fanatic episode, but it’s relatively simple, and in comparison to the four-part Hawaiian travesty that follows, looks mighty favorable.
02) Episode 141: “Put It On” (Aired: 11/30/80)
George and Tom follow the women to a male strip club.
Story by Stephanie Haden | Teleplay by Howard Bendetson and Tom Bendetson
As with the above, the characters are slowly morphed into caricatures, and the danger of this development (which most long running shows are not skilled enough to avoid) is that logic is lost. For instance, there’s really no good reason as to why George and Tom would get up on the stage and strip for a group of women. Furthermore, there’s no good reason why the emcee would let them. Why am I able to excuse this foolishness? Because the comedy is big, and therefore, memorable, and when it comes to this episode, it’s not a totally unreasonable trade-off. In fact, there are an abundance of juicy laughs here — common sense be damned.
03) Episode 144: “Calendar Girl” (Aired: 01/04/81)
George and Louise secretly enter Jessica in a beauty contest.
Written by David Silverman and Stephen Sustarsic
Regular readers of this blog know EXACTLY how I feel about babies and children in sitcoms, and my sentiments do not preclude The Jeffersons. (But that’s not really a problem until Jessica starts getting dialogue — it’s a tell-tale sign that the end is nigh.) But I appreciate this episode, which utilizes a story based entirely around the baby, because of the stellar performances of Hemsley and Sanford, the latter of whom goes for broke with some of the more theatrical beats, thereby allowing her character to further its descent into looniness, (which I think becomes fully actualized next season). As always, it’s here because of the laughs.
04) Episode 145: “As Florence Turns” (Aired: 01/11/81)
Florence imagines her life as a soap opera, parodying Dallas.
Written by Peter Casey and David Lee
Okay, there’s no way to deny that this installment is entirely a gimmick — a sketch-like parody of Dallas (which had, just two months before, solved television’s most infamous cliffhanger: “Who shot J.R.?”) with all of The Jeffersons regulars as heightened archetypes. For instance, George is G.R., an obvious take-off of the indelible character portrayed by Larry Hagman. My initial displeasure at this episode’s existence is mitigated by its undeniable hilarity, magnified most certainly by an understanding of the then HOT primetime drama. But for fans of this series, the dynamic between George and Helen makes the whole installment worthy.
05) Episode 149: “Sorry, Wrong Meeting” (Aired: 02/15/81)
George, Tom, and Harry unknowingly attend a meeting of the KKK.
Written by Peter Casey and David Lee
Here we have a return to the show’s initial promise: handling modern race issues with great humor. And, frankly, this episode succeeds in ways that a similarly premised All In The Family episode can only ambitiously hope. When confronting brilliance, it’s sometimes difficult to analyze, but the simple fact is that the power of the story (including that unspeakable moment when — SPOILER ALERT — George performs CPR on the story’s chief racist, only to have the man declare that he’d rather have died) is allowed to exist, believably, in the same half hour as logical, character oriented laughs. It’s the season’s most masterful episode, and the one that will stay with you the longest. Easily my favorite and a great representation of what this show was designed to do — if only they could have done it more often.
06) Episode 151: “I Buy The Songs” (Aired: 03/01/81)
Having forgotten Valentine’s Day, George tries to make it up to Louise with a song.
Story by Jerry Perzigian, Donald L. Seigel, Peter Casey, and David Lee | Teleplay by Lesa Kite and Cindy Begel
Frank De Vol, best known as one of television’s best theme composers, makes the first of several appearances in this episode as Sammy the songwriter, whom George seeks out to compose a song for Louise. What makes this installment work better than De Vol’s later guest shots is that he’s only a single facet of the story, and is therefore worked in with the most naturalness. Really, this episode belongs to George and Louise, and aside from the obvious humor (which pretty much has to be a visible presence in any episode I include here), the highlight is George singing his “Wheezy, It’s So Easy” song. Hemsley seems in his element.
07) Episode 152: “Small Fish, Big Pond” (Aired: 03/08/81)
George comes to regret putting on airs to gain membership to an exclusive club.
Written by Michael G. Moye
You’ll notice that the writer of this episode, Michael G. Moye, was one of the creators of Married . . . With Children (which we’ll be covering here sometime in late 2016). He’ll be a regular contributor in these last few seasons, although the trademark humor of the aforementioned series will not be explicitly visible in his work. Anyway, this is a highly amusing episode that uses a familiar beat — a character putting on airs and unknowingly volunteering to donate more money than anticipated — but does so with great humor. In addition to the strong George moments, I appreciate this episode for its incorporation of Ralph, the doorman.
08) Episode 153: “Not So Dearly Beloved” (Aired: 03/15/81)
George must give the eulogy for a man whom he had just fired.
Story by Fred S. Fox and Seaman Jacobs | Teleplay by David Silverman and Stephn Sustarsic
Another sitcom episode that looks for humor in death — the scariest of human inevitabilities! The comedy from this one is drawn from the predicament in which George is placed, as he’s forced to give a eulogy to an employee he detested, and one that he had only fired just before the man’s passing. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of big laughs in this installment, and this makes it undoubtedly one of the year’s finest. But one of the gags that I most appreciate is when the camera goes around the room and allows the audience to hear the thoughts of all the mourners — they’re easy laughs, but it’s a unique set-up for this series, and it delivers.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “God Bless Americans,” in which George tries to play up his patriotism so he will be chosen to appear on a local television show, and “My Hero,” in which George hires a bodyguard following a mugging. Also, “And The Doorknobs Shined Like Diamonds” is a dramatic episode worth mentioning for Sanford’s Emmy winning performance — but it’s completely devoid of laughs; if you can forgive that, it’s a worthy entry.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of The Jeffersons goes to…..
“Sorry, Wrong Meeting”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the eighth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!