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, MIKE EVANS as Lionel Jefferson, BERLINDA TOLBERT as Jenny Willis, NED WERTIMER as Ralph Hart, and MARLA GIBBS as Florence Johnston.
The eighth season of The Jeffersons, which finished as #3 in the ratings, finds the series at its commercial peak. However, creatively, the show continues to abandon logic in favor of easy laughs. As a result of this unstoppable trend, you’ll notice that this is the last season in which more episodes hit than miss. While next season is the one where I officially draw the line of disappointment, Season Eight is the last I can claim to enjoy without having to make excuses. In fact, this is a very transitional year, linking the solid middle seasons to the disappointing final seasons. It does seem to have a metaphorical foot in both directions, as four of Season Eight’s 25 aired episodes are holdovers from Season Seven, while three of the 24 produced episodes were saved until Season Nine.
Meanwhile, the cast is also in flux. In addition to the premature return of Marla Gibbs’ Florence, after the huge flop of the miserable Checking In, this season sees Paul Benedict’s Harry taking a break from the series, appearing only in the installments produced for the year prior. Furthermore, this year contains the final regular appearances of Lionel Jefferson until an ultra-dramatic two-parter in Season Eleven that acts as the character’s official swan song. (Neither character is missed, for neither one was well used.) Fortunately, although we’re far from the quality of the early days, there are a lot of marvelous offerings here and I actually consider this a fine year of situation comedy — especially for ’81-’82. 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 Eight. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Bob Lally, and episodes originally aired as part of a hour-hour block are considered two separate installments (as they would appear in syndication).
01) Episode 160: “I’ve Still Got It” (Aired: 11/01/81)
Louise’s attempt to make George feel sexy backfires.
Written by Fred S. Fox and Seaman Jacobs
Two of Lucy’s regular writers (later in her television career, obviously) pen this amusing entry that takes a routine sitcom story, in this case a misunderstanding surrounding a bouquet of flowers, and makes it work — beautifully — for these characters. The premise has Louise sending George flowers (that part is a stretch) with a card about how sexy he is, only for him to erroneously believe that his secretary is the sender. Vernee Watson-Johnson (whom you may know from Carter Country or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) turns in a fun and unique performance as George’s secretary, but this is really Hemsley’s offering, and he shines.
02) Episode 163: “The House That George Built” (Aired: 11/29/81)
George opens up a museum in honor of himself.
Written by Jerry Perzigian and Donald L. Seigel
I mentioned this installment a few weeks ago, when I compared it to “George’s Legacy,” which features a similar premise: George wants to leave behind a legacy. This particular episode takes the idea and makes it broader, as George, facing the threat of his own mortality, opens a museum in honor of his life. The plot is a prime example of the change in the series’ storytelling (Season Four vs. Season Eight), but this nevertheless manages to be among the season’s funniest offerings. Also, the theme of wanting to be remembered is universally relatable, so the undercurrent of humanity is welcome. It’s not a series classic, but for this season, it’s the only viable candidate for MVE.
03) Episode 165: “I’ve Got A Secret” (Aired: 12/20/81)
George obsesses about reading Louise’s diary.
Written by Peter Casey, David Lee, Jerry Perzigian, and Donald L. Seigel
As one of the four episodes produced among the offerings from Season Seven, this is the only show on today’s list that features Harry — and it’s Benedict’s last appearance until his return in Season Ten. The story, another very familiar sitcom premise, finds George going to extreme lengths, including rooting through the building’s garbage collection (shades of Lucy again), just to read Louise’s diary. As is usually the case with these unoriginal stories, the installment’s strength rests entirely on the performances, and everyone is in fine form here — particularly Hemsley, who has some of his best moments of the entire season.
04) Episode 166: “A Charmed Life” (Aired: 12/27/81)
George takes charm lessons to fit in with rich folk.
Written by Peter Casey and David Lee
My sentiments regarding this episode have wavered back and forth. Unfortunately, the comedy quotient isn’t as high as the premise initially promises or up to the levels that I would generally expect of an episode highlighted here. But it’s saved by the strong construction of the story itself, which is hinged upon the series’ primary theme: the Jeffersons desire to fit in among the elite Upper East Side society. And as the show loses more and more of its uniqueness with each passing season, any return to the themes of its origins is incredibly welcome. So, although this was the episode I debated most about including here, it’s ultimately worthy.
05) Episode 168: “I Spy” (Aired: 01/17/82)
George sees Helen having lunch with another man.
Written by Sara V. Finney
While some fans may have anticipated seeing the season finale (a gimmicky installment in which Tom dreams that they’re all in the Wild West) on this list for the strong moments afforded to the Willises, I believe this offering to be among the finest scripts crafted for their characters (and without that dumb gimmick). Written by the future creator of Moesha, this offering is loaded with laugh-out-loud moments — and this is a rarity for installments from this point in the series’ run — that are worthwhile and well-earned. In addition to fine performances from Cover and Roker, both of whom are underrated, Hemsley is, as usual, superb.
06) Episode 169: “Dog-Gone” (Aired: 01/24/82)
Whittendale’s dog dies while in George’s care.
Written by Mark Rothman and Jeffrey Duteil
This installment came up in the comments of a Maude post a few months ago because it features an identical premise: the lead character is charged with caring for another’s dog; the pooch dies; laughs commence. While Maude, always decidedly ’70s, commits to the idea by exploring the darker motifs of mortality, mitigated by the plot’s rotation around an unlikable family pet, this offering wants to be goofy and early ’80s — mining laughs from the outrageous depiction of the dog’s nastiness and its ridiculous death (jumping off the balcony). This is easily a funny, albeit broad, outing, but it serves as another prime example of what the sitcom looks like in early 1982 (for better or worse).
07) Episode 171: “Men Of The Cloth” (Aired: 02/07/82)
George lies to get Andraé Crouch to sing at Jenny’s baptism.
Written by Michael G. Moye
Although this installment may seem nothing more than a glorified guest star outing, as its story is crafted around the appearance of gospel singer Andraé Crouch, it definitely earns its place as one of the year’s best. Not only is there a marvelously performed musical conclusion (a requisite when a vocalist makes a guest appearance), but the script, by one of the future co-creators of Married . . . With Children is entirely comedically driven. (And you know how vital that is for this viewer!) More importantly, all of the laughs come from the character, as George’s scheming informs both the story and the accompanying hilarity. A favorite.
08) Episode 173: “My Wife, I Think I’ll Keep Her” (Aired: 03/07/82)
Amidst accusations of sexism, Louise and Helen leave their husbands.
Written by Peter Casey and David Lee
Okay, this is another husbands vs. wives show, and not only is it a staple of the genre, but we’ve seen it before on this series. This offering offers nothing new, except for the gag of Louise dressing up and pretending to be George’s submissive wife (very reminiscent of the iconic “Florence In Love” installment from Season Three, in which Florence pretends to be George’s slave). It should come as no surprise that this installment makes today’s list because it is able to deliver comedically. This is because it’s concentrated on the four principles, and because they’re so good, all the script has to do is let the players to do what they do.
09) Episode 177: “Jefferson’s Greatest Hits” (Aired: 04/11/82)
George tries to stop Florence from getting conned by a “record producer.”
Written by Ralph Phillips
Unlike a lot of episodes from this era in the series’ run, which despite some of the broad or potentially disappointing storytelling decisions, are consistently rendered throughout, this installment takes a while to find its groove and earn a deserved place on today’s list. The climactic sequence, in which George goes to confront the slimy record producer and gets tricked into believing he’s good enough to cut a record himself, is hysterical, and the sight gag of Hemsley’s purposely awful singing in the foreground with Florence beating up on the producers in the background is one of the highlights of the entire season. Funny!
10) Episode 179: “Lesson In Love” (Aired: 05/02/82)
George gives Florence tips on how to snag a man.
Written by Jerry Perzigian & Donald L. Siegel
In many ways, this installment is the opposite of the one highlighted above. For while the aforementioned episode lolled until reaching a marvelously funny climax, this offering features a strong set-up and a greatly amusing centerpiece in the story’s center, only to fall short with a pay-off that offers nothing of comedic merit. However, because the first two-thirds of the episode certainly don’t disappoint, this is still an easy outing to recommend. Also, the show knows that putting Florence and George together for an extended scene, in which Hemsley can do shtick and Gibbs can sass, is a proven tactic for producing big and boisterous laughs!
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “My Maid, Your Maid,” in which George and Louise have different candidates for Florence’s replacement, and “Guess Who’s Not Coming To Dinner,” in which Florence and Ralph get drunk together.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of The Jeffersons goes to…..
“The House That George Built”
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Come back next Tuesday for the best from the ninth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!