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, BERLINDA TOLBERT as Jenny Willis, and MARLA GIBBS as Florence Johnston.
The beginning of the end. Season Nine, the first without an audience present during taping, is an odd collection of entries. The year represents the series’ longest — comprised of 27 installments, three of which were produced and held over from the year prior — and as the season progresses, the ratio of hits to misses slowly starts to decline (and that’s obviously not in our favor). In fact, there’s a marked difference in quality after the year’s midway mark, as the show basically adopts the style that will persist throughout the rest of its run: silly stories, middling scripts, occasional humor. By this point, the show’s initial “movin’ on up” motif is all but irrelevant, so if you’re still around, it’s only for the characters. Jenny appears here and there, but there’s no Lionel nor Harry (although he’ll be back next season), so many of the stories revolve around the five primary players: George, who is nicer to everyone — even Tom and Helen; Louise, whose transformation into zany fool, which we’ve been talking about for months, is complete; Florence, whose comedy starts to become repetitious; and Tom and Helen, whose best material is behind them. With the characters mined so thoroughly for laughs, the show has to put more stock into the premises, and that means a lot of outlandish stories, many of which don’t really work for the characters. This will become even more dire next year. In the meantime, I was surprisingly able to pick 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 Nine. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Bob Lally.
01) Episode 183: “Anatomy Of A Stain” (Aired: 10/10/82)
George and Tom take a dry-cleaning dispute to court television.
Written by Peter Casey and David Lee
Generally, episodes in which friends fight are story-driven, as the means of putting the two characters at odds come at the expense of the show’s established logic. This is kind of the case here, for by this point, George and Tom are best friends (and it’s stated as such several times throughout the season), and while their feud is not an unbearable leap for the audience to make (because it remains monetary), it nevertheless is a leap — and emblematic of what Season Nine forces upon the rational viewer. But the court segment, which is very broad of course, is precisely as humorous as it needs to be, with George’s commercial aims leading the comedy.
02) Episode 184: “Social Insecurity” (Aired: 10/17/82)
Florence asks George for a pension plan, but he refuses.
Written by Jerry Perzigian and Donald L. Seigel
Unfortunately, this begins as a rather boring installment, even though it is centered around Marla Gibbs’ Florence, who is always good for a few laughs (even in the most unbearable of offerings). The episode is included here solely for George’s amusing video will, which he plays for the other members of the ensemble as a final way of proving to Florence that he has already planned on taking care of her in her dotage. It’s a laugh-a-minute, and though the jokes are certainly of the cheap and easy variety, they’re nevertheless rooted in character, and so the whole sequence works well and renders the entire episode worthwhile.
03) Episode 187: “A Date With Danger” (Aired: 11/07/82)
The Jeffersons learn that Florence’s new beau is a convicted murderer.
Written by Peter Casey and David Lee
If this premise sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it here in a Three’s Company post. (The episode in question, “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” aired two months after this offering, and was taped only a few days before this one was broadcast). I mention it because the set-ups are nearly identical: one character accepts a date with a man who another character reveals is actually a convicted murder. While Three’s Company‘s laughs come from Janet’s manic attempts to warn Terri, a lot of this episode’s enjoyment comes from Florence herself, who finds out the truth and becomes hysterical. Lots of really solid laughs here — better than Three’s Company‘s offering — and the year’s strongest outing.
04) Episode 188: “Death Smiles On A Dry Cleaner (I)” (Aired: 11/21/82)
George, Louise, and Florence go on a cruise for murder mystery writers.
Written by David W. Duclon, Ron Leavitt, Jerry Perzigian, and Donald L. Seigel
As a two-part installment based on the murder mystery gimmick (which is seldom done well — The Golden Girls‘ take was a notable success), this is an offering that I wish didn’t have to be included here. However, there’s undeniable enjoyment in both George’s outrageousness and the assembled supporting cast (a TV lovers’ dream), which includes: Russell Johnson (Gilligan’s Island‘s Professor), Bernard Fox (Bewitched‘s Dr. Bombay), and Edie McClurg (The Hogan Family‘s Patty Poole). Although I believe the first part of the installment to be comedically superior, the second half (not mentioned here) should be screened after this one.
05) Episode 190: “Appointment In 8-B” (Aired: 12/12/82)
Ralph believes George is having an affair with a woman in the building.
Written by David W. Duclon and Ron Leavitt
One of the three installments this year that were produced during the eighth season, this offering, in comparison to the others on today’s list, seems to benefit from an extra boost of energy — and I think this likely has to do with the presence of a live audience during the taping. The premise, Louise suspecting George of cheating, is tired, but the actual story, of Ralph overhearing a conversation between a runner-up beauty contestant and a man named George, and then believing him to be Mr. Jefferson, is very funny, and makes a lot of great laughs, particularly for Sanford’s Louise. One of this year’s funniest — and best written. Near classic.
06) Episode 191: “Poetic Justice” (Aired: 12/19/82)
George gets excited about the prospect of getting his poems published.
Written by Lou Messina and Diane Messina Stanley
Almost my choice for the year’s best installment, this episode was actually written by a pair of freelancers, and the fresh voice is noticeable. Admittedly, the story seems like it would be a difficult one to present with logic, as the very idea of George as a poet is outlandish enough, and then the concept of his getting excited about them possibly being published even stranger. But George has always been concerned about leaving a legacy, so when you think about it, the idea is one that actually works for his character. And not surprisingly, the poems are hilarious (“Ode to the Cancellation of Hawaii 5-0” is choice). Fresh, fun, and funny.
07) Episode 194: “My Maid . . . My Wife” (Aired: 01/09/83)
Florence pretends to be Mrs. Jefferson to make a snobby friend jealous.
Story by Michael Poryes | Teleplay by Marilyn Anderson and Wayne Kline
Although this offering features a rudimentary story — one of those false identity farces (where one character pretends to be another — in this case, Florence pretending to be Louise), the script works because it presents us with a dynamic that we haven’t seen before. And, to its credit, there are some great laughs — especially when Louise goes as Florence. Interestingly, this installment is blessed with a great guest appearance by the well cast Kim Hamilton as Florence’s old school frenemy; Hamilton was the original Helen Willis in the “Lionel’s Engagement” episode from the fourth season of All In The Family.
08) Episode 198: “True Confessions” (Aired: 02/06/83)
George and Louise’s foster son is not who they think he is.
Story by Lewis Goldstein | Teleplay by Peter Casey & David Lee
Regular readers may remember that a similar story was done in the final season of Maude, in which Maude is surprised to discover that her Ethiopian foster son isn’t black, but a very light-skinned Italian. This very funny installment features a similar twist. The Jeffersons’ foster son, Jimmy, is not a young boy; he’s a grown man who’s been working his way through an education. Much of the humor comes from the story and nothing particularly spectacular in the script, but a lot of this installment’s appeal is in the casting of Garrett Morris (of Saturday Night Live fame — original cast) as Jimmy, who’ll return several times next season.
09) Episode 200: “The Good Life” (Aired: 02/20/83)
Florence unknowingly befriends Gladys Knight at the spa.
Written by Michael G. Moye
Welcome to a series late in its run — where scripts built around famous guest stars are common. To be fair to The Jeffersons, they haven’t resorted to this gimmick very much. (In fact, they’re careful about its usage.) As a result, a show such as this, in which Gladys Knight appears as herself, is allowed to be as special as the script needs it to be. Frankly, despite Knight being a fabulous guest, the story’s comedy isn’t really that different from Season Five’s “Me And Billy Dee,” as the laughs come from Florence’s inability to recognize that she’s in the presence of a celebrity. Far from stellar, but absolutely memorable — especially if you’re a fan of the guest.
10) Episode 207: “Personal Business” (Aired: 05/01/83)
George and Louise each get broken legs in a bicycle accident.
Story by Lewis Goldstein | Teleplay by Marcy Vosburgh and Sandy Sprung
This is the final aired episode of the ninth season and you’ll notice that it comes after a string of disappointing offerings (none of which were close to making today’s list). The simple fact is that this isn’t a fabulous episode either. In fact, the entire first act is as forgettable as the episodes that precede this one. But once the story gets into its primary beat — George and Louise being confined together after both sustaining broken legs in a bicycle accident — the show comes alive. And it’s no surprise, for these performers are fantastic, and even with a mildly able script (like this), they can work magic. The scrabble scene is a gem and a season classic.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “How Now, Dow Jones,” in which George gets Florence and her maid friends into the stock market, “My Girl, Louise,” in which Louise revisits her former employer to ask for a donation for the Help Center, and “Mr. Clean,” in which George tries to do Florence’s work in only a few hours.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Nine of The Jeffersons goes to…..
“A Date With Danger”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the tenth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!