Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post looks at the best from the final two seasons of Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-1983, CBS), the continuation of Norman Lear’s groundbreaking All In The Family (1971-1979, CBS) starring Carroll O’Connor as the titular Archie Bunker. The third season is the first without Martin Balsam as Archie’s Jewish partner, Murray Klein, who left the series at the end of the previous year due to dissatisfaction with his material. His presence is missed, for although he was never a great boon to the show’s comedy, the character served as a fine foil to Archie Bunker, helping to give gravitas to the bar environment and the stories set therein. His replacement is Denise Miller as Billie, Archie’s niece, who moves in with him in the season premiere and takes a job as a waitress at the bar. Although she’s used a lot in the home stories, her existence is meant to help bridge the gap between Archie’s personal and professional lives — and as a narrative tool, she works. Unfortunately, despite Miller’s above average playing, the character is, like Balsam, not a humorous counterpoint to Archie.
Billie’s presence at home as quasi big sister to Stephanie (Danielle Brisebois) eliminates the need for the housekeeper, Ellen Canby (Barbara Meek), another humorless character that was established in Season Two — primarily to illustrate Archie’s growth from being overtly prejudiced to simply ignorant and insensitive (something that the third season struggles with; you’ll notice in some episodes that Archie’s more bigoted than he was in the year prior). Meek leaves the series about two-thirds of the way through the season, along with Anne Meara’s Veronica Rooney, the cook, who disappears after a dramatic episode entitled “Relapse,” in which she falls back off the wagon (in a clear bid to score another Emmy nomination). Meara was at least a funny figure, so her loss is felt, but not storywise, since she was rarely used organically in the narratives. The same goes for the other characters at the bar: Allan Melvin’s Barney, Bill Quinn’s Mr. Van Ranseleer, Abraham Alvarez’s Jose, Jose Perez’s Raoul, and the late Jason Wingreen’s Harry. They all get about one or two episodes per season of meat, but otherwise serve as set dressing for the rest of the season.
Of interest to All In The Family fans is the return of Sally Struthers as Gloria, who appears in a two-parter that establishes her separation from Mike and her permanent move to the East Coast. It’s an obvious ploy to set her up for a spin-off, which lasted the entirety of the 1982-83 season and received fairly good ratings. In addition to the unaired pilot (which features a cameo from Archie, and was retooled before the show actually went to series, but nevertheless included in ABP‘s syndication package), I’ve seen a bit of Gloria. It’s not good, and O’Connor, following some drama at CBS over the spin-off’s creative team, does not appear at all in the episodes that made it to air. Yet Struthers’ scenes with Archie in her hour-long return help give some closure to the original series, and it’s at least worth mentioning.
However, Season Three does do a few things right; the show is more laugh-geared than it was in the dark Edith-less second season. Also, a fine addition to the cast is made in Barry Gordon as Gary Rabinowitz, Archie’s lawyer and business manager, who begins a relationship near the end of the year with Billie. Gordon is an amusing performer, and although certainly less combative than Mike, he’s a better designed foil than both Murray and Billie (whose conflicts with Archie are more surface). Additionally, there’s a wonderful arc this season in which Archie has his first serious post-Edith relationship with Katherine Logan, played by Yvonne Wilder. She’s an actress with a healthy dose of realism, and while most of her material lacks explicit comedy, she does help contribute to several memorable installments. So Season Three is actually a pretty interesting year — and while not better than the first season (which is on par with All In The Family‘s last), it’s the one that I watch most often.
On the other hand, Season Four, is a big disappointment. Archie has less to do. The show is unfunny. The ensemble is inadequate. Katherine is gone. The Billie/Gary relationship monopolizes the show, and their on-again/off-again dynamic (perhaps a response to the season’s other bar series, the recently premiered Cheers? No . . . nobody was watching yet — despite its great reviews) hampers both characters. There’s little to recommend here, and thus, it’s difficult to feel disappointed that Archie Bunker’s Place was canceled without warning. Yes, I’ve heard all the arguments in favor of giving the characters a proper finale, but really, All In The Family was long gone, and this show had nothing of great substance to conclude . . . unfortunately.
But as promised, I’m back to pick my favorite episodes. Season Three consists of 29 outings, four of which were held over from Season Two, and also includes the original Gloria pilot, which I’ve decided to count as an offering, due to its part of the syndication package. From these 29, I’ve chosen six strong episodes. Season Four has the regular 24, and I was only able to choose four for highlighting here today (and my commentary is brief, because frankly, they’re unworthy of my time and yours). As usual, the episodes are listed in airing order, and hourlong installments are considered two separate entries. (These episodes are not yet on DVD, but I will update the screencaps if/when they are.)
SEASON THREE (1981-1982)
01) Episode 46: “The Business Manager” (Aired: 10/04/81)
Archie’s lawyer makes him a hire a business manager.
Written by Stephen Miller & Mark Fink | Directed by Joe Gannon
Act One of this episode, which aired second in a one-hour season premiere block (the first episode introduces Billie), is much funnier than Act Two. Interestingly, Abbott, the business manager assigned to Archie, whom he calls “Costello,” feels like a dry run for Gary, who debuts a few episodes later. Some laughs — thank goodness!
02) Episode 53: “Growing Up Is Hard To Do (II)” (Aired: 12/06/81)
Archie and Estelle have their doubts about Stephanie’s father’s intentions.
Written by Jerry Ferro & Frederic Weiss | Directed by Joe Gannon
Stephanie’s dad returns — along with Celeste Holm, who was introduced in an unfunny Season Two two-parter as Stephanie’s maternal grandmother — in this not-at-all humorous installment. But the drama, which includes a great turn by Holm, is breathtaking, and so ultimately, worthwhile for those who have an emotional investment.
03) Episode 60: “A Blast From The Past” (Aired: 02/07/82)
Billie convinces Gary to help her spurn the advances of an old beau.
Written by Andy Borowitz | Directed by Gary Shimokawa
Billie and Gary’s relationship begins in earnest during this episode, as she implores him to masquerade as her boyfriend to reject an old annoying boyfriend (whom Archie actually likes). The pair has good chemistry, and in the beginning, Gordon makes Billie’s character actually seem to work on the series, also giving Archie conflict to play.
04) Episode 61: “Sex And The Single Parent” (Aired: 02/21/82)
Archie refuses to let Stephanie participate in her school’s sex ed program.
Story by Jill Gordon and Stephen Miller & Mark Fink | Teleplay by Stephen Miller & Mark Fink | Directed by Linda Day
This is probably a candidate for a series classic, for in addition to the consistent humor (the highest point is a scene where Archie and all the parents visit Stephanie’s school to talk with the teacher), it features a controversial topic that’s reminiscent of All In The Family‘s routine subject matter. A well done episode for all involved; head and shoulders above most.
05) Episode 62: “Gloria Comes Home (I)” (Aired: 02/28/82)
Gloria and Joey come home to start a new life.
Written by Patt Shea & Harriett Weiss | Directed by Carroll O’Connor and Gary Shimokawa
As mentioned above, Sally Struthers returns here for the first time since the Thanksgiving two-parter from Season One (when Reiner made his last appearance with the cast, and Edith was still alive). Part I is much funnier than Part II, which basically serves only to set-up her spin-off.
06) Episode 68: “West Side Astoria” (Aired: 04/04/82)
Archie makes a fool of himself at dinner with Katherine’s Puerto Rican family.
Written by Andy Borowitz | Directed by Tony Singletary
Of all the entries in today’s post, this is my favorite, for its premise knowingly addresses Archie Bunker’s roots as a bigot and attempts to wrestle with whether or not he’s really changed (and how much he still needs to change). Katherine being Puerto Rican is a great unseen beat and Archie’s bungling of the dinner with her family is very, very funny. A classic episode, and were I to choose an MVE, it would be this one.
Other notable episodes worth mentioning include: “The Photo Contest,” a fine Stephanie/Archie episode and one of four episodes held over from Season Two, and “Reggie, 3; Archie, 0,” a fan favorite episode (if such a thing exists for this series) that’s liked primarily for the appearance of Reggie Jackson, but is hampered by its mediocre comedy.
SEASON FOUR (1982-1983)
01) Episode 74: “Archie’s Night Out” (Aired: 09/26/82)
Archie and Barney accompany Mr. Van Ranseleer to a singles spot.
Written by Stephen Miller | Directed by Nick Havinga
This installment is most notable for its amusing premise, which naturally allows for laughs. Barney and Van Ravseleer aren’t comedic characters, but they have an established dynamic with Archie that plays decently.
02) Episode 81: “Archie Gets A Head” (Aired: 11/21/82)
Archie hires Jose and Raoul to build him a basement bathroom.
Written by Barry Fanaro & Mort Nathan | Directed by Gary Shimokawa
This installment actually has both a funny script and premise with some opportunity for physical comedy. Also, the always dependable Barney Martin guest stars.
03) Episode 84: “Father Christmas” (Aired: 12/19/82)
Billie is bitter when her estranged father returns for Christmas.
Written by Stephen Miller | Directed by Gary Shimokawa
This installment gets a little too dramatic, but Miller is the show’s funniest writer and the comedic parts of this episode are dynamite. (If only the transitions were a little smoother — and could be replicated on a weekly basis!)
04) Episode 91: “The Boys’ Night Out” (Aired: 02/13/83)
Archie, Barney, and Harry go out on the town to pick up women.
Written by Mark Fink | Directed by Oz Scott
This installment engages more easy laughs, especially when the men accidentally go to a gay bar. It’s pretty slow going until we reach this sequence, but kind of worth it.
The only honorable mention for this season is “Three Women,” which features the final appearance of Celeste Holm and a great guest appearance by the BRILLIANT Selma Diamond. It would have easily made today’s list if it didn’t go so unyieldingly dramatic — without the necessary humor to make it work.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another Jerome Kern musical!