Ten episodes that show how All In The Family changed television
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With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD with every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
All In The Family wasn’t the first TV series to tackle controversial subjects such as racism, rape, and homophobia. What was groundbreaking about the series, which ran from 1971 through 1979 and was the highest-rated show on television for five seasons, is that it mined comedy from hot-button issues, and it explored them through characters we got to know every week, as opposed to guest stars on heavy-handed dramas like The Defenders or Marcus Welby, MD.
And boy, did we get to know the Bunkers, the family at the show’s center.
Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) was an antihero decades before the term was regularly applied to TV characters. Archie never totally “broke bad,” but he had a deep mistrust of the human race, and he tried to provide for his family by taking advantage of every opportunity he could find, including his inherent privileges as a white man in America. He wasn’t “politically incorrect” just for the fun of it, which is why so many sitcoms with superficial “Archie Bunker types” have failed. In the earliest episodes, his cynical worldview is primarily challenged by liberal son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner) and daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers), both boarding at the Bunkers’ while Mike attends college. But by the second season, wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) assumes the show’s voice for optimism and compassion, and her slow struggle to pull Archie away from his comfort zone of suspicion and bitterness becomes the main theme of the series.
With 202 episodes (not counting the 97 episodes of the far more subdued sequel series Archie Bunker’s Place), All In The Family is a challenge for the completist viewer. Power-watching the first season, when creator Norman Lear was trying to get everyone’s attention, means sitting through almost nonstop yelling and a lot of racial slurs. Our suggestion: Start a little later. Here are 10 episodes from throughout the series’ run that are essential watching.
“Edith’s Accident” (season 2, episode 7)
In one of the series’ comic highlights, Edith describes how she accidentally dented a parked car with a can of cling peaches (in heavy syrup!) that bounced out of her shopping cart. Archie is furious that she left a note with her address and phone number, certain that the car owner will file an inflated, fraudulent insurance claim. (Archie certainly would.) By now, Stapleton has caught up with O’Connor in terms of fully inhabiting her role, and the “dingbat,” as Archie calls her, proves a formidable opponent from this point on. She’s triumphant in one of the first episodes to directly pit her view of human nature against Archie’s.
“Cousin Maude’s Visit” (season 2, episode 12)
This isn’t a superlative entry in terms of storytelling or character development, but it’s a good example of the show at its most topical. Edith’s stridently liberal cousin Maude (Bea Arthur, who quickly got a spin-off—Maude—on the basis of this episode) stays at the Bunkers’ to help nurse the flu-stricken family, and Archie and Maude rehash arguments going back to the Great Depression. Until All In The Family, specific political references were rare on sitcoms, so viewers got a thrill from two characters bickering over the merits of Franklin D. Roosevelt (the “first creeping socialist,” as Archie calls him) and Richard Nixon, just as real families did. Archie’s conspiracy theories would be a natural fit for today’s talk radio; he blames the Civil Rights movement on Eleanor Roosevelt’s “running around with the coloreds and telling them they was getting the short end of the stick!”
“Edith’s Problem” (season 2, episode 15)
Archie usually rails against social change, but in this episode, he’s no better at coping with the “change of life.” Edith is going through menopause, which gives her hot flashes and also lets out, in short bursts, all the pent-up frustrations she has with Archie. She even throws one of his favorite insults back, telling him to “stifle!” Stapleton is riotously funny but always believable. Archie, of course, longs for the day when women’s “interior problems” were not discussed: “If you’re gonna have the change of life, you gotta do it right now! I’m gonna give you just 30 seconds. Now, come on, change!” Lots of formerly taboo plots became sitcom standards after All In The Family tried them, but menopause has remained mostly untouched—partly because it would be so hard to match Burt Styler’s script, which earned the first of the show’s three Emmys for writing.
“The Threat” (season 3, episode 3)
The realistic way All In The Family examines the Bunkers’ marriage remains one of the show’s most pleasantly surprising elements, especially considering the shopworn “battle of the sexes” approach of Till Death Do Us Part, the British sitcom on which it’s based. In this episode, Archie, usually the epitome of sexual repression, is titillated by a young woman (the trophy wife of an old friend) who’s staying at the Bunkers’. Even more unsettlingly, the situation tests Edith’s usual sunniness and hospitality, for once making her the Bunker who is suspicious of an outsider.
“The Bunkers And The Swingers” (season 3, episode 7)
Michael Ross and Bernie West, who co-wrote this episode with Lee Kalcheim, went on to become executive producers of Three’s Company, and the Emmy-winning script for this all-out sex farce could have easily been adapted for that sitcom. Edith, taking the Suzanne Somers role, naively answers a personal ad from a couple seeking “new friends.” They turn out to be spouse-swappers, played with sweet sleaziness by Vincent Gardenia and Rue McClanahan (later Blanche on The Golden Girls).
“Archie Is Branded” (season 3, episode 20)
As if their house had been picked up and dropped into a war-torn country during the night, the Bunkers wake up one Sunday to discover a swastika painted on their front door. In this episode, reminiscent of The Twilight Zone, the Bunkers and Stivics are the inadvertent target of an anti-Semitic terrorist group, and Archie finds common ground with a Jewish vigilante who takes an “eye for an eye” approach to violence. The episode is distinguished by its disturbing (and Rod Serling-esque) conclusion, but the first half makes it one of the show’s funniest entries, thanks to Archie’s attempts to cover up the vandalism and the havoc caused by Edith’s ill-timed effort to bake a cake.
“Gloria Sings the Blues” (season 4, episode 22)
This is another episode that nearly recalls Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage, but this time, it’s Gloria who’s going through a crisis, suddenly seeing Mike as “a stranger.” By now, Edith has transcended her dingbattery to become a source of comic wisdom, and she tells Gloria of the time she looked at Archie and had a similar experience: “I didn’t know him. And what’s worse, I didn’t want to know him.” Meanwhile, in a funny counterpoint scene, Archie insists that Mike put on his socks and shoes the “right” way, underscoring how his unshakable certainty about even the most trivial matters helps to banish difficult questions from his mind.
“Edith’s Night Out” (season 6, episode 24)
Cheers may be the reigning sitcom set in a bar, but it never matched “Edith’s Night Out” in showing the transformative effect of a night at the neighborhood watering hole. After Archie once again insists on staying in to watch TV, Edith goes on her own to Kelcy’s bar, and her genial nature makes her the life of the party. Archie shows up and is shamed into taking Edith out to dinner and making plans for the next Saturday night. But the newly empowered Edith tells the crowd at the bar that if Archie reneges, “I’ll be back!” This is a sweet episode that, typically, remains funny because of O’Connor and Stapleton’s sharp performances. Its moral—that you’re never too old to come out of your shell—is the basis for a lot of sentimental movies, but it rarely works as effectively as it does here.
“Cousin Liz” (season 8, episode 2)
“Cousin Liz” puts a period on the years-long debate between suspicious Archie and open-hearted Edith. She shames Archie away from blackmailing a lesbian schoolteacher by simply saying, “I can’t believe you’d do anything that mean.” He finally trusts her judgment—as opposed to pushing forward only to have his reactionary views blow up in his face, which happens in many early episodes. The episode, for which a quartet of writers won an Emmy, is kind of a greatest hits of All In The Family bits, featuring Archie’s malapropisms (he says that Jews wear “yamahas”), his bizarre theology (explaining to Edith that people lose their genitals when they enter heaven), and Edith’s penchant for endlessly rambling stories.
“Two’s A Crowd” (season 8, episode 16)
Archie has bought Kelcy’s and moved up to the entrepreneur class, so he can finally do things his way. In this bottle episode, Mike accidentally locks himself and Archie into the bar’s storeroom for the night, so they get drunk and share secrets and insults. (“I am not the one who sponged off of me for five years and didn’t earn nothing but the name of Meathead!”) Most strikingly, Archie essentially admits that he inherited racist attitudes from his own father—and says it would be a betrayal to change them. (“How can any man who loves you tell you anything that’s wrong?”) Though not the official finale, this is a fitting capstone for the series. All In The Family’s ninth and final season, without Mike and Gloria, is the broken chips at the bottom of the bag—tasty but not worth eating until there’s nothing else left.
And if you like those, here are 10 more:
“Meet The Bunkers” (season 1, episode 1); “The Saga Of Cousin Oscar” (season 2, episode 1); “Flashback: Mike Meets Archie” (season 2, episode 5); “Archie And Edith Alone” (season 2, episode 19); “Sammy’s Visit” (season 2, episode 21); “Lionel Steps Out” (season 3, episode 5); “Archie In The Cellar” (season 4, episode 10); “Edith’s Friend” (season 5, episode 22); “The Draft Dodger” (season 7, episode 13); “Edith’s 50th Birthday” (season 8, episode 3)
Availability: The complete run of the series is on DVD, with a box set due for release in October. As of now, most episodes are posted on YouTube, with a rotating selection of episodes streaming on Hulu.
Next time: In the not-too-distant future/ as in right next week/ a guy named Erik Adams/ will tell you which Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes to watch. (Sorry. We couldn’t make that one scan.)