Edith’s Accident (Original airdate: November 6, 1971)
Written by Tom & Helen August, Michael Ross, and Bernie West
Directed by Tom Rich
On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a very significant episode and feels more like your typical sitcom fare. Edith is late getting home from the grocery store, and when she finally does arrive, she reveals her responsibility for causing damage to another customer’s car with her cart. It’s only when Archie learns that she left a slip of paper with an apology and their home address that he blows his lid. It continues the portrayal of Archie as an old skinflint. Archie explains his frustration and paranoia as an expectation that whoever the owner is will show up asking for an inflated estimate on repairs. Edith holds fast in her view that humanity is inherently good and that they will not be taken advantage of.
This episode marks a subtle but significant change from Edith’s role as just a “dingbat” and into a counter to all of Archie’s horrid ideology. For the rest of the series, it will be Edith that approaches strangers with an open heart, gives her love without conditions, and feels the pain of loss more profoundly than any other character. Edith is the character the audience is meant to aspire to become, she is Lear’s voice of compassion. By the end of this episode, the punchline is that Edith is right. For all his buffoonish authority on the mores of humanity, Archie has no idea what the hell he is talking about.
Cousin Maude’s Visit (Original airdate: December 12, 1971)
Written by Michael Ross, Bernie West, and Philip Mishkin
Directed by John Rich
Norman Lear became known as the man behind a television empire, comparable to what Ryan Murphy has done. This episode would introduce one of the first spin-off characters, Maude, Edith’s cousin. She’s played by the incomparable Bea Arthur who was making her first top billing television appearance. Arthur was mainly a stage actress, having appeared spottily through the 1950s and even less frequently in the 1960s on television. She’s spoken about quite a bit before we finally meet her, with a backstory given as a young woman who immediately saw through Archie Bunker, while Edith fell for his caddish charms quite quickly.
When Archie and Maude come to verbal blows, it is quite spectacular. I can’t imagine any sitcom before and very few since that would be so explicitly political with conflicting characters. Archie refers to FDR as a “creeping communist” which draws the ire of Maude who fights back. She has her own barbs about Archie’s beloved Nixon. I would imagine contemporary audiences would be floored if characters on a prime time sitcom went off on each other about Obama or Clinton versus Trump.
The studio audience’s laughter feels akin to people in shock that they see characters speak about things they’d been taught weren’t polite conversation. Television before and now is driven by advertiser dollars, therefore, is often adopts an apolitical stance when it comes to entertainment programming in order not to offend. How nice it would be to see something like this played out in our era.
Edith’s Problem (Original airdate: January 8, 1972)
Written by Steve Zacharias and Burt Styler
Directed by John Rich
From the outset, we know something is up. Edith charges through the house, unable to finish one task after the other. We definitely know something is wrong when she angrily snaps back at Archie, himself stunned and silenced. It’s finally revealed what is going when Gloria intervenes and asks her mother some pointed questions. Edith is going through menopause.
Before All in the Family, CBS was known as the home of folksy irrelevant sitcoms: Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, The Andy Griffith Show. These weren’t unfunny shows, but they played everything safe, right down the middle (though Griffith had some great moments). I wish I could have seen what the general reaction was to even the word “menopause” being said on a network sitcom coming out of such a repressed era culturally.
The show handles the issue with humor and pathos. The most touching moment is how Edith is worried that going through this change will mean she’s an old lady now. Her biggest fear is that if she’s an old lady, “Archie won’t want me no more.” These are the feelings of so many women, based on our culture’s lack of openness about aging and sexuality when they contemplate the “change of life.” Archie’s biggest problem is his impatience over the issue. He’s uncomfortable considering the process and wants Edith to just be done with it already. Gloria is there to kick his ass into gear, and he eventually capitulates…well, as much as possible for Archie.
Archie and Edith, Alone (Original airdate: February 5, 1972)
Written by Tina & Les Pine, Lee Kalcheim, Michael Ross, and Bernie West
It begins with Gloria and Mike leaving to visit a commune where a friend resides. Edith wonders if after this weekend away they won’t decide to move upstate permanently, leaving just her and Archie at the house in Queens. The couple is forced into a conversation which leads Archie to say something insensitive and Edith realizing this and demanding that he says he’s sorry. Archie won’t, and Edith mulls it over and notices Archie has never apologized for their entire marriage.
Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton knew how to take the scripts, with lots of implied history in this relationship, and bring that nuance to life. Stapleton’s reactions, showcasing decades of sadness and brief flickering moments of joy hit deep every time. This is aided by the decision to have long close-up shots and exist in the silence of the moment. We keep coming back to the Bunkers not because they make us laugh and forget about the world; instead, they remind us of the frailty of our most intimate relationships. We see how callous we become and lose sight of the look of love our partner gives us. Archie may not see Edith’s glances of longing or put her down when she becomes affectionate, but the audience can’t miss a single beat. We hope we can sustain love like Edith Bunker can.
Sammy’s Visit (Original airdate: February 19, 1972)
Written by Bill Dana
Directed by John Rich
This is the most iconic episode of All in the Family with the seminal moment being the final shot where Sammy Davis, Jr (playing himself) lays a big wet kiss on Archie Bunker’s cheek. Their meeting comes about after the movie star/performer takes Archie’s taxi but leaves his briefcase in the back. Archie lets his family know and to keep it mum, but of course, Edith tells one neighbor while Mike and Gloria inform Lionel Jefferson. The crux of the episode is all about showing what an ignorant racist ass Archie is and how unaware of his mindset he’s become.
While talking to Sammy, he questions, “I know you had no choice about bein’ colored, but what made you turn Jew?” Archie continues to trip over his prejudices while trying to repair the damage of each. Another exchange between the two has Archie talking about how God put the blacks in Africa and the white people in “all them white countries.” Sammy’s response: “Well, he must’ve told ’em where we were because somebody came and got us.”
When they have a brief moment alone, Sammy asks Lionel how Lionel can stand this man, and Lionel attempts a half-hearted defense of Bunker by stating, “I mean like, he’d never burn a cross on your lawn.” Sammy’s comeback is such a perfect capsule to describe so many racist whites in America today, “No, but if he saw one burning, he’s liable to toast a marshmallow on it.”
While the plot is paper-thin, it’s the dialogue and interactions that make this such a great piece of television. The icing on the cake of Sammy’ smooching Archie’s cheek right as a commemorative photo was taken just closes the proceedings out beautifully. There’s an annoying effort to talk about “both sides” and somehow believe that being neutral or moderate on issues of racial injustice is the “civilized” way. It is essential that the racists be lampooned and mocked, the lesson being that ignorance on race is just not acceptable in our society.