TV Review – Best of All in the Family Part 3

Archie and the Editorial (Original airdate: September 16th, 1972)
Written by Don Nicholl and George Bloom
Directed by Norman Campbell

Gun violence and mass shootings are a fairly regular part of the cable news cycle at this point. Just this week three men who planned shootings in three separate states were caught by the authorities before they were able to act. It’s only a matter of time before we see another report about people out enjoying their lives, going to school, or shopping being gunned down by someone wielding highly powerful weapons. At the time this episode of All in the Family aired the nation. New York City, in particular, was experiencing an increase in violent crime that continued until the 1990s.

Archie starts complaining about a local news manager’s nightly editorials, especially his recent piece on a need for gun control in America. Mike is fed up hearing Archie rant about how much better he understands the issue and places a call to the station to set up a meeting between Archie and the station manager. After meeting the opinionated and arrogant Queens resident, the station manager decides to give Archie his own time to talk about guns as a way to show the error on the other side of the argument. Archie reliably shows what a stupid ass he is.

What is so striking about this episode is that the talking points the writers give Archie about guns, which draw huge laughs from the audience, are the same points given by NRA lobbyists to challenge gun control today. So what were once punchlines and ideological positions of humor nearly 50 years ago are now accepted as sound logic but a small portion of the United States. After watching this episode, you realize how far back the nation went on this issue over the following decades, and it definitely takes the wind out of your sails about any potential progress we might make on guns and keeping our citizens safe from gun-wielding maniacs.

The Threat (Original airdate: September 30th, 1972)
Written by Bill Manhoff, Lila Garrett, and Michael Elias
Directed by John Rich

If you were someone who only knew about All in the Family tangentially, then you might see Edith Bunker as an exaggerated cliche. However, the more I watch the series, the greater I understand how complex of a character Edith actually was. She has fashioned a prominent outward-facing veneer of being positive about everything, and she genuinely has unconditional love for her family. There are honest insecurities beneath this all, seen in episodes like Edith’s Problem, where she confronts the inevitable changes of menopause and her fears about becoming “an old lady.”

This entry has Archie hearing from his old Army buddy, Duke Loomis. Duke is waiting for his wife to join him overseas and she’s taking a flight out of New York City to get there. She’ll need to stay somewhere overnight, so Archie offers up his place. When the wife arrives, it is not the old woman Archie was expecting but a provocatively dressed younger gal. Since Archie last saw Duke, he’s divorced and married Bobbie Jo, a bubbly cocktail waitress from a strip club. 

Edith goes about her evening, still naive to Archie’s strong reaction to having such a sexualized woman in his home. Mike and Gloria know right away, and confusion ensues which has Archie believing Bobbie Jo has made a pass at him. Edith hears this and stiffens up, telling Bobbie Jo she has to leave, an action that is wildly out of character for the woman who offers her hearth to everyone who crosses the threshold. What’s being underlined here is the insecurity and fear of a particular generation of women who had to live their lives believing that if the right/wrong woman came along, she’d lose the person she devoted her life to. The conclusion of this episode isn’t a punchline but is a moment of uncertainty, of Edith feeling her worries resonate, and Archie concerned about his friendship with Duke.

Lionel Steps Out (Original airdate: October 14th, 1972)
Written by Terry Ryan, Michael Ross, and Bernie West
Directed by John Rich

Another of the seemingly endless parade of family members comes for a visit to the Bunkers. This time it’s Archie twentysomething flight attendant niece, Linda. After dinner one evening, Linda tells the family she’s going out with some friends before she flies out the next morning. Archie disappears upstairs, and that’s when neighbor Lionel Jefferson shows up for Linda. Edith slowly puts the pieces together and realizes Lionel and Linda are friends, definitely flirtatious and possibly more. She does everything she can to hide this information from Archie who blows his top when he finds out.

For the first two seasons, Lionel has taken in Archie’s casual and overt racism. When Sammy Davis Jr came to visit it was Lionel trying to tell the guest Archie isn’t as bad as he thinks. This episode we finally get Lionel having enough of it and taking Archie to task. There’s a kitchen table conversation where Lionel explains that when he was a teenager, he would just laugh at the horrible things Bunker would say. But now that he’s a man and he is really reflective of what it means to be a black man in America he’s done putting up with Archie’s crap. 

Linda adds to this by dropping the biggest bombshell. Archie’s brother, Linda’s dad, hasn’t come to visit Queens because he grew weary of his older brother’s ignorant views. In fact, the younger Bunker brother has no problems with Linda dating men of any race and has a more open view of race. Archie is so aghast by this revelation we leave him stewing in his hate unable to conjure a cogent response.

The Bunkers and The Swingers (Original airdate: October 28th, 1972)
Written by Normal Lear, Michael Ross, Bernie West, and Lee Kalcheim
Directed by John Rich and Bob LaHendro

Edith has been searching for new friends, her days spent taking care of the house, which leaves her unable to go out and socialize. On the subway, she found a magazine titled New Family and what she perceived to be personal ads for pen pals in the back pages. Headed to the Bunker home for dinner is the Rempleys, the couple that has been so taken with Edith’s letters. Mike and Gloria realize what’s going on but are heading out of the house, believing the Rempleys are arriving the following evening. They are wrong, and the visitors come minutes later.

The comedy comes from the audience knowing the truth of the situation while Archie and Edith completely misunderstand comments and double entendres from their guests. What makes it even better are Vincent Gardenia and Rue McClanahan as the Rempleys, Gardenia especially is hamming it up and bringing an infectious manic energy to the comedy. Writers Michael Ross and Bernie West would go on to executive produce Three’s Company, and this episode has the same vibe as that show, using two divergent perspectives to generate a perpetual comedy machine.

What I found so touching was the way the swinging couple wasn’t boiled down to a stereotype or presented as villains. They are well-meaning, kind, caring people, and this situation is all an innocent misunderstanding. We even get a brief explanation of how their marriage was suffering, moving towards ruin, and when they mutually chose to open it, they found a new life and their love came back more fabulous than ever. It’s surprising to see such an open-minded look at alternative lifestyles coming from an era of television we likely see as chaste. 

Archie is Branded (Original airdate: February 24th, 1973)
Written by Vincent Bogert
Directed by John Rich and Bob LaHendro

Not all sitcoms need to end on a funny note, and All in the Family was never afraid to draw the curtains on a moment intended to sit with the viewers and unsettle them. This episode opens with the Bunkers discovering that a swastika has been painted on their front door. This very hook to start our story would never pass on contemporary network television which seeks to keep advertisers happy and produce meaningless, middle of the road content that never rocks the boat. Compare the unrealistic life appears on Modern Family compared to the working-class people of All in the Family.

The writers keep upping the uncomfortable nature of this story by adding a bomb scare and eventually a debate on pre-emptive violence when a member of militant Jewish organization shows up. Mike represents the pacifist viewpoint while Paul, the visitor, tells him when you know the intent of evil people, you shouldn’t wait around for people to get hurt. Archie finds himself siding with Paul, surprising himself by taking the side of a Jewish person.

The final act of this episode ends with silence, no audience applause. Someone dies offscreen, yards away from the Bunker front porch and the characters have to linger at that moment. Everything being debated moments ago in the house has become a cold hard reality, and they just can’t process it that fast. Neither can the audiences and sometimes when the subject matter is dense and vital, that is okay.

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