TV Review – Best of All in the Family Part 4

Archie and the Computer (October 27th, 1973)
Written by Lloyd Turner & Gordon Mitchell and Don Nicholl
Directed by John Rich and Bob LaHendro

The story here may seem relatively familiar and, while I don’t know the exact chronology, I wouldn’t be surprised if the underlying structure had been done in other shows already at this time. It has undoubtedly been done since. Edith reveals that a computer error has been sending her a continuous rebate for a single grocery purchase and she’s been collecting the quarters in an old cigar box. Being such a good-hearted person, Edith feels guilty about this and refuses to spend the money. When Archie finds out, we see his miserly tendencies come out. The tables are flipped when a letter arrives at the Bunker home declaring Archie deceased, and he has to deal with the ensuing problems. 

Society’s relationship with computers was slightly different at this time. The first home computer wouldn’t be released until 1977. Computer technology was mainly something large corporations or the government used to keep track of inventory and money. The anxieties associated with allowing so many vital aspects of everyday life to be controlled by machines is still present today, though morphed slightly. If All in the Family were made today, I’d expect an episode in this vein about social media or identity theft, sending Archie into a revolving door of banks and online services trying to iron everything out. 

The Games Bunkers Play (November 3rd, 1973)
Written by Susan Perkis Haven, Dan Klein; Michael Ross, and Bernie West
Directed by John Rich and Bob LaHendro

This is one of my personal favorites of this watch-through because it goes much more in-depth with the Mike character and really gives him multiple dimensions. For the majority of the series, we’re meant to side with Mike on most every disagreement with Archie, though the writers don’t hesitate to show Mike is a bit of an ass when he dismisses Gloria’s opinion. In this particular episode, Archie goes out to the bar while Mike, Gloria, and Edith entertain their neighbors the Lorenzos after dinner with a new board game. Mike has brought the game, “Cop Out” to the table and is exuberant about playing. He tells everyone it’s an adult group therapy game centered on being completely honest. Lionel arrives a bit later to also join the game.

As the gameplay goes on, the players focus most of their honesty in talking about Mike and how they feel about him. This gets under Mike’s skin, and he tries to say they aren’t playing the game correctly. He expected everyone to have negative thoughts to share about Archie. Mike assumes he’ll have an ally in Edith and the two have an aside in the kitchen where the matriarch of the family shows some incredible wisdom, always challenging Archie’s label of “dingbat.” Edith tells Mike that he shows the same level of intolerance and lack of empathy for Archie that he is always decrying his father-in-law about. Mike tries to elicit her sympathy, but Edith just doesn’t buy it, and Mike is left to ponder the way he approaches his relationship with Archie.

What I love about this episode is the intent to spend a half-hour deconstructing Mike without it being a dismissal of his leftist ideology. Lear and company were bleeding hearts, but they also understood that humans exist beyond labels. This is why they will give us sympathetic insight into Archie occasionally and makes sure to keep Mike grounded, not letting his ego take over. Rob Reiner does a magnificent job as the increasingly manic and upset Mike throughout this episode.

Archie in the Cellar (November 17th, 1973)
Written by Don Nicholl
Directed by John Rich and Bob LaHendro

Where we had very little Archie in the last episode, here we get one that is almost exclusively Archie. He’s left alone at home when Mike and Gloria are out of town for the weekend, and Edith is going to visit a cousin. Mrs. Lorenzo has installed a mechanism on the cellar door to help close it when the Bunkers forget and keep the draft out of the upstairs. Archie doesn’t remember this and goes down to fetch something, becoming locked in the cellar. He eventually finds a bottle of vodka, a gift from a birthday passed, and a tape recorder. The weekend involves him drunkenly confessing things into the recorder and hallucinating his family.

This is actor Carroll O’Connor’s showcase, a stage actor before making his name as a character player on television. You can see O’Connor stage chops coming out as this is essentially a one-man one-act play. He can do so much with his dialogue while having no one to play off of, a great example of the post-War renaissance in the theater that gave movies and television so many great performers. As much as O’Connor disagreed with the ideas and thoughts of Archie, he still loved the person. So many actors who have played roles that contrast heavily with their personal beliefs talk about spending time finding points of love about these otherwise awful people. This episode is a beautiful example of humanity; someone like Archie hides away and only lets out when they are alone.

Gloria Sings the Blues (March 2nd, 1974)
Written by Michael Ross and Bernie West
Directed by John Rich

A modern sitcom would rarely have a plot that focused on characters over trope-y television stuff. The entire story of this episode can be summed up as “Gloria feels depressed, and the family members try various ways to help her, with Edith ultimately doing the best job of helping her daughter feel a bit better.” There’s a lot about this episode that made me think about Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. A particular scene in the middle of the episode has Archie talking to Mike in the young couple’s bedroom, trying to give pathetic advice for Mike to help cheer up his wife.

This conversation comes to a screeching halt when Archie notices the way Mike puts on his shoes and socks. Mike puts on one sock, then a shoe, then the next sock and shoe. Archie cannot continue with his previous thoughts and is so mind-boggled as to why his son-in-law would do this. This scene came out of the fact that Rob Reiner actually did this in real life and it drove people on the set crazy. This is such a “show about nothing” moment, an organic pause in the overall story to comment on how humans are so fixated on the normalcy of minutiae. 

Add on top of this the existential ennui Gloria expresses, telling Mike she looks at him and doesn’t recognize him some times, seeing some strange man. She’s been married to Mike for four years at this point, still living with her parents, seemingly trapped in a cycle of existence. It’s perfectly normal for marriages to experience these ebbs and flows, the need to rediscover why you are still a couple. Television sitcoms just didn’t talk about these things before All in the Family. Gloria doesn’t find a silver bullet remedy by the end of the episode, just some comfort from her mother who expresses that she’s felt the same things over time and still from time to time, feels disconnected from Archie. She tells Gloria that in time she will simply “get over it” and that’s that. The show doesn’t try to tie up the conflict in a neat bow but just lets it linger. The situation is normal, and one way or another, people work past it or relationships end.

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