Archie the Hero (Original airdate: September 29th, 1975)
Written by Lou Derman & Bill Davenport
Directed by Paul Bogart
LGBTQ representation on television at the time of All in the Family was a mixed bag of either complete absence or as a villain and predatory. It was even worse when the idea of crossdressing or transvestitism came into the picture. At the time Archie the Hero aired there just wasn’t a language in the common parlance to talk about transgender people and terms got muddled with the two groups mentioned previously. Despite the confusion and lack of education, this is a part of a trilogy of episodes that handled the idea of non-conforming gender with a surprising amount of empathy.
Archie comes home beaming with pride over the fact that he saved the life of a passenger in his cab. He performed CPR to help save the woman’s life after she lost consciousness. The woman, named Beverly La Salle, tracks Archie down to thank him. While the man of the house is upstairs, Edith learns Beverly is a female impersonator who performs for a reasonably prestigious drag show. Edith doesn’t have time to tell Archie this, which leads to his comical shock when Beverly reveals herself. The cab company has reached out to a local paper to cover the story as positive publicity for themselves, and Archie realizes this is not going to turn out great.
The way Beverly and her sexuality are handled likely wouldn’t hold up today as the dialogue around being trans and gender-fluid has developed significantly in the ensuing decades. For the mid-70s though this is mindblowing and to be featured on a show that was dominating the ratings. The showrunners felt a need to address sexuality that was outside what was typically shown on television at the time. Beverly is charming and charismatic, she’s never portrayed as trying to fool anyone, telling Edith right away about her career and identity. Archie just assumed things about Beverly in their business exchange as driver and customer, a situation where Beverly would have no reason to out herself. It was such a potent episode that Beverly would make two more appearances and continue this conversation about sexuality.
Edith’s Night Out (Original airdate: March 8th, 1976)
Written by Douglas Arango, Phil Doran, and Lou Derman
Directed by Paul Bogart
Edith Bunker is the heart and soul of this series, something I have said and will never get tired of. The best episodes are the ones that find Edith coming into her own, standing up to Archie and ignoring his repressed, pessimism. This time around, Gloria gifts Edith a new pantsuit and encourages her to get Archie to take her out. Of course, Archie gets home and rolls his eyes at the idea, expecting Edith to make him dinner like usual. This time she has had enough puts on her new outfit, and heads out to find some fun. She eventually ends up at Archie’s favorite watering hole, Kelcy’s Bar.
The best acting relationship in the series was between O’Connor and Stapleton who play off of each other so well. It’s like a more developed and complex George and Gracie Burns. Edith is the one who gets the laugh lines, but she’s not “the dumb one” in the duo. The audience always empathizes with Edith because she is the most open and loving, desiring to experience life and not giving into petty hatred.
There’s a nice reversal of power in the final act when Archie discovers Edith in what he considers his territory. There’s some negotiation with Edith that ends with the promise of taking her out every weekend for dinner and dancing. If not, she’ll be back here at Kelcy’s spending time with all these lovely people. It’s another excellent piece of evolution in the complicated relationship between these characters.
Beverly Rides Again (Original airdate: November 6th, 1976)
Written by Phil Doran & Douglas Arango
Directed by Paul Bogart
This is the second appearance of Beverly la Salle, the female impersonator talked about above. This time she is coming through town during another drag show and thought to stop in and see the Bunkers. She’s met with exuberant enthusiasm from Edith and welcomed into their home. Simultaneously, Archie is engaged in a prank war with Pinky Peterson. When Archie arrives home and sees Beverly there, he concocts a nasty plan to set Pink up on a double date with Beverly posing as a CIS woman. Beverly and Edith are both aghast at the idea, but Archie pulls the favor Beverly owes him for having saved her life a year earlier.
This is some thin ice to tread on and evokes the way trans people were often featured as villains in crime and mystery shows. Popular media portrayed them as mentally unstable and violent. Here, Beverly loudly protests Archie’s horrible prank but decides to reluctantly go along when he brings up having saved her life. There’s a twist when Pink recognizes Beverly from her posters and tells her he wants to go along with the prank so that his friend Archie can feel like he has the leg up on the game. Of course, this is a lie, and Pinky completely ruins Archie’s prank.
It’s imperative that the writers made a point to say that people like Beverly, whether they be transgender, gender fluid, or merely participating in drag are not trying to “trick” anyone. Even today, certain factions push that belief even though LGBTQ groups insistence that non-gender conforming people are very clear about who they are and how much they choose to reveal about themselves is not really a stranger’s business anyway. The antagonists of this story are Archie and Pinky, two cis men caught up in their dull toxic prank war that involves humiliating each other for the sake of an imagined social hierarchy. The prank war has moved from being mildly harmful to deeply harmful because they are using other people like pawns. The ending of the episode is incredibly satisfying and has both men getting their just desserts.
The Draft Dodger (Original airdate: December 25th, 1976)
Written by Jay Moriarty and Mike Milligan
Directed by Paul Bogart
All in the Family pulled no punches when it came to Christmas. While other sitcoms might put forward some pat and maudlin sentiments about goodwill towards men, All in the Family was tackling heavy and challenging subject matter. The Vietnam War had ended just over a year earlier, and the emotions associated with that conflict were raw in the American public. Draft dodgers, young men who fled the country when the lottery pulled their names for service, were hated by some and respected by others. This brings us to Christmas Day in the Bunker home where their family is joined by several extra guests. One of these guests is Pinky Peterson, whose son was killed in Vietnam. Mike has brought David, an old friend who has come back from Canada after running from the draft.
The audience is aware of these conflicts, but it’s not until everyone sits down for dinner that the truth is forced to come out. Then we get what is likely Carol O’Connor’s most passionate performance in the series, an explosion of emotion and anger that even the actor got lost in. He shouts an unscripted “goddammit” during his tirade which was bleeped when the episode aired and gets audible shocked gasps from the studio audience. Archie is a World War II vet who, like many of his contemporaries, saw the protests against the Vietnam War and men dodging the draft as signs of disrespect and cowardice. I think they also felt conflict because some of them would have liked to have run when they saw the death and destruction of war, but these soldiers kept going because they believed they had a duty to do so. The writers don’t want to simply write Archie off as a being wrong-headed. From his point of view and in his generation, you just served, no questions asked.
But then we get a third act twist that broke my heart. Pinky, the father of a deceased soldier, seems to be the one who will tear David a new one. Instead, he tells Archie that his point of view is wrong and that he wishes his son has dodged the draft because then he’d be there for Christmas. Pinky embraces David, whose own parents have shunned him for what they see as a shameful act. Pinky and David find a new family in each other, and a way to begin healing the wounds. But Archie slumps down, confused and not wanting to talk about it. The audience doesn’t get a resolution to our main character’s anger and dissonance, he’ll need time. And that’s not even the heaviest Christmas episode from this show.