Cousin Liz (Original airdate: October 9, 1977)
Written by Barry Harman, Harve Brosten, Bob Weiskopf, and Bob Schiller
Directed by Paul Bogart
Yet another cousin is introduced, this one has passed away off-screen. She’s from Edith’s side of the family, so she and Archie schlep out of Queens to attend the funeral and reception afterward. Liz was never married and had no children. Her closest relationship was with her friend and roommate Veronica. Veronica is deeply distraught over her loss and eventually confides in Edith that she and Liz were not roommates but partners, living as a married couple. Edith is stunned at first but quickly accepts this idea, telling Veronica she will let her keep a tea set that was initially bequeathed to Edith. Mrs. Bunker has immediate empathy and doesn’t see Liz and Veronica’s love as any different than she and Archie’s.
Of course, Archie, who is interested in the monetary value of the tea set, does not exercise the same level of understanding. He’s outraged first at a relationship he doesn’t agree with, and more importantly, Archie wants that tea set so he can sell it. The threat to sue comes out, and Veronica implores him not to. She’s a public school teacher, and they would take her job if they found she was gay. Eventually, Edith exercises her will over Archie’s and he backs down, only pocketing a spoon.
This was an episode of television that may actually have an impact on the real world. In November of 1978, the Briggs Initiative was up for a referendum in California. If passed, it would have required public schools in the state to immediately fire all openly LGBTQ teachers and staff, keeping others in the closet out of fear of what would happen to them. The night before the vote CBS intentionally reaired this episode with the intent to persuade California voters to rethink their support of the Briggs Initiative. There was a groundswell of opposition that was supported by then-San Francisco councilmember Harvey Milk, President Jimmy Carter, and even former California governor Ronald Reagan. The impact of “Cousin Liz” was likely smaller compared to those names speaking out, but we can’t forget what a ratings powerhouse All in the Family was. It shaped and guided discourse in homes throughout America so reairing this episode likely influence some voters.
Edith’s 50th Birthday (Original airdate: October 16, 1977)
Written by Bob Weiskopf & Bob Schiller
Directed by Paul Bogart
I can’t get over how irrelevant so much of the modern sitcom landscape feels when paralleled with what is happening in people’s lives day-to-day. It reminds me of sentiments I’ve read from filmmakers looking at the landscape of Holywood in the late 1960s with its disconnect from social upheaval. That led to a cinematic revolution in the 1970s, one of the best decades of film this nation has ever seen. Maybe we’ll see that in a few years on tv? In the meantime, the modern sitcom is dead on arrival. Take the #metoo movement, for instance. A show like Modern Family with as many prominent female cast members that it has will never tackle that issue. Statistically, at least one of the women on that show should have experienced at least some time of sexual harassment or assault. With a name like Modern Family, it is devoid of any connection to what modern families and people face in our era.
Jump back to 1977 with an episode about Edith celebrating her 50th birthday. She has the natural apprehensions that come with aging. She’s unaware of the surprise party being planned next door at Mike and Gloria’s. Archie slips out to help with the set-up which leaves Edith home alone. A knock at the door. A man presents a police badge and asks if he could step in to ask some questions. He explains there is a rapist in the neighborhood they are looking for. Edith quickly realizes this is no cop and he’s the rapist. What follows is twenty minutes of harrowing television as a woman the audience has come to love and cherish tries desperately not be victimized by this gun-wielding monster. Some quick thinking leaves the rapist with scalding burns on his face from food prep Edith has in the kitchen, and she escapes to Mike and Gloria’s.
The second half of this hour-long episode has the attacker departed from the house. The rest of the family is reeling over how to help Edith and process what happened. As for Edith, she is receding into a cocoon, scared of being alone or going outside. The rapist’s threats to kill Edith and her family have burrowed into her psyche, and she is terrified despite what anyone else might say to assuage her. We get a great example of what not to do from Archie who continually says “I” when talking about Edith and her emotional state. Much like when she went through menopause, Archie just wants everything to go back to how it was. He is obviously insensitive, but in his own way, he loves Edith and wants to see her as the guiding light of their home again. Without ever admitting it Archie knows that without Edith he is broken and would wither away.
The writers at the time may have thought that Gloria’s final speech to her mother in the third act was a positive way to talk to a sexual assault survivor, but it hasn’t aged well. Gloria chastises her mother for not going to the police out of fear of the rapist’s retribution, especially when a suspect has been brought in but they need her to examine a line-up. Gloria uses the point of view that it is Edith’s responsibility to stop this man from hurting another woman. I definitely get Gloria’s perspective, an earlier episode had her facing an assault of her own. However, you should never but that sort of emotional burden on top of the trauma an assault survivor has suffered. There’s never talk of Edith seeing a therapist about this or having some kind of way to constructively process. But that is most definitely the product of the time and the stigma that still lingers with therapy. You’re weak if you need professional emotional support, according to a particular segment of the populace.
This is not a perfect example of how to talk about sexual assault and rape on a mainstream network sitcom, but it is a damn powerful one. I can only imagine how, handled with some more sensitivity in our era where thinking has evolved further about trauma and assault, a crucial episode of television could be made about an experience that every 1 out of 4 women in America have had. I personally think it’s wrong that the only place where this gets discussed is in the often exploitative realm of TV detective dramas. If sitcoms are intended to be a slice of life takes on families and communities when we need to address something so many parts of those have faced.
Edith’s Crisis of Faith (Original airdates: December 18 & 25, 1977)
Written by Erik Tarloff, Bob Weiskopf, Bob Schiller, Mel Tolkin, and Larry Rhine
Directed by Paul Bogart
Beverly la Salle returns for one last visit, all too brief in my opinion. She’s spending Christmas with the Bunkers, having become an even closer member of the family since we last saw her. Edith has also been collecting articles in a scrapbook about the drag shows Beverly has been a part of. There is an aching tender moment in the kitchen where Beverly confesses that she loves Edith like a sister. Edith replies, “And I love you like a sister…I mean brother…oh, whatever” and embraces her. Even Edith, growing up in a stiflingly conservative community realizes that if she gets the nouns wrong it’s her love and empathy that count the most, and she’s going to keep trying to get them right.
Beverly doesn’t have anyone to spend Christmas with; it’s implied this is another case of someone being pushed out of their home by a family that can only see them as Other. There are plans to have a big holiday dinner; in the meantime, Mike walks Beverly to a cab. Then the tragic happens, off-screen Mike and Beverly are assaulted by muggers, but things turn even worse when they realize that Beverly is LGBTQ. Later, recovering in the hospital, Mike tells Gloria the awful story. Archie and Edith receive news that Beverly is dead. Edith is broken.
It’s only later, at home as the Bunkers sit in the stunned silence of this horrible event that Gloria mentions that it’s so horrific Beverly was killed just for being “different.” The camera lingers on Edith’s face, a shock coming over it. Without saying a word, we understand what she is processing, arising out of her often naive sense of life, Edith realizes that Beverly’s sexuality is what led to her being killed. Because of the holiday, Edith is heading off to a special mass but stops on the porch, clutching her purse. This is where Archie and Gloria find her and Edith finally lets everything out.
Edith cannot fathom how a god she has been taught is love, and caring could allow someone like Beverly to be killed. She sees no reason or purpose in this act, it is meaningless and done without logic. Beverly is her sister, and she is furious with God for allowing this horror to take place. The second half of this Christmas episode has Edith’s typical cheer gone, and Archie is once again focused on how this affects his enjoyment of the season. It’s not until Mike takes Edith back to the kitchen during Christmas dinner that we start to move towards a rather rushed finale. Despite the time constraints to wrap things up, the talk Mike gives is beautiful. He explains to Edith that the people in the world who are struggling and frightened need people like Edith. People like Edith are lights that save these people who are tossed aside by the uncaring and unfeeling. This turns things around, and Edith slowly comes back to her old self.
There’s a glaringly problematic aspect to this two-parter, and that is the death of an LGBTQ character trope that’s used to help a cis person grow and learn. It’s a gross plot device that turns LGBTQ people into gears in a story machine rather than allows them to be fully-realized people. Is this better than how non-cis people were being shown on the rest of the television landscape? Oh, hell, yes. Soap is the only other show from this era that I know of, that had a recurring gay character that wasn’t presented as a collection of camp stereotypes or as a psycho killer. I think Beverly’s death was a crucial moment in the series as a way to be honest about the fate of so many LGBTQ people then and now. But, I wanted so much more of Beverly, and three episodes were not nearly enough. Actor Lori Shannon was an openly gay female impersonator who was famous around the drag scene in San Francisco. Lori is one of these larger than life personas but kept grounded in the scripts of the show. Shannon passed away from a heart attack in 1984, but I really wish we had gotten so much more of Beverly in this show.
Two’s A Crowd (Original airdate: February 12, 1978)
Written by Phil Sharp
Directed by Paul Bogart
In this season, the scope of All in the Family grew, with Archie purchasing his favorite bar, renaming it to Archie’s Place. This is a bottle episode, a type of entry in a series where, to save money, we have about two actors in a closed location. Bottle episodes happen when producers are budgeting near the end of a season. A recent famous bottle episode was Breaking Bad’s “Fly.” It’s a commonplace for these to highlight a core relationship in the series. We have two central characters trapped together and talking so we can create a new paradigm of understanding.
Archie is closing up the bar with help from Mike when they get locked in the cooler. Archie is furious with Mike for doing this, launching his expected barb of “Meathead.” An important reminder is that Archie was based on creator Norman Lear’s own father. Hyman “Herman” Lear was a traveling salesman that spent time in prison for selling scam bonds. Herman called his wife “dingbat,” and Norman got Mike’s label of “meathead.” While Lear didn’t write or direct this episode, it seeks to explore the psyche of Archie Bunker. While it likely doesn’t line up one for one with Herman Lear, I suspect the men who wrote this show grew up with father’s very similar to Norman’s.
Archie was never going to change, people like Archie rarely do. They especially don’t change when confronted by loved ones trying to debate them into new ways of thinking. Archie is exhausted by Mike at this point, they’ve been arguing for going on a decade, and he just wants to sit and let the hours pass until they get resued in the morning. Mike wants to talk, though, and the conversation becomes about Archie’s father.
We get an anecdote about Archie’s childhood nickname of “Shoebootie.” This comes from the fact that his family was so poor at one point as a child he had to wear one shoe and one boot because that was the only footwear available. Through a seemingly innocuous story about the Great Depression, we start to open the door on Archie’s personal trauma. From there, Archie talks about how important his father was in his life, admitting the man is the reason why he thinks the way he does now. Archie talks about how he got beat up for using the n-word as a kid but tries to excuse it as something accepted at the time, his dad said it all the time. Mike interjects that he has called out his own father for using that language and asks Archie if he ever thought his dad might be wrong.
“My father was wrong!? Let me tell you something… You’re supposed to love your father because your father loves you. And how could any man that loves you tell you anything that’s wrong?”
It’s hard even typing this out because of my own trauma from being raised by an emotionally abusive and intolerant father. I haven’t communicated with him in eleven years and don’t feel bad about that, having that toxicity out of my life is a good thing. At the same time, there is an expectation as a child that your parents are there to help you transition into adulthood with a strong character and a sense of caring about the world. Even as an adult, I have felt envious when watching from the outside and seeing parents and children who at least appear to have a positive, loving relationship that I will never have.
The showrunners, creative talent, and fans often view this as the unofficial series finale, and it is the episode you should end on. Everything this show was about culminates in Carol O’Connor’s wrenching performance of a man whose entire life was driven by fear put into him by the one person he should have been able to trust. Fueled by the alcohol they are drinking for comfort, Archie tells an even worse story about his father locking him in a closet for seven hours to “teach him a lesson.” The parallels for Mike are apparent, his clumsiness that ended up putting him as close to Archie as he could get has taught him a lesson. Archie passes out from the exhaustion of work and the alcohol. Without a word, we see in Mike’s eyes that he understands now, that Archie is just as broken as everyone else. The duo has been using a dirty tarp as a blanket, and Mike tucks Archie in, gazing down at him like the loving father he never had. We fade to black.
I hope one day we have a show as necessary, influential, and still as funny as All in the Family was. There were many spinoffs, but I expected that as good as they were nothing can top the original. Norman Lear is a national treasure, and he’s still with us at 97. He’s recently produced the Netflix reboot of his sitcom One Day at Time, another show focusing on working-class people, this time a Latina single mother. If anyone of us should be gifted with immortality, let it be Lear who defies the stereotypes of close-minded elders. He’s old enough to be my great-grandfather and is still more progressive and leftist than my parents.
Caroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton left us in 2001 and 2013, respectively. Oh, how I have grown to love them both. These are sort of performers that make drama and theater so invigorating. They were unafraid to go where ever the story and characters needed them to be. As a result, Archie and Edith are two of the most real characters I’ve ever seen on television. I know there have been attempts at doing live remakes recently, but I just can’t imagine anyone else doing as good a job.
The good thing about only watching Best Of episodes is I still have nearly 150 episodes I haven’t seen yet that I can visit whenever I feel the urge to see what the Bunkers might be up to. If you have never watched this series, I cannot recommend it highly enough, it is the sort of thing that feeds the soul with what it truly needs.