Drum roll, please… 2023 is the 50th anniversary of one of the best years in American history. (It’s also the 40th anniversary for one of the worst years in American history, but that’s a story for another day.) It was certainly the best year for All in the Family, the social-satire sitcom which ran for nine full seasons (1971-79) and did more to change American attitudes than most legislature. The high point of that run was the stretch of episodes in the second half of season 3 (Jan-Mar 1973) and the first half of season 4 (Sept-Dec 1973). They were loud — really loud — and riled viewers with crude language and socio-political clashes that pulled no punches. In 1973 it was the most popular TV show for embracing every controversy, framing debates through dialogue that was equal parts argumentation and ad hominem. The same controversies rage on today.
This post also honors the 100th birthday of show producer Norman Lear (which was last July, and yes, he’s still alive). Robert Lloyd summarized perfectly what Lear intended with All in the Family and why a show like this would never air in today’s age of woke purity and polarized politics:
“Lear’s method was to put characters with clashing worldviews in close quarters. What distinguishes their arguments from our current flavor of polarization, in which debate is impossible because everybody knows everything, is that they lead to (at least temporary) understanding. (And you are laughing at home, hopefully.) All in the Family began with a printed disclaimer, noting that it ‘seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show — in a mature fashion — just how absurd they are.’… The satire is spread around, more or less equally distributed. Maude and Mike the Meathead can be doctrinaire, pompous, in their liberality; everyone is an idiot sometimes. But most characters can be as admirable as they are aggravating; they have heart, even if buried or deformed by circumstance. As noisy as they could be, the sound and fury signified not so much dysfunction as health. Disagreement, the very possibility of unshackled argument, is in Norman Lear’s world a form of patriotism.”
One quibble: I don’t think “more or less equally distributed” is accurate. The show’s liberal bias is like a sledgehammer; Archie is used in every other frame as a mirror for toxic conservative attitudes. But yes, it does also take wonderful opportunities with Mike — to underscore liberal hypocrisies (see my #2 pick below) in ways that catch the viewer off guard. If I were writing an “All in the Family” series in the 2020s instead of the 1970s, I would reverse the proportion somewhat, and satirize the left more heavily than the right. The left has lost its way since the ’70s.
These are my ten favorite episodes from the twenty-five that aired in the year 1973. Watch them and celebrate them in the upcoming year.
1. The Battle of the Month (S03, E24; March 24, 1973). Surely the loudest episode of the nine-year run (which is saying a lot), the season-three finale is a non-stop argument that escalates and escalates until you think the Bunkers and Stivics are literally going to kill each other. (Well, maybe not Edith.) It starts with Gloria having her period, and Archie letting it rip on the divinely-ordained nature of a woman’s woes. His retelling of Adam and Eve is his most hilarious bible-butchery and makes Gloria apoplectic with rage, prompting her to shit on everyone in the family, not just her father, but Mike, and even (no: especially) her poor mother whom she calls a “nothing” for letting Archie walk all over her. In the bedrooms that night, Mike and Gloria continue tearing each other apart, Archie listens through the wall and starts screaming at them, and then everyone meets back down in the living room for Pajama World War 3. This is the best All in the Family episode because it’s the purest, doing what the show does best on zero plot and ceaseless yelling. It’s brilliantly scripted, though I imagine a lot of the dialogue came spontaneously from the actors. It’s hard to imagine rehearsing an episode like this, where the argumentative momentum never flags. It must have been fun as hell for the actors to perform. [Watch the episode here.]
2. The Games Bunkers Play (S04, E08; November 3, 1973). Almost tied with Battle of the Month. The Bunkers (minus Archie) get together with Lionel and the Lorenzos for a board game called “Group Therapy”; they take turns drawing cards and sharing their feelings and opinions about each other. If the other players think the card-reader is being honest, they vote “with it”; it not, they vote “cop out”. The game is Mike’s idea, but he sorely regrets suggesting it, as he gets voted down by the group every time it’s his turn. I always admired the way All in the Family occasionally skewered the hypocrisies and prejudices of the left, and here Mike is skewered sixty ways to Sunday: for patronizing Lionel (Mike basically sees Lionel as a “black person” to stick up for and make himself feel good about), for being an anal-retentive jerk to Gloria when she uses her card to ask Edith a question instead of himself, and for throwing obnoxious temper tantrums when everyone else calls him on his bullshit. As in Battle of the Month, the yelling and screaming is carried on a momentum that makes it impossible to look away, until Mike finally goes nuclear: “I thought we could have a nice game without Archie, but as it turns out I’m playing this game with five Archies, and every single one of you is worse than the real one!” Rob Reiner deserved an Emmy for this performance. I consider The Games Bunkers Play to be the most revealing episode of the nine-year run, because we see how seriously flawed Mike is, and flawed in a way that (as Lionel says) makes him worse than Archie, because Mike at least knows better and is equipped to be a better person. [Watch the episode here.]
3. Archie Goes Too Far (S03, E17; January 17, 1973). When Archie denies Mike and Gloria the privacy of their bedroom, and Edith the privacy of her diary, they get so fed up with him that they leave the house, refusing to live under his roof. They don’t depart as a unity though; they exit one by one. Mike and Gloria are as pissed at each other as they are at Archie, which of course is Archie’s fault, for exposing a love poem that Mike had written to a former girlfriend. So after 53 episodes, this is what it finally takes for Archie’s family to walk out on him. It ends the way it only can, with Mike, Gloria, and Edith each having the grace to admit fault in some way, and Archie refusing to admit that he was wrong in any way. And so they come back for six and half more seasons of abuse. The first half of the episode is the great part and very loud; the second half sees everyone making their way to the home of Gloria’s friend who’s hosting a pizza party. Archie finds the place last, and his outrage at everyone having a good time without him is priceless: Edith (wearing a kimono) runs to him and gives him a kiss, and Archie, indignant, tells her to “Take off that Chinky bathrobe.” Today you couldn’t get away with writing dialogue like that for a TV series, unless your name is Trey Parker or Matt Stone. [Watch the episode here.]
4. We’re Having a Heat Wave (S04, E01; September 15, 1973). The season-four premiere is the second loudest episode of the series (after Battle of the Month, the season-three finale), and definitely the nastiest. The racial slurs are off the scale, as Archie dumps on the coloreds, the Japs, the Chinks, the Krauts, the Micks, the Wops, and the Puerto Ricans (the one group he doesn’t have a slur for). Tempers are high to begin with in the Bunker household (with a heat wave and no air conditioning), but when Archie learns that the next-door house on his block is being sold to a non-white couple, he goes through the roof and helps circulate a petition to keep the newcomers out. Henry Jefferson learns of the petition and wages war on Archie — until it comes to light that the non-whites moving in are Puerto Ricans, not blacks, at which point Henry joins forces with Archie and his friends to keep the Hispanics away. Mike and Gloria are furious at them both, and the screaming doesn’t let up. There are so many classic lines from this episode, including Mike and Archie’s argument about Watergate, Edith and Archie’s argument about swearing, and Archie trying to persuade Irene and Frank Lorenzo to buy the house that the Puerto Ricans put a deposit on. Irene thinks it wouldn’t be the Christian thing to do. Archie: “It would be the most Christian thing you ever did. All we’re trying to do on this street is separate the white from the chaff.” [Watch the episode here.]
5. Everybody Tells the Truth (S03, E21; March 3, 1973). This is a popular fan favorite, in which Mike and Archie tell contradictory versions of a black refrigerator repairman. Mike paints Archie as a hyper-racist screaming at the guy over the slightest provocation, and with a repertoire of racial slurs, while Archie counters with his version, in which he appears calm and reasonable, and was yelled at and scolded by everyone in the family for no reason at all. Archie claims that the man pulled a knife on him; Mike says there was no knife. Then Edith clears things up with her version of the story, showing how Mike and Archie equally distorted things. I’m a sucker for Rashomon-style stories (like Ridley Scott’s Last Duel) and All in the Family is perfect for it. The guest actor (Ron Glass) is brilliant portraying three different versions of the repairman — an Uncle Tom (as Mike tells it), a rude thug (as Archie tells it), and an everyday normal guy (as Edith tells it). [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]
6. Archie and the Kiss (S04, E04; October 6, 1973). One thing about Archie is that he comes by his prudishness honestly. He’s not the sort who frowns on lewd jokes and obscene images while stashing Playboys under his bed. He’s genuinely unsettled by nudity, and so when Gloria brings home a sculpture of Rodin’s “The Kiss”, Archie loses his mind and tells her that it’s pornography and has to go. She refuses, and Archie tells Frank Lorenzo to take it back (it was a gift to Gloria from Frank’s wife Irene, but Frank doesn’t know that, and Archie lies to Frank, saying that Irene only loaned the statue to Gloria). Frank takes the statue back, and Gloria goes ballistic on Archie, refusing to speak to him ever again. The rest of the episode shows Archie cluelessly trying to make amends with his daughter — buying her a ridiculous gift, his prudishness manifesting in hilarious ways. Great lines in this episode, like Archie’s declaration that the Rodin sculpture belongs in the men’s room as a fountain, if anywhere at all. There is also the hilarious bit at the beginning where Archie keeps slamming the front door to spite Mike and show his anger. [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]
7. Black is the Color of My True Love’s Wig (S04, E11; November 24, 1973). In which Mike demands that Gloria wear her new wig when they fuck, and Gloria goes ape-shit: “I’m not going to be the other woman in my own marriage!” All in the Family left not a stone uncovered, and this was a great issue to tackle, though I suspect it would be handled differently today. As presented in the episode, the question is: Is it possible for someone to be unfaithful to a marriage partner when having sex with that marriage partner? Today the issue would probably turn on the objectification of women (treating one’s spouse as an object or thing), but in the 70s, objectification theory wasn’t the rage yet (it gained traction in the PC-age of the 90s), and indeed the writers of this episode seem to have no problem with a certain level of objectification that is natural to a healthy sex life. Pornography, fashion modeling, attractive clothes, wigs, etc. all simply highlight a particular aspect of beautiful people. The issue isn’t one of objectification but rather fidelity. Is Mike in love with a dark-haired fantasy figure? Mike assures Gloria at the end that’s not the case, that it’s only Gloria in the wig that fires his libido. The problem is less that Gloria is being “reduced to a sex object” and more that she’s being supplanted in Mike’s imagination. It’s a brilliantly scripted episode, and one of Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers’ best performances ever. Archie is in the second half, and he’s just as hilarious, offended by Mike’s fetish for conservative puritanical reasons. [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]
8. Archie Learns His Lesson (S03, E22; March 10, 1973). You feel for Archie in this one. He’s taking night classes so that he can get a high-school diploma, which will qualify him for a work promotion. In the end he gets the diploma but not the job (which goes to the boss’s nephew), but the plot isn’t what the episode is about. It’s about Archie’s revision of American history as he hates what his textbooks tell him, especially about manifest destiny, the Spanish-American War, the Mexican War, and the Native Americans. He insists that the Indians don’t vote, and when Mike says the Indians were granted citizenship in 1924, Archie says he knows that, “but the Indians don’t use their right to vote: they sell all their horses for booze and then they can’t ride into town”. The argument goes downhill from there until Mike is ready to kill himself over Archie’s stupidities. Then Gloria has a conniption over Archie’s crib notes and his plans to cheat on his test. He rationalizes cheating as being honest with himself (that he wouldn’t be able to pass otherwise), though Edith foils his plans in this regard, and he ends up passing anyway. [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]
9. Henry’s Farewell (S04, E06; October 20, 1973). A momentous episode which sees the departure of Henry Jefferson and the introduction of George. Prior to this season-4 episode, George Jefferson was mentioned by name only. The reason given in the show is that he refused to set foot in a white man’s home — especially a white man like Archie’s — and so remained off-screen for three whole seasons. The real reason is that the actor Sherman Hemsley had been cast to play George from the start in ’71, but had another acting commitment until late ’73. Norman Lear didn’t want to replace Hemsley (thank the gods; no one could have played George like Hemsley) and so he hired Mel Stewart to play George’s younger brother Henry, who would serve as the “black foil” for three seasons until Hemsley became available. This all worked out well for the show. Henry was no George but was one hell of an entertaining prelude. He ended up getting the best seasons of All in the Family (1-4), while George only got the tail end of the glory era. These two men were as racist as Archie (believing that people should stick to their own kind) and also just as sexist (holding that women belong in the home), and a lot of that mutual bigotry is on hilarious display throughout Henry’s Farewell. [Watch the episode here.]
10. Hot Watch (S03, E19; February 17, 1973). The most underrated episode of the nine-year run has a rather forgettable plot: Archie comes home with an expensive watch that he paid pennies for (not at a store, but from a guy he barely knows), and almost right away the watch breaks and everyone fears that it’s stolen merchandise. Archie then schemes to find a jeweler who will fix the watch with no questions asked. There are plenty of episodes in which Archie tries to cheat to come out ahead; in season 3 alone are the following: Archie’s Fraud (he fails to report income on his tax return for driving a taxi cab), The Locket (he tries to collect insurance for Edith’s missing jewel so he can buy a TV set), Edith’s Winning Ticket (he tries to cash in on “Edith’s” winning ticket, even though it’s really Louise Jefferson’s ticket, and not Edith’s). They’re good episodes but not exceptional… except for Hot Watch where the family bickering goes into overdrive and the dynamic between the actors yields top-notch performances. And Archie is utterly shameless. At one point he uses the watch to time Edith setting plates on the dinner table, and she’s literally running around the table losing her breath. [The episode can be watched free on amazon prime with ads here.]