Norman Lear’s breakthrough comedy ‘All in the Family’ can still be seen in reruns on some channels, but what’s most amazing is that it still holds up today.
When All in the Family made its debut in 1971, there was so much concern about its content and the reaction to it that CBS staffed a phone bank ready to take the complaints they were convinced they’d be inundated with. That mountain of complaints didn’t come. In fact, the premiere was barely noticed.
But it was during summer reruns when viewers looked around to see what else they might have missed that All in the Family, a situation comedy about a working class family in Queens, New York, received its notice.
The patriarch of the family was Archie Bunker, an outspoken bigot who worked as a foreman at a loading dock. His wife, the loving, naive Edith, often received the brunt of Archie’s rants. Their daughter, Gloria, married a “bleeding-heart liberal,” Mike, who Archie called “the meathead,” and they lived with the Bunkers, providing a constant stream of worldview tension under one roof.
After nearly 50 years since its premiere, the episodes may appear dated, but the concepts being debated back then still are applicable today, perhaps a sad but fascinating testimony to the fact that we as a society may not have advanced in almost half a century as we should have.
Here are my 10 favorite episodes.
1. ‘Edith’s Problem’
Edith is behaving out of character: instead of the sweet, easygoing, loving housewife, she’s moody and screaming at Archie for no apparent reason. When they figure out she’s going through “the change,” Archie has a terrible time trying to be patient with her.
2. ‘Archie and the Computer’
The family’s trouble begins with a computer glitch that keeps sending them quarters and ends after a computer at the Veterans Administration inadvertently gets its wires crosses and declares Archie dead.
3. ‘Sammy’s Visit’
Archie moonlights as a cabbie and winds up having the legendary Sammy Davis, Jr., as a passenger. When Davis leaves his briefcase in Archie’s cab, he agrees to stop by the Bunker household. Archie spends the evening trying to convince everyone how unprejudiced he is and winds up only proving his prejudice more solidly.
4. ‘Edith’s Accident’
Edith has an accident with a car, which is quite an accomplishment since Edith doesn’t even drive. A can of cling peaches (in heavy syrup) is involved.
Archie nearly has a conniption when he learns Edith did the right thing and left a note explaining what happened. Convinced he’s about to be scammed, Archie is shocked when he sees who’s car she hit.
5. ‘Cousin Maude’s Visit’
When anyone else gets the flu, it’s one thing. But when Edith gets sick, the entire Bunker household is on the verge of collapse. So who should come to the rescue but Archie’s sworn foe, Edith’s cousin, Maude Findlay?
Beatrice Arthur proved such a strong presence up against Carroll O’Connor’s Archie that this episode led to the spinoff Maude. It was the first time that someone not only stood toe-to-toe with Archie in his own home, but managed to put him in his place, much to the delight of the audience.
6. ‘Archie Eats and Runs’
Archie finds out the mushrooms Edith put into his stew might be part of a recall because the mushrooms may be poisonous. As the family scrambles to figure out if the mushrooms he ate actually were part of the recall, a desperate Archie heads to the hospital.
7. ‘Mike’s Hippie Friends Come to Visit’
Mike and Gloria were quick to defend their friends to Archie for their alternate views on the world. But over the course of the episodes, as the stereotypical “Hippie” movement’s ideals come under the microscope, there’s a big change that happens.
8. ‘The Saga of Cousin Oscar’
Cousin Oscar is a freeloader of a relative that no one apparently is a big fan of. But Oscar’s freeloading days come to an expensive end when he dies suddenly in the Bunkers’ guest room, leaving Archie to deal with collecting money from the relatives for a funeral and the flood of mourners who suddenly show up at his door. This is one of my all-time favorite moments:
9. ‘Archie is Worried About His Job
With rumored layoffs imminent at Archie’s plant, he’s unable to sleep while he waits for word from a night watchman about a list that’s believed to show who’s getting the ax. But there’s little hope of a quiet night in the Bunker household when there’s a crisis.
10. ‘Edith’s 50th Birthday’
This was a powerful two-part episode framed around a celebration for Edith’s 50th birthday. But everything is turned upside down when a man pretending to be a cop shows up at the Bunker household. The man tells Edith he’s looking for a rape suspect in the area, but it quickly becomes clear to Edith, whose family is next door planning the surprise party, that the so-called detective has employed a ruse to get inside her home and that he’s the rapist.
Edith smells something burning in the kitchen and takes an advantage of the opportunity, leading the would-be rapist into the kitchen then smashing the scalding-hot cake into his face and shoving him out the back door.
The moment Edith escaped drew roaring applause from the audience. Their cheers and stomping on the bleachers reportedly caused one of the only times in the show’s history production had to be stopped temporarily to give them a chance to calm down. Their reaction as she boots her attacker out the door and runs frantically through the living room and out the front door still gives chills.
That’s my list.