Judge Jeff Robbins was surprised to learn Carroll O'Connor was in a series prior to Archie Bunker's Place.
Our reviews of All In The Family: The Complete First Season (published April 9th, 2002), All In The Family: The Complete Second Season (published June 18th, 2003), All In The Family: The Complete Fourth Season (published August 10th, 2005), All In The Family: The Complete Seventh Season (published October 28th, 2010), All In The Family: The Complete Ninth Season (published June 16th, 2011), and All in the Family: The Complete Series (published October 26th, 2012) are also available.
"He talks and thinks just like we do."—A KKK recruiter trying to convince his local chapter to induct Archie Bunker.
After waiting three long years for Shout! Factory's initial All in the Family release, fans are only having to wait three short months for the appearance of All in the Family: The Complete Eighth Season. While the overall presentation of this eighth season is superior to the previous release, the episodes themselves don't match the high quality of Season Seven. But thanks to a few classic installments, a terrific season finale, and continued superb acting work from the four principal cast members, this remains a release worth celebrating.
Facts of the Case
In this next-to-last season for the classic comedy, Archie Bunker opens his own bar, gets courted by the KKK, becomes addicted to pills, and watches his wife flirt with a local butcher. Meanwhile, his wife, Edith, questions her belief in God, gets a horrific visit from a rapist, and nearly becomes a star of her own commercial. And their daughter Gloria, their son-in-law Mike ("Meathead") and their grandson Joey move from next door to across the country.
If Seinfeld was the consummate sitcom about nothing, then All in the Family was the consummate sitcom about something. Or everything. Perhaps, at times, too many things. Just look at a partial list of topics the show tackled in its eighth season: Rape. Domestic partner rights. The KKK. Faith. Drug addiction. Transvestism. A fatal beating of someone practicing transvestism. The treatment of senior citizens. Divorce. Marriage. The media. And of course, using Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker as a conduit, Norman Lear's greatest creation continued to deal extensively with issues of race, bigotry, and homophobia.
That's a heavy load for any television program, but it's particularly burdensome for a situation comedy that has to remember to score some laughs while it troubles itself with the major societal ills of the day. Of course All in the Family was decidedly not just any television program, but the DVD set of All in the Family: The Complete Eighth Season does indicate that the show was getting somewhat tired.Not only were producers pushing themselves to continue to break new ground in regards to what could be addressed in a sitcom, but they were dealing with major cast upheaval as well. The eighth season would be the last for Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers, and their departure from All in the Family is dealt with in the season's excellent final three episodes. In the story arc Mike, Gloria, and their son Joey move from their home in Queens to California after Mike accepts a teaching job in Santa Barbara.
The first two episodes in the arc are played mostly for laughs, highlighted by the welcome return in "Mike's New Job" of George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley), who still owns the house next to the Bunkers that Mike and Gloria relocated to after the Jeffersons moved on up to that deluxe apartment in the sky. After finding out that Jefferson ("The only dark cloud that never had a silver lining," says Archie of his former neighbor) was able to sell the house immediately, Mike and Gloria are forced to move back into the Bunkers' home for their last two weeks in New York.
After some fairly predictable but very funny overcrowding jokes in "The Dinner Guest," the arc ends with one of the most unforgettable episodes of the series, "The Stivics Go West." The goodbyes within all have a strong emotional resonance, but none more so those exchanged between supposed enemies Archie and Mike. O'Connor and Reiner are masterful here. As their cab awaits, the emotional Mike overtly tells Archie that he loves him, while the more guarded Archie is able to keep it together just long enough to see the family drive off. Then the normally callous Archie collapses in his chair and quietly sobs. The episode—and the season—ends with a powerful extended fadeout of a silently distraught Archie and Edith, as they—and us as viewers—contemplate what their suddenly less fulfilling life will now bring. Terrific stuff.
Even more memorable is the celebrated hour-long episode "Edith's 50th Birthday" in which Edith is targeted in her own home by a rapist, chillingly played by guest actor David Dukes. This show was certainly controversial in its day and remains shocking even more than thirty years later; it's simply not typical sitcom fare to see an armed man aggressively force himself sexually on a weaker older woman, and it's downright disturbing to see such torment inflicted on such a beloved character like Jean Stapleton's Edith Bunker.
According to Donna McCrohan's book Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria, the storyline was originally intended for Bonnie Franklin's One Day at a Time character Ann Romano, but Norman Lear decided that the message that sexual assaults can happen to anyone of any age at any time would be better conveyed by casting the older Edith Bunker character as the victim. It was a brilliant decision.
Also a smart decision was the production of the second half of the program, which, again according to McCrohan's book, was only written after the cast insisted the story had to deal with the effect the (ultimately thwarted) attack had on Edith. As much as the first half hour belongs to Stapleton, the second half belongs to Sally Struthers, as Gloria insists that the suddenly agoraphobic Edith help the police to identify her attacker after a man fitting Edith's description is arrested nearby on a similar charge. Instead of going easy on her shattered mother (as Archie does), Gloria screams at her that she must help to ensure that other women are not molested by the same man. "You are selfish! You are not my mother anymore!" Gloria admonishes her mother. It's a stirring scene that ends with Edith slapping her daughter and then defiantly leaving for the police station as the studio audience, undoubtedly thrilled that the building tension has finally been released, erupts in cheers. The inclusion of "Edith's 50 Birthday" alone makes All in the Family: The Complete Eighth Season a worthwhile release.
Outside of "Edith's 50th Birthday" and the final regular appearances of Reiner and Struthers, what's most notable about All in the Family: The Complete Eighth Season is the season's major storyline, dealt with in several episodes, of Archie buying his hangout Kelsey's Bar and turning it into Archie's Place. Like most of this collection, the development is only fitfully satisfying, but the season's hour-long opener, "Archie Gets the Business," gets the plot off to a rousing start. Seeing the purchase of the bar as his chance to "be somebody," O'Connor is downright inspiring as a working stiff suddenly aroused by the opportunity to escape the crushing limitations of his dead-end job. He's also convincingly heartbroken when he realizes that Edith does not believe in him, making his resulting act of betrayal toward his wife—he forges her name on some loan paperwork—one that we (and Edith) can ultimately forgive him for.
Having bought the business, Archie then predictably finds himself in over his head. Facing the stresses of bill collectors, long hours, and empty barstools (we're told a competing bar has begun to employ topless waitresses); Bunker turns to pills to help him cope in the two-part episode "Archie's Bitter Pill." Undoubtedly the idea of Archie Bunker being a pill-popper is utterly ridiculous, but here O'Connor salvages the episodes (particularly the first half) with a bravura performance. A scene where he goes from unintelligibly stammering about new business opportunities to recognizing the seriousness of his situation marks O'Connor's finest work of the season.
Unfortunately, the weight of the plots ultimately drag down the remaining more ambitious episodes. "Archie and the KKK," in which Bunker unwittingly gets entangled with a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, is one that never really comes together. The KKK recruiters couldn't be any more stereotypically villainous if they had long mustaches that they continually twirled with their fingers. And while Reiner and Struthers get a showy scene standing up to their father (though taking his grandson from him is too reminiscent of season seven's superior "Mike and Gloria's Will"), the second part of the two-parter simply wouldn't exist if Archie would just explain to his daughter and son-in-law that his brief fling with the KKK was little more than an accidental misunderstanding.
"Archie and the KKK" is underwritten to be sure, but it shines in comparison to the Christmas episode "Edith's Crisis of Faith." In this two-parter, Edith temporarily loses her faith in God when her friend, the female impersonator Beverly La Salle, is fatally beaten. Though Jean Stapleton does what she can with the lousy script, she is reduced to little more than sitting around in a depressed state repeatedly mumbling "I ain't going to church no more" like she was a featured player on Saturday Night Live trying to coin a new catchphrase. What could have been a fascinating exploration of belief and religion instead turns out to be the biggest disappointment of the season. How big? The highlight of the hour is Mike and Archie playing with toy action figures. Which they do at length. Twice.
One of the problems pervasive in "Edith's Crisis of Faith" is also prevalent throughout the season: The cheap gag. Several of the episodes (particularly the ones, like "Edith's Crisis of Faith," written by Bob Weiskopf and Bob Schiller) feature numerous instances of Archie belching, Archie sticking his tongue out and giving someone a raspberry, Gloria smacking Archie on the head, Gloria biting Archie, Gloria pulling hairs out of Archie's body, and Edith telling long, boring, irrelevant story after long, boring, irrelevant story. The continued reliance on these cheap bits of comedy never completely drag down an episode, but they do indicate a desperation in the writing process that didn't exist before.
While none quite as bad as "Edith's Crisis of Faith," the second half of Season Eight features several episodes forgettable not only for their lack of controversial subject matter but also for their lack of laughs. But while "Archie and the Super Bowl" (Archie's Place gets robbed on what would have been a profitable Super Sunday), "Aunt Iola's Visit" and "Two's A Crowd" (Archie and Mike get locked in a storeroom) are mostly without merit, there are moments in some of these lesser shows worth looking for. In "Love Comes to the Butcher," Archie steps up his treatment of Edith when he realizes the local butcher is trying to court her. When the butcher is finally rebuffed by Edith, he enviously remarks to Archie that he has a "wonderful wife," to which Bunker simply says, "You really didn't have to tell me that." It's one of those piercingly sweet Archie moments that go a long way toward redeeming his otherwise heavily flawed character. Elsewhere, the flashback episode "Mike and Gloria Meet" is worth checking out to see an early collaboration between Reiner and guest star and future This Is Spinal Tap co-creator/co-writer Christopher Guest.
But for sheer laughs, the funniest episode here is undoubtedly "The Commercial." In this hysterical mid-season episode, Edith Bunker is at the laundromat where she is suddenly thrust into a test commercial for a laundry soap. Stapleton's reactions as an incredibly unctuous spokesperson grabs Archie's favorite Donald Duck shirt, rips it in half, and starts poring ketchup all over the ugly garment, are priceless. Add to that scene a wonderful bit in which Archie lamely tries to negotiate a salary for his wife's services ("We insist on minimum!") and a memorable conversation in which Archie tries to sell Mike on the educational merit of commercials (specifically the ones for disposable douches and margarine) and you have an episode for the ages.
Fans who bemoaned how the episodes on Shout! Factory's release of Season Seven looked should be much happier with the video presentation of Season Eight. Gone is the softness and occasional jittery appearance of the shows on that October 2010 release. The 24 episodes here—all rather obviously presented in the standard format of their original broadcast—look marvelous. The 2.0 mono audio is appropriate if underwhelming. Also improving on Shout! Factory's earlier release is the faithfulness in how the episodes are presented. On the previous release, one episode that was originally aired as an hour was instead broken down into two separate half-hours. Here the two double-length episodes ("Archie Gets the Business" and "Edith's 50th Birthday") are correctly presented as complete hours.
In what won't be a surprise to anyone following the DVD release history of All in the Family, there are no bonus features included here; except for trailers for Rhoda, Father Knows Best, and Marcus Welby, M.D. which play automatically upon insertion of the first disc. Hopefully the upcoming release of the ninth and final season of All in the Family will merit the inclusion of some extra content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not everyone perceived a decline in quality for this season of All in the Family, particularly Emmy voters. Among the lead actors, Carroll O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, and Rob Reiner all won Emmys based on their performances this season. (Only Sally Struthers, who lost to Rhoda's Julie Kavner, went home empty-handed.) Oh, and this season also won the show Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series, and Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series. Not too shabby. And after too much Joey Stivic in season seven, special mention has to be made of the fact that the producers went to great lengths to lessen the cuteness appeal of the program in season eight, limiting Archie's grandson to only two brief appearances. Long before Everybody Loves Raymond's Ray and Debra Barone portrayed parents of nearly invisible children, there was Mike and Gloria Stivic.
All in the Family: The Complete Eighth Season finds the long-running program showing signs of aging, particularly in the script department. But this three-disc set still has several classic episodes, while it distinguishes itself by being the final season to feature Mike and Gloria alongside Archie and Edith. An easy recommendation.
What, you'd rather Shout! Factory put more of their efforts into releasing additional seasons of Blossom? Not guilty.
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