Judge Jeff Robbins is sorry to report his old LaSalle just stopped running great.
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 Eighth Season (published January 19th, 2011), and All in the Family: The Complete Series (published October 26th, 2012) are also available.
"I ain't nothin' without you."—Archie Bunker to his wife Edith during the final scene of the final episode of the final season of All in the Family.
Comprising the final season of Norman Lear's groundbreaking comedy, the 23 episodes contained in All in the Family: The Complete Ninth Season are an erratic bunch, as the program struggled to find its footing after the departures of Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers following season eight. But thanks to a tremendously good Christmas episode (featuring the return of Reiner and Struthers), an entertaining series retrospective, and a string of strong episodes to close out the show's run, Season Nine is an easy recommendation, and a must-have for anyone who has picked up the previous eight releases.
Facts of the Case
In its final season, All in the Family attempted to make the transition from a socially-relevant show to a more traditional family sitcom with the introduction of Stephanie Mills (Danielle Brisebois, Big Bad Mama II), the 9-year-old daughter of the step-cousin of Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton, Scarecrow and Mrs. King), who is left on the Bunkers' doorstep by her deadbeat father. Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor, Mad About You) at first rejects the job of being Stephanie's guardians, but eventually relents to Edith, who is lonely after the cross-country move of her daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers, Still Standing) and son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner, This Is Spinal Tap).
A casting change on a long-running TV sitcom can be a good thing. After all, Kirstie Alley breathed new life into Cheers, and Mr. Furley was a more-than-adequate replacement for The Ropers on Three's Company. (Time will tell if NBC's The Office will be able to sustain itself without the brilliant Steve Carell.) But those shows had bigger ensembles to help ease the transformation. When Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers left All in the Family after the eighth season, the show's regular cast was suddenly cut in half. And the upheaval went deeper than simple numbers. For eight seasons, many of the finest moments of All in the Family were fueled by the heated political arguments between conservative Archie and liberal Mike, while the bigoted Archie was at his most humane and sympathetic when shown as a loving father to Gloria and later as a doting grandson to Joey, Gloria and Mike's only child.
For its final season, then, producers dealt with the loss of Reiner and Struthers several different ways with predictably varying degrees of success. With the loss of Mike's liberal voice, the show dropped much of its political bent, which led to a greater reliance on more traditional sitcom plots. With the loss of characters who in large part defined who Archie was, the program focused more on Edith, which led to an outstanding season for Stapleton filled with tour de force moments. And, simply out of necessity, the show expanded its cast by featuring more of Archie's Place regulars Barney and Harry, and more significantly, by introducing Stephanie.
Like the show itself, Brisebois and her character get increasingly better throughout All in the Family: The Complete Ninth Season. Her introduction in the season opener "Little Miss Bunker" is almost sickeningly cute, as she causes the audience to whoop with delight while she makes faces at Archie and crudely asks to "go to the john." (Note that for the ninth season, All in the Family was no longer taped before a live studio audience, but rather the finished product was shown to an audience for so-called "live responses" that were used instead of canned laughter.)
More annoying still is the decision to make Stephanie play off her initial abandonment like a mischievous prank rather than the tragedy that it would actually be. After initially refusing to watch Stephanie for her father's promised "two, maybe three weeks," Archie then opens the door to find Stephanie alone with her suitcase. Stephanie then flashes a maddeningly devilish grin that suggests that her and her father have pulled a "gotcha" on poor Archie, despite that fact that the Stephanie character is smart enough to know that her father has in fact left her for an indefinite period of time. (Her mother, we find out later in the episode, is dead.)
For an idea of how much the producers and writers had regained their footing by the end of the season, a comparison between "Little Miss Bunker" and the season's penultimate episode, "The Return of Stephanie's Father," is useful. Whereas "Little Miss Bunker" plays child abandonment as cute, "The Return of Stephanie's Father" plays it much darker and more satisfyingly real. In the first episode, Stephanie's father was a goof, in the latter episode, he's no more than a filthy vagabond who has concocted a truly disturbing plan to take Stephanie out of the loving, stable home she has with the Bunkers and into a small room at the sleazy hotel that he lives in (at least for the moment) unless Archie pays him off. The show recognizes that Floyd is literally attempting to sell his daughter and doesn't cringe from the horrific nature of that proposal. Furthermore, "The Return of Stephanie's Father" is Archie Bunker at his best/worst, as he points out that Stephanie's "C" in math is "wonderful for a girl," tells off some bums hanging around the hotel, and toys with Edith, once the Stephanie situation is resolved, that the two of them should rent a room. Stapleton's reaction at the indecent proposal is hilarious.
More than anyone else in the cast (OK, the choices are admittedly limited), Stapleton truly shines in this ninth season. Beginning in the season premiere with a literal brush-off of Archie, Stapleton firmly establishes Edith's independence throughout the season, and in the process also establishes herself as the brains of the Bunker household. Some of the character's classic episodes included here are "Edith's Final Respects," as Edith finds herself the only mourner at the funeral of a surprisingly unpopular aunt; "Edith Versus the Bank," one of the more political episodes of the season, which finds Edith giving very compelling arguments for some long-deserved financial independence; and "Edith Gets Fired," one of the very best episodes of the season, as Edith undeservedly gets let go from her job at a retirement home after an ill patient dies under her watch.
Edith's independence also sparks one of All in the Family's all-time great episodes, "California, Here We Are." In this terrific hour-long Christmas installment, Edith overrules Archie by buying airline tickets to visit Gloria and Mike in California, where the Stivics, unbeknownst to the Bunkers, have separated. The uncomfortable situation (which Gloria and Mike are trying desperately to hide from the Bunkers) leads to several wonderfully tense, funny, and sad confrontations; culminating in a brilliant scene in which Archie, after finding out that his Gloria has been an unfaithful wife, stuns the family by telling Mike "You're too good for her!" After eight seasons of bemoaning the fact that his princess Gloria had become involved with a liberal "Meathead," the line reveals a shocking about-face for Archie. It's the season's best moment in the season's best episode.
The sole unfortunate aspect of "California, Here We Are" is that its greatness reminds us how much Reiner and Struthers are missed in the show's final season. Indeed, flaccid and forgettable episodes like "Archie's Other Wife," "A Night at the PTA," "A Girl Like Edith" (in which Stapleton seamlessly plays dual roles, something she couldn't have done before a live audience), "Reunion on Hauser Street," and "Weekend in the Country" (the final two featuring the completely uninteresting saga of Archie's friend Barney and his habitually unfaithful wife) seem a million light years away from the edgier political, sexual, and racial humor that distinguished All in the Family over its first eight seasons.
Fortunately for fans of Reiner, Struthers, and the program's hallmark controversial nature; Season Nine features an utterly entertaining, clip-heavy 90-minute retrospective entitled "The All in the Family 200th Episode Celebration." Originally aired in 1979 during the show's final season, the Norman Lear-hosted special is not treated here as an "extra," but its inclusion certainly feels like one, especially since the special has rarely been seen in syndication.
As predictably great as the clips shown during "The All in the Family 200th Episode Celebration" are, though, the special is odd in that it is hosted solely by Lear (who pompously sprinkles endless amounts of literary and philosophical references throughout his clip introductions), yet the four main cast members are all there in attendance at the special and only come out at the end to take their bows in front of the live audience. Also strange is that, though the special aired with just three episodes left in this season, no reference at all was made to the departures of Reiner and Struthers, nor to the new direction the show had taken with Brisebois. The total disregard for the current state of the program is strange.
Unfortunately, just a month after the special aired, there was no "current state of the show." All in the Family ended its nine-year run with "Too Good Edith," an episode that terrifically and succinctly encapsulated everything admirable about Archie, Edith, and their relationship. In the episode, Edith is told that she has phlebitis, a potentially fatal blood clot, and is ordered by her doctor to stay off her feet. The problem is, Archie is counting on her—he's always counting on her for something—to help with a big St. Patrick's Day party at Archie's Place. Edith, as always, doesn't want to let him—or anyone else, for that matter—down, and it is only when she literally loses the ability to walk that Archie is informed of the seriousness of her condition. He's horrified at the possibility of living without her, and the two of them share a very sweet, very quietly powerful closing scene in which they declare their love for each other. Pretty much perfect.
After the somewhat sketchy video quality of Season Seven, Shout! Factory has done a much better job with the presentation of the final two seasons of the show. The 23 episodes and series retrospective on All in the Family: The Complete Ninth Season, all presented in the standard format of their original broadcast, look as good as they're going to. The 2.0 mono audio is appropriate if unspectacular.
It should be noted that with the hour-long "California, Here We Are" episode and 90-minute retrospective, there is the equivalent of no fewer than 27 half-hour episodes jammed on this release. Other than the clip show, there are no extras included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Yes, the show did right the ship in the latter half of the season. But what makes the first half of the season so frustrating is its peculiar redundancy. "What'll We Do With Stephanie?" is nearly a re-write of "Little Miss Bunker," Archie's friend Barney and his cheating wife Blanche break up and make up in both "Reunion on Hauser Street" and "Weekend in the Country," while "End in Sight" covers some of the same ground as season seven's "Archie's Operation," and "Return of the Waitress" and "A Girl Like Edith" both feature returns from one-off characters nobody needed to see again. Fortunately, the awful "A Night at the PTA," with a cringe-inducing musical number (made worse by the bizarre choice to have Brisebois perform with her back to her audience) is a one-of-a-kind disaster.
All in the Family: The Complete Ninth Season, perhaps not surprisingly, is a mixed bag compared to earlier seasons, and surely there are many fans of the show who wince in horror at the mere mention of the character Stephanie Mills. Sure, the edge of years past has been severely dulled here, and there are times when the marvelous creation that is Archie Bunker is reduced to a lovable old curmudgeon along the lines of Punky Brewster's Henry Warnimont or Dennis the Menace's Mr. Wilson. But fans of the program will still want All in the Family: The Complete Ninth Season for "California, Here We Are," the rare clip retrospective, some brilliant work by Jean Stapleton, and the flawless finale.
A no-brainer. If you have the rest, you'll want this one. If you don't (and
why don't you?), start with an older season. Despite early stumbles, much of
All in the Family: The Complete Ninth Season remains classic; this
release is assuredly Not Guilty.
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