75. "Edith's Accident," All in the Family (1971)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
In 1979, All in the Family producer Norman Lear tried to reinvent the sitcom again with The Baxters, a half-hour divided into two segments. In the first, the middle-class Baxter family dealt with some moral issue (putting a parent in a nursing home, reacting to a gay schoolteacher, etc.); in the second half, the studio audience voiced their opinions about what they had just seen. The show was a logical successor to All in the Family but a superfluous one. Undoubtedly, viewers were already talking about the decisions made by characters on Lear sitcoms (which also included Maude, Good Times, and the soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman), and they didn't need a Mr. Rogers-type moderator to get them started.
"Edith's Accident" is a relatively straightforward "What would you do?" episode, elevated by Jean Stapleton's hilariously anguished performance as Edith. At the start of the episode she reveals, in typically rambling fashion, that she's accidentally dented a stranger's car with a can of "cling peaches in heavy syrup" (changed midstory to "mmm mmm in heavy syrup" after an impatient Archie forbids her from mentioning the fruit again) that bounced out of her shopping cart. "It was a freak accident," she helpfully points out to Archie.
Archie: Don't be giving me any of that holier-than-thy stuff. I didn't invent this world. You wait and see where honesty gets her. That guy's going to drive into one of those tricky garages — which is so common nowadays you can practically find them in the Yellow Pages under "tricky garages" — and he's going to turn her note into a regular sweepstakes ticket!
Mike: Boy, you got some opinion of mankind.
Archie: I ain't knocking mankind, but people are something else!*
*Jerry Seinfeld and Elaine Benes agree:
Elaine: I will never understand people.
Jerry: They're the worst!
In Archie's mind, perhaps, the car owner is merely a victim of the Law of Gravity — as is Archie, because his dinner was late and he had to listen to Edith's long story about the shopping cart rolling down the hill — and should be content with just cursing his bad luck. He assumes the car owner is as dishonest as he is ("Everybody cheats on his taxes. The government expects it!"), and he seems to be proven right at the end of the episode's first act, when Archie discovers that the car owner has run up a huge bill at a local repair shop.
"Edith's Accident" probably would be more interesting if the car owner was a crook, putting Edith in the position of defending her honesty even though it cost her, but All in the Family itself was not that cynical. (We'd have to wait for a sitcom like Curb Your Enthusiasm to portray doing the right thing as an unmitigated disaster.) Instead, we get another "turn the tables on Archie" plot when the car owner turns out to be a Catholic priest who had no intention of defrauding Archie. It helps that the priest is played by Bernard Hughes, who confusingly plays someone of Polish descent even though Hughes was a go-to actor in the 1970s for any role requiring an Irish brogue.
Father Majewski: We're a very poor parish. We have to make every penny count. What with the painting, and the fixing, and the paperwork, I hardly have time for God, much less my parishioners. Lately, sitting in the confessional, when I should be listening with patience and understanding, I find myself thinking, "Come on, come on, just get on with it!"
So Edith is triumphant in one of the first episodes to pit her view of human nature against Archie's, a struggle that would continue through the already-discussed "Cousin Liz." All in the Family is not generally thought of a "novelistic" (a TV term of much debate over the past week), but the theme holding its episodes together is one of the strongest of any sitcom.
•In other news, the ombudsman for NPR today ruled that All in the Family is funny.
• For more on All in the Family, see my A.V. Club article "Ten episodes that show how All In The Family changed television."