87. "Cousin Liz," All in the Family (1977)
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.
There aren't many Very Special Episodes on the Top 100 list, and "Cousin Liz" is the one that comes the closest to being explicitly about a hot-button political issue. The Wikipedia entry on the episode says that "Cousin Liz" may have been a factor in the defeat of the Briggs Initiative in California, which would have barred gays and lesbians from working in public schools. (Does anyone remember this to be true?)
But I put the episode on the list mainly because it puts a period on the years-long debate between suspicious Archie Bunker and his open-hearted wife, Edith. As I wrote in a longer post on Jean Stapleton's character, "Edith's slow struggle to pull Archie ever farther from his comfort zone of bitterness became the theme of the series." I consider "Cousin Liz" to be the series finale, though it came near the beginning of the last season with Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers (who aren't even in this episode).
You don't have to know all this to enjoy "Cousin Liz." One of the nice things about the opening scene, in which Archie and Edith are getting dressed for Cousin Liz's funeral, is that the two characters are quickly fleshed out even for the uninitiated.
As they enter the generically tacky motel room, Edith looks uncertain but says, "It's nice." Archie responds with, "It stinks!" Archie then complains about Edith's family, giving schoolteacher Liz the backhanded compliment that she was "the only good egg in a barrel of rotten apples." By this point, Carroll O'Connor and Edith Stapleton have played opposite each other for almost a decade (if you count the unaired pilots for All in the Family), and their chemistry is so strong that their dialogue doesn't have to be show-off clever to be funny.
The episode is kind of a greatest hits of All in the Family bits, including Archie's malapropisms (he says that Jews wear "yamahas"); his bizarre theology (explaining to Edith that people lose their genitals when they enter heaven ); Edith's endless stories and Archie's "suicidal" reactions to them; and Edith's sudden realization, then Archie's double take, when they find out about Liz's sexuality.
Besides Archie and Edith, the only major character in the episode is Veronica, who was Liz's lover and a fellow schoolteacher. Her request to keep Liz's antique tea set, though Edith has the legal claim to it, is what winds up Archie and has him threatening Veronica with public exposure.
Veronica (K Callan) is a pretty low-key character, but lots of other Very Special Episodes cross over into camp by giving a guest star a larger-than-life, Emmy-bait role. One reason that "Cousin Liz" doesn't feel dated is that Veronica doesn't really get a soapbox; she just expresses her grief and lets Edith's basic decency take things from there.
And it's not as if Archie's homophobic comments need to be updated.
"I can't understand you people at all," Archie says in frustration to Veronica. "I mean, why don't you all just stop that?" When he backs down from his threats and she gives Archie a hug, he says, "There! Didn't you get something out of that?"
OK, Archie doesn't end the episode as a member of PFLAG; that would another Very Special Episode overreach. Being a decent human being is one thing, but Archie is never going to keep opinions to himself.
• I doubt CBS would have approved this story with a male couple in 1977. Unless one of them dressed as a woman and was a serial killer. Then it might have been appropriate for Kojak.
• For more on All in the Family, see my A.V. Club article "Ten episodes that show how All In The Family changed television."