59. "The Saga of Cousin Oscar," All in the Family (1971)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 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.
If The Dick Van Dyke Show had been on the air a few years later than it was, it probably would have gotten around to an episode about an inconvenient or bizarre death (brother Stacey attacked by a giant woodpecker?) and set the template for this kind of story. Instead, the topic became low-hanging fruit for All in the Family, which grabbed it for the start of its second season. So "The Saga of Cousin Oscar" became the forerunner for "Chuckles Bites the Dust" on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, "Death of a Fruitman" on The Bob Newhart Show, the episode where Maude snatches a broach off a body in a casket, and other mildly shocking 1970s sitcom episodes. (It also predates "The Kipper and the Corpse" on Fawlty Towers, but British sitcoms are so dark that I assume someone else did a drop-dead episode first.)
The death of Cousin Oscar, whom we never see, is more mysterious than bizarre, but the bits of information we get about him conjure up a fairy-tale ogre: He's tall and red-haired, with big earlobes and warts on his right hand; he liked to push Archie to the ground and sit on his face when they were children; and he seems to spend most of his stay at the Bunkers' either in bed or in the bathroom. Just when Archie decides to throw him out of the house, he expires somewhere upstairs (Archie mentions an attic, but in other episodes there's no spare room in the house), and the Bunkers are stuck with his funeral arrangements.
With the 1963 expose The American Way of Death still in the public consciousness, it was invitable that All in the Family would take a few shots at the "bereavement industry." Here's Archie dealing with an unctuous funeral director trying to sell a "Patriot" casket with red-and-white-and-blue bunting and an American flag "facing the deceased":
Archie: Whitehead, spare us the stained-glass language. (to Mike) What was you saying?
Mike: I just think this whole thing is barbaric. It's like some kind of circus.
Archie: You said it! And I'm the clown in the middle ring!
I don't know if Carroll O'Connor submitted this episode for Emmy consideration, but it's notable that he won a Best Actor award for this season after losing to The Odd Couple's Jack Klugman the previous year (while Jean Stapleton and the series itself won awards). The glimpses of Archie's more redeeming qualities, after a freshman season that established him as a troglodyte, probably helped with voters. And in this episode O'Connor is something of a whirling dervish, interacting with 10 other characters (plus a few more on the phone) in what is a briskly paced two-act play. (When a heavy-set woman wearing black enters, throws her arms around Archie, and sobs her way through a short speech, he waits a beat before asking "Who are you?") All in the Family's early seasons had a lot of stories in which the Bunker household is overrun by quirky characters, and while I'm glad the show evolved to more intimate stories later on, this is one of the overstuffed episodes that works.
• Archie's racism is mostly hidden in this episode, but there is an outrageous moment where neighbor Louise Jefferson stops in to offer condolences and cake, and Archie says to Edith, "Try to get an apron on her. Maybe people will think she's the maid."
• This is the only flesh-and-blood appearance on the series of the Reverend Felcher. His creepiness removes any doubt that his filthy name was a deliberate bit of subversion by the writers.
• Character actor M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple) is the union representative who's a little too excited about getting a half-day off to attend a funeral.
• For more on All in the Family, see my A.V. Club article "Ten episodes that show how All In The Family changed television."