49. "TV or Not TV," The Honeymooners (1955)
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.
This is the ultimate "Twonky episode" (see "The New Car," from The Odd Couple, for an explanation and other examples), as well as an excellent introduction to the Honeymooners characters. The destructive household object is a television set that Alice finally nags Ralph into getting. (He claims he's just been waiting for "3-D television.") Because the Kramdens can't afford one on their own, they share ownership with Ed and Trixie, so the TV ends up theatening Ralph's relationships with both his wife and best friend.
Alice: (complaining about Ralph's nights out with Ed) I'm left here to look at that icebox, that stove, that sink and these four walls. Well, I don't want to look at that icebox, that stove, that sink and these four walls! I want to look at Liberace!
But the Kramdens were not exactly role models; few viewers would have coveted their underfurnished apartment. They didn't even have a telephone, which would have been an even bigger Twonky from the point of view of the show's writers. (As Vince Waldron writes on his Classic Sitcoms site, "The gross misunderstandings that fueled many Honeymooners plots could too easily have been cleared up with a simple phone call, and who wanted that?") Viewers may have lived vicariously through Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, but the Kramdens were more likely to arouse symphathy: "If they can be happy — at least at the end of every episode — maybe I don't have so much to complain about."
One thing I like about "TV or Not TV" is its treatment of new technology. For most of the 20th century, new things were big things: cars, refrigerators, stereos, swimming pools, etc. We rearranged the old stuff, and ourselves, to accommodate them. Ralph's preparations for an evening in front of the TV include carefully placing his chair so that all his snacks are within arm's reach, so as not to miss even a few seconds of entertainment. (Today, new technology usually means ever-smaller ways of carrying everything we need with us.)
This episode is also great in bringing out Ralph and Ed's respective personalities. Ralph wants to watch old movies and imagine himself as a sophisticated, high-living romantic. (He essentially wants to become Jackie Gleason.) Ed prefers to watch Captain Video and imagine himself traveling to Mars. He's childish, but maybe his less-attainable fantasies are what makes him happier with his real life, in contrast to the ever-scheming Ralph.
Ralph: You got a coin?
Ed: Sure. (hands it to Ralph)
Ralph: Okay. Heads I win, tails you lose. Got it? (flips the coin) Tails, you lose. Now...
Ed: Hey, wait a minute!
Ed: I hope I don't insult you, Ralph, but would you mind giving me back my coin?
By the end of "TV or Not TV," the Twonky is about to be banished from the household. Not only has it driven a wedge through Ralph and Ed's friendship, it's keeping Ralph up all night watching The Late Late Late Show (and sending a sleep-deprived bus driver onto the streets of New York). Via The Honeymooners, one of the most revolutionary inventions of the past century warns us that we're better off leaving things as they are.
Part two is here.
Part three is here.