35. "Edith's Night Out," All in the Family (1976)
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 on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
The sitcom is generally an optimistic art form, and it includes thousands of fables about how our lives are ultimately enriched by meeting and accepting new people. On a sitcom, talking to a stranger can complicate someone's life, but it's almost never dangerous (or fatal!) the way it is on a crime procedural. Random encounters can lead to some soul-searching, but not the despair that characters almost inevitably experience on a drama like Mad Men.
Sitcoms also lean toward positive depictions of urban life (see Taxi) and "third places" such as cafes and bars. But while Cheers may be TV’s reigning sitcom set in a bar, it never matched "Edith's Night Out" in showing the transformative effect of a night at the neighborhood drinking hole.
Archie: Listen, you's two. I know what you're up to. If you're expecting me to holler just because I see you here in pants, you're all wrong. 'Cause that was a long time ago, and since then, you's women have come a long ways, baby.
Edith: You like it!
Archie: No. But if you want to wear pants, that don't affect me. As long as you can throw an apron around them and get dinner on.
Archie: Didn't I just mention the weirdos and the freakos and the creepos I see on the subway every day? At night, they all come out of the subway, and they're hoovering * around every corner. It's their fault that sports like me, guys willing to spend a little coin, don't go out at night!
*Not clear whether he means the vacuum cleaner or the president we could use again.
Edith points out that Archie frequents Kelcy's, the neighborhood bar, and he admits that "sometimes" he wants to get away from her. So she puts on her coat and heads for the door, saying, "I need to get away from you" — which prompts the studio audience to go wild with applause. (The most frenzied moment for the Edith Bunker Admiration Society will come in a later episode.)
She goes to Kelcy's, but she's flustered by the social atmosphere (jokey bartender, flirtatious strangers) until a friendly woman (Doris Roberts, a couple of decades before Everybody Loves Raymond) waves her to a table. Eventually, the woman takes off to chase "Paul Newman" (or the Queens equivalent) and leaves Edith with smooth talker Joe Foley.
Joe: You know, Edith, you're very attractive.
Joe: Hey, you're blushing!
Edith: I know, I can feel it.
Joe: Ain't you used to getting compliments?
Edith: Oh, sure- (reconsiders) No.
The awkward moment is interrupted by the bartender leading a sing-along for a couple celebrating their anniversary. ("Oh, how we danced on the night we were wed/We danced, and we danced, 'cause the room had no bed.") Edith is drafted to play the piano, and she seconds the choice of "As Time Goes By." ("This is a good one 'cause it don't have too many black notes.")
Archie finally shows up just in time to hear Joe Foley call Edith "the life of the party," which finally shames him into taking her out to dinner and making plans for the next Saturday night. She eagerly agrees but turns to the crowd at the bar to say that if Archie's plans fall through for any reason, "I'll be back!"
This is a sweet episode that, typically, is also very funny because of Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton's performances. Its premise, that you're never too old to come out of your shell, used to be a common sitcom theme (back when actors over 50 could get roles other than as sight gags on How I Met Your Mother) but rarely felt as authentic as it does here. Thank goodness she didn't try to fit in at Friends' Central Perk; she'd probably still be waiting for her mochachino.
• Near the close of the episode, Edith is literally standing outside the shadow that envelops Archie. Maybe this is too "on the nose," to use a phrase some critics have applied to Mad Men this season, but I'd still like to see single-camera sitcoms experiment with lighting more than they do.
• The character of Archie almost fades away when Carroll O'Connor expertly croons "As Time Goes By" (without malapropisms), but he snaps back into place as soon as he hears Edith's terrible singing voice. (Plot question: If Archie hadn't figured out that Edith had gone to Kelcy's, why wasn't he more worried about her whereabouts?)
• This episode establishes that Gloria is allowed to sit in Archie's chair.
• For more on All in the Family, see my A.V. Club article "Ten episodes that show how All In The Family changed television."
Part 2 here.
Part 3 here.