23. "Archie Is Branded," All in the Family (1973)
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.
It's tough to imagine a TV show in 2012 using a swastika to start a conversation. South Park and It's Always Sunny in Philadephia might use it as a sick joke, and a CBS crime procedural might use it to heighten the repulsiveness of a serial killer, but in either case, the Nazi symbol would probably just be a fleeting shock. "Archie Is Branded" manages to use the swastika as both a comic prop and a dramatic plot device.
Edith: (looking in horror at the swastika painted on the Bunkers' front door) Who did that?
Archie: I don't know, Edith, the artist didn't sign it.
As I wrote in "Ten episodes that show how All In The Family changed television," at the A.V. Club, "Archie Is Branded" almost plays as a Twilight Zone installment, both in the eeriness of the situation and in the moral parable with a Rod Serling-like ending. Which makes it all the more impressive that Vin Bogart's script is also so damn funny.
Archie discovers the swastika on his front door while retrieving the Sunday newspaper from the porch, after his morning has already been unpleasantly disrupted by an air raid siren alarm clock. (Edith set it so she could get a head start on baking a cake; poor Archie says, "I was already halfway to the toilet before I remembered I didn't have to get up.")
Mike: What's going on?
Archie: Look at the door.
Mike: (dumbly looking at the door from the inside) Yeah?
Archie: You meathead, open the door and look at the outside of it.
Mike: You didn't tell me to open the door. All you said was look at the door. You didn't say "Open the door and look at it from the outside." All you said was "look at the door."
Archie: OPEN THE DAMN DOOR AND LOOK AT THE OUTSIDE OF IT!
While waiting for the police to arrive, the Bunkers discover a threatening note on the porch ("We'll be back") and argue over the motives of the vandals, with Archie pointing a finger at his son-in-law.
Archie: Maybe because you live here!
Mike: That's crazy!
Archie: It ain't so crazy! You're always mixed up in those things where you're carrying signs around; maybe somebody's here to pin a sign on you.
Edith: Oh, Archie, I don't think that could be right.
Mike: Thanks, Ma.
Edith: I don’t think anybody cares what Mike does.
Mike: (less gratefully) Thanks, Ma.
After a bomb scare (with one of All in the Family's funniest payoffs — "My cake is done!"), the Bunkers are visited by a turtle-necked tough guy named Paul (Gregory Sierra). He figures out that the swastika was painted by a violent anti-Semitic group who have targeted a political activist living down the street. (They transposed the numbers in the street address and ended up at the Bunkers' by mistake.) Archie finds common ground with Paul, a Jewish vigilante who takes an “eye for an eye” approach to violence. "What's the matter with revenge?" Archie asks Mike. "It's the best way to get even!"
Despite Archie and Mike's usual sniping over what it means to be an America, this isn't really a topical episode. The story could take place at any place or time in history with violence between ethnic or religious groups (or "ethnic cleansing," as in 1990s Bosnia). Someone like Archie could well serve as a useful idiot to both sides, or at least to the ones on both sides who want the violence to continue. He's a funny character until someone gets hurt.
• The mix of slapstick comedy with intense drama works better here than in the hourlong "Edith's 50th Birthday," perhaps because the comedy happens first — a contrast to Archie and Mike stumbling around while looking for the rapist after Edith has been attacked and we're still trying to process what happened. As far as I can tell, "Archie Is Branded" is the only All in the Family episode to end with silence rather than audience applause.
• The episode has a "goof" in that a Postal Service employee delivers a package to the Bunkers on a Sunday. Someone must have noticed this, and the episode could have taken place on a Saturday, so I assume that the producers felt it important for the debate over violence to happen on the Christian day of worship.