3. "Edith's Problem," All in the Family (1972)
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 indisputable that All in the Family is one of the most important sitcoms in TV history. "It may also have been a high-water mark for television in terms of how much impact a single series can have in shaping American culture," writes Neil Genzlinger in the New York Times review of the All in the Family boxed set. Genzinger points out that the show was No. 1 in the ratings for most of its run, representing "one of the last times that the best show on TV was also the most popular show on TV." (Fans of Seinfeld, ER, and Friends may disagree.)
There's more debate over whether the show has aged well. Those who say no (and I've seen this view mostly in website comments rather than among professional critics) tend to focus on what were the most controversial episodes, and they're not necessarily the best executed. In particular, it can feel odd in 2012 to watch an episode in which the studio audience screams with laughter because working-class, reactionary Archie Bunker comes face-to-face with a black person in a position of authority. (Though the punch line in "Archie in the Cellar" — "Forgive me, Lord. The Jeffersons was right." — is still hilarious.)
Archie: I know all about your women's troubles there,
Edith, but when I had the hernia that time, I didn't make you wear the
Michael: Come on, Archie!
Archie: No, no, no, Edith! If you're gonna have the change of life, you gotta do it right now! I'm gonna give you just thirty seconds. Now, come on, change!
[He] was an antihero decades before the term was regularly applied to TV characters. Archie never totally “broke bad,” but he had a deep mistrust of the human race, and he tried to provide for his family by taking advantage of every opportunity he could find, including his inherent privileges as a white man in America. He wasn’t “politically incorrect” just for the fun of it, which is why so many sitcoms with superficial “Archie Bunker types” have failed.
Archie wants to follow the rules he learned as a child, those he inherited from his racist father (whom he defends in the episode "Two's a Crowd") and those he picked up from a culture that marginalized women, gays, and religious and racial minorities.
But as "Edith's Problem" shows, poor Archie can't cope with any change, even those that are a natural part of life. We already know he has trouble accepting that his "little girl" has grown up and gotten married, and in this episode he acts like a victim because his wife is going through menopause.
Mike: What did the doctor say?
Archie: He just said that menopause is a pretty tough time to be going through; especially for nervous types.
Archie: So he prescribed these here pills.
Mike: Oh, good.
Archie: I gotta take three of 'em a day.
Of course, Edith (Jean Stapleton) has more to cope with, beginning with her mortification that daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) has to clue her in on the cause of her hot flashes. (Edith, in despair: "When I was a young girl, I didn't know what every young girl should know. Now I'm going to be an old lady, and I don't know what every old lady should know!")
Stapleton gives a classic sitcom performance here, switching back and forth from her usual cheery self to a ball of frustration and anger. It might be over-the-top if not for the suggestion that menopausal Edith can't help letting out some feelings that she's been bottling up for years. After listening to Archie, Mike (Rob Reiner), and Gloria argue in so many previous episodes, she must get a bit of relief from yelling at them, "Will you all leave me alone? Dammit!" Even better, after being told by Archie to "stifle" herself in so many previous episodes, she flings the word back at him, over and over again. "After 23 years of 'stifles,' the dingbat turns on me," says a stunned Archie.
There's not much plot in Burt Styler's script, which gave All in the Family the first of its three Emmys for writing. On the orders of Edith's gynocologist, Archie tries to be patient and understanding with his wife, but this uncharacteristic behavior only convinces her that Archie now pities rather than loves her. It's only when Edith demands that the couple scrap their planned visit to Disney World, and instead visit her cousin in Scranton, that Archie blows his top. (Even after years of watching The Office, I automatically hear the name of that city as Archie says it: "SCRANTON?!?")
After this outburst, Edith is happy and reassured that Archie doesn't see her as a fragile old lady, and she heads to the phone to make the reservations for the Disney trip. Most sitcoms would end the episode this way; it's like someone with amnesia getting a second bonk on the head and returning to normal. But as Archie is gloating about his tough-guy approach to menopause, Edith hurls the phone on the floor and goes right back to screaming at him. "Well, back to the groinicologist," Archie says resignedly. All in the Family just wouldn't be true to itself if it implied that any of us can resist change and win. (The episode's tag shows us that the Bunkers do get to Disney World, so the show isn't that mean. Or is it?)
• There's a nice scene in which Archie and Gloria talk in a diner. Archie recalls taking her out for sundaes as a little girl and reveals that he'd always steal the cherry from on top; Gloria reveals that she'd always lick the cherry before he got to it. Archie, who surely did not change many diapers when he was a new father, can't hide his squeamishness over this mark of affection.
• Edith describes her discomfort: "I feel like I'm jumping in and out of a hot bath, and someone is twisting a rubber band around my head." And she's not reassured by the self-help articles in women's magazines:
Gloria: (reading from magazine) Nowadays, with simple hormone treatment, there are no unpleasant manifestations.
Edith: Well, my Aunt Elizabeth went through this, and she didn't get manifestations. She got a mustache
Hey it just occurred to me, Mickey Mouse is black.
Archie: (irritated) Mickey Mouse ain't got no race! He represents all men.
Mike: Oh, I guess that's why Walt made him a mouse.
• Man, is it tough to get good screen shots with Jean Stapleton as Edith. She keeps working even when everyone else is freezing in place during a long laugh from the audience.