Case Study 70: One Day at a Time, Episode 121–“Merry Widow”

Original Airdate: December 14th, 1980 on CBS

Previously in this space we’ve discussed Norman Lear’s groundbreaking classic All in the Family. At the time I pointed out that Family was just the beginning of a cottage industry of sitcoms unafraid to probe political issues across racial, class and gender divides. He made sitcoms about working class white conservatives, rich white liberals, black families with newfound wealth and black families in the inner city. His next idea was to turn his attention to the newly relevant phenomena of single parent households—by 1980 nearly 20% of American children lived in such homes. This led to One Day at a Time, a sitcom about a divorcee raising two teenage girls. Lear had struck gold—Time was a huge hit and eventually ran for nine seasons. Some TV executive out there still thinks the show is relevant, because apparently it’s slated for a Gilmore Girls-esque reboot on Netflix. But is the original worth your time?

Strengths

  • Serious plot. This is one of the things that was refreshing about Lear—he wasn’t afraid to have a comedy deal with serious issues, even if that meant sacrificing opportunities for laughs. His legacy lives on in modern-day comedies like Transparent that relentlessly probe contemporary society while still managing to be funny, to the point where the legitimacy of that show’s Emmy nomination category is endlessly debated. In this episode, we have the protagonist’s mother, Katherine Romano (Nanette Fabray, The Band Wagon) trying to get back on the dating market in light of her husband’s recent death. It wouldn’t be a Lear sitcom if Katherine wasn’t treated as a sensitive, human subject.

Weaknesses

  • Missed opportunities. The problem is that the show doesn’t do anything interesting with what could have been really juicy material. After she makes a pass at wacky neighbor figure Schneider (Pat Harrington Jr.), he turns her down. He consoles her by telling her that now’s her chance to be alone and find out who she REALLY is on the inside. That’s it. That’s the whole show. Now I’m not saying that her self-actualization wouldn’t be interesting, but that’s not what we’re getting here. Instead, we get to watch her get prompted towards self-actualization with no payoff. This is a great example of where the writers could have followed the golden rule of improv: accept the premise provided by the script and expand on it, instead of shutting it down and trying to go in another direction. Why not let Katherine and Schneider have an affair? There’s several different ways that could go. Maybe Katherine’s daughter Ann (Bonnie Franklin) is grossed out by her mom’s newfound sexuality and has to come to terms with that. Maybe Katherine thinks Schneider is more serious than he is and winds up lovelorn. Maybe they discover a problematic incompatibility. Maybe she realizes she’s not really done grieving her late husband. Instead, we’re just teased with the possibility of what could have been.
  • Nanette Fabray. Fabray’s Katherine might be fine as a comedic foil for Franklin’s Ann, but she struggles to stand on her own as the centerpiece of this episode. She’s dealing with complicated emotions like loss, heartbreak and despair. She flirts, she dances, she’s meant to come across as vivacious, but by the end of the episode she’s proclaiming that she’s got nothing to live for. Fabray doesn’t have the range for this and comes across like a stiff product of mid-century vaudeville and musical theater.
  • Primitivist joke. Primitivism is a term most frequently associated with art, but it’s a useful shorthand for a variety of racist thinking not too distantly related to Orientalism. If Orientalism exaggerates and exoticizes Arabs and Asians under the guise of an artistic sensibility, Primitivism does much the same for people living in Latin America and Africa. It casts these people as savage barbarians who are nonetheless spiritually connected to the earth and primal forces of sexuality and magic. It’s one tool out of many that white viewers use to distance themselves from everyone else. Here, it’s deployed in the service of a profoundly stupid joke: Schneider tells an anecdote about dating a “Mayan lass” in the Yucatan who couldn’t participate in a human sacrifice ritual because, thanks to Schneider, she was no longer a virgin. Now, some seven million people still describe themselves as Mayan in the 21st century, and before the Spanish conquest the historical Mayans practiced human sacrifice. Of course, that stopped in the 17th century and no one was throwing virgins down wells in the first place, so this joke isn’t just offensive, it makes no fucking sense in light of the show’s otherwise studied realism. Is it really worth being racist to make another dumb joke about how Schneider is slutty?

Final Judgment: 3/10. Norman Lear’s work is always interesting, but this is not the best specimen. Hopefully Netflix can rehabilitate this apparently beloved IP for the 21st century.

NEXT TIME: Did you know that Eva Longoria had an original animated series for adults on Hulu? Come back next time as I review the unfortunately named Mother Up!

Case Study 70: One Day at a Time, Episode 121–“Merry Widow”

Case Study 61: All In The Family, Episode 25–“Cousin Maude’s Visit”

Original Airdate: December 11th, 1971 on CBS

Back in the 1970s, All In The Family was a big deal. It wasn’t just because it was a ratings smash, though it was the number one show on TV for five years running. It was incredibly controversial in an era when any individual television show had a much larger slice of the zeitgeist. Sure, shows like Game of Thrones and True Detective get a lot of buzz, but consider this: the most recent season finale of Thrones enjoyed the highest ratings pull the series has drawn in its history with nearly nine million viewers. During the season this episode of Family aired, it was averaging 34 million a week. Take all the hype you heard about the Red Wedding and imagine four times that many people talking about Archie Bunker’s toilet. The show’s astronomical success made Norman Lear the de facto king of the 1970s sitcom, and he became known for a slate of hilarious sitcoms that took on social issues from varying sides of class, racial and gender divides. Sanford and Son, One Day At A Time, The Jeffersons and Good Times were also big hits, and as it happens, this particular episode of Family was the jumping-off point for another successful spinoff in the form of Maude.

Strengths

  • Strong characters. At first blush, the cause for controversy is obvious. Family patriarch Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) was a TV antihero before it was cool. He comes across in 2016 as the raging id of a Trump supporter. Still, even in 1971, people were understandably uncomfortable about having people yell racial slurs in a primetime sitcom. But Archie isn’t a Cartman-esque sociopath. He’s a three-dimensional character who displays real depth and humanity alongside knee-jerk bigotry and reactionary vitriol. Here we get to hear about his typically crude courtship of his wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton.) It involves, among other things, Archie putting straws up his nose and pretending to be a walrus. Sure, he’s mean to Edith and he yells at her and calls her names…but he makes her laugh. It definitely doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it does make him seem like a real person.
  • Great cast, especially Bea Arthur. O’Connor and Stapleton are gems as always—I challenge you not to laugh at the sequence where Edith is timing a minute by counting 60 Mississippi’s, loses count, and starts to sing the Minute Waltz—but the real star here is Maude, as played by the indomitable Arthur (The Golden Girls.) Her dynamic with O’Connor is perfect, and I love the role Maude plays in the story as well. Not many people can successfully hold their own up against Archie’s endless supply of bluster, but Maude shuts him down, and it is perfect. She makes a pointedly menacing comment about Edith—”I’d kill for that girl”—and O’Connor’s reaction is spot on. Ever the asshole, he eventually comes back with a deliciously nasty comment about how she already buried two husbands, but despite the fact that he always needs to get the last word, the real reason he spends so much of the first act fulminating about Maude’s impending visit is that he knows he’s met his match, and Arthur is more than up for the job.
  • Funny. The comedic genius of this show is such that it’s not exactly easy to point to a handful of lines or gags out of context that make it solid gold material. It’s a holistic experience. So much of the comedy comes from a stellar cast performing well-written characters in an interesting dynamic. When Maude rouses Archie by cheerfully singing “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain, it tells us something about Maude’s unique variety of passive-aggression, and it’s also funny for three different reasons: Archie’s miserable reaction, the fact that Maude is being a dick but has plausible deniability because she’s being jaunty about it, and because Bea Arthur sells the hell out of the bit. The strength of the comedy is only enhanced by the fact that the writers aren’t afraid to have the characters openly adhere to distinct political viewpoints. In the third act Archie and Maude have a climactic argument about Maude’s beloved Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Of Eleanor, Archie fulminates that “she was the one who discovered the coloreds in this country. We never knew they was there!” This line is great because in addition to exposing the foolishness of its underlying ideology, it’s entirely plausible that the inarticulate Archie would say this without realizing how ridiculous it sounds. Archie genuinely believes that the world has been made a worse place thanks to women and minorities creating a culture of grievance, and while William F. Buckley might agree, it’s clear that the emperor has no clothes when Archie puts forth the issue in his inimitable style.
  • Politics. And let’s all just take a moment and appreciate the fact that this sitcom spends a full three minutes of its runtime on a heated shouting match about FDR’s legacy. These days television shows are mostly apolitical. Producers want characters that “everyone” can relate to, so those characters don’t have weird sexual, religious, political, ethnic, national or gender identities, unlike the people you probably know in your real life. Of course, the end result is very few people can actually relate. In real life, political beliefs are a core aspect of most people’s identity. The FDR argument is entertaining, but it also provides refreshing insight into Maude and Archie’s respective worldviews. It’s also quite novel. Part of the reason this show was such a hit was because it was unlike anything else on TV. Nobody was talking about the Yalta Conference on Mister Ed.

Weaknesses

  • Bathroom humor. Okay, a big part of what makes Archie Bunker who he is is that he’s unapologetically crude. It’s in the show’s DNA. That still doesn’t make it particularly funny when we’re all meant to enjoy a good laugh when Edith gives Archie Milk of Magnesia instead of Kaopectate. You get it?! Because it’s going to make him shit more! And he’s already got diarrhea! That’s not to say this sort of thing is entirely hopeless. It can work if it’s reasonably well-integrated into the story. Maude gives Archie a delicious breakfast of cream of wheat with cheese (“It’s light, but it binds,” she reassures him) but it doesn’t help. He angrily declares that Maude was wrong again as he rushes to the bathroom. It’s pretty choice that he’s making it a point to one-up her in the middle of his intestinal distress, and the fact that he’s a jerk makes his mild suffering funnier, and “it’s light, but it binds” is an intrinsically amusing phrase, especially coming out of Bea Arthur. Nevertheless, I could have done with less about Archie’s bowels.

Final Judgment: 9/10. Family is unquestionably classic television. It lands comfortably in any top ten list of the best shows of all time, and “Cousin Maude’s Visit” was the entry TV Guide chose for Family’s ninth-place berth on their Top 100 Episodes list. Nevertheless, much like Don Draper, Sterling Archer or Frank Underwood, Archie is decidedly an acquired taste.

NEXT TIME: I cover our first Australian offering when I review the YA hit Dance Academy.

Case Study 61: All In The Family, Episode 25–“Cousin Maude’s Visit”