Sunday, February 26, 2012

When Mike and Gloria Split Up

Mike: I can certainly beat your atrocious spelling! Can you spell "atrocious?"

Gloria: Yes. M–E–A–T–H–E–A–D! Atrocious!

Over the years, everyone in the Bunker household was, at one time or another, the butt of jokes and the subject of episodes examining their individual shortcomings and weaknesses.

I would say that, most of the time, Archie was the one who was made to look petty.

Edith and Gloria probably ran about even for second place, and Mike was last, by far. I always thought there was more than a little bias involved. The series' creator, Norman Lear, was known to be inclined to liberal positions, and Mike was recognized as the representative of liberal causes on the show.

But that always made Mike's moments more poignant.

Perhaps the best example was the episode that first aired 35 years ago tonight. The episode opened with Mike and Gloria playing a friendly game of Scrabble that rapidly escalated into a fight when Gloria found Mike's smug attitude a little difficult to take.

"You've had every opportunity in the world to improve your mind," Gloria (Sally Struthers) protested. "The only opportunities I've had are to feed your face and clean your clothes and satisfy your lust."

Mike (Rob Reiner) thought he had found the perfect solution. "We just won't play games like this anymore," he said. And everything probably would have been just fine if he had left it there.

But then he took it a step too far. "Besides, it's no fun for me to win all the time, anyway."

I don't believe I would have said that. Well, I like to think I wouldn't have said it.

But then there would have been no plot to speak of.

Predictably, a fight ensued, and Mike left the house. But he didn't go far. He wound up at Archie and Edith's house next door. Archie would have been happy to let him get a room at a motel, but Edith insisted that he spend the night with them. The female boarder who was renting the room Mike and Gloria shared while they lived with her parents would sleep with Edith. Archie would sleep in the boarder's bed, and Mike would sleep in a cot.

This led to one of the great (and, sadly, often unrecognized) comedic moments in 1970s television.

It began with a typical Archie–Mike argument over the correct way to get into bed. I always thought it was a ridiculous argument. Archie was sleeping in a bed while Mike was sleeping in a cot, and there were some differences between the two.

But, basically, Archie was right — and that was a rare outcome on All in the Family. By the time this episode aired, Archie had developed a considerable inferiority complex when i came to his son–in–law. So many of their fights over the years had concluded with Mike looking like the intelligent college student he was and Archie came across as an illiterate fool.

Anyway, Archie had been right about the correct way to get into bed. Mike even said as much, but Archie was asleep — and Mike had no place to sleep because the cot had given way.

So he climbed into bed with Archie. And he tried to pour himself a drink of water and casually drink it without disturbing his father–in–law, but he was clumsy and spilled the water in the bed.

Archie's response was a textbook example of a slow double–take — and it led to a searing moment of insight for Mike. For what may have been the first time in the timeline of that series, Mike really saw himself as others saw him, or, at least, as Archie saw him — smug, superior, flaunting his education, looking down on everyone else.

"I do do that, don't I?" Mike said, and he thanked Archie. "For the first time since I've known you, you've told me something I can use," he said, and he made a beeline for his home — where he pledged to help Gloria go to college if that was what she wanted to do. Happy ending.

Well, that was how they resolved conflicts on sitcoms in the 1970s.