Sunday, January 04, 2015

All in the Family at its Best

The episode of All in the Family that first aired on this night 40 years ago, "Prisoner in the House," was a provocative episode, as many of All in the Family's episodes were.

It took on, as that sitcom so often did, an issue that was seldom if ever raised — in this case, the prejudice that ex–cons encounter when trying to put their lives back together.

When the subject was prejudice of any kind, there was no one better than Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) to bring it up. Archie could make you laugh — and then think.

By January 1975, everyone knew what Archie was, and everyone knew what his reactions to certain things were likely to be. In the episode that aired on this night in 1975, the Bunkers had been having problems with their plumbing so they called a plumber who came one day while Archie was at work. The plumber brought an assistant — who happened to be a prisoner (Cliff Osmond) on a work furlough.

Edith (Jean Stapleton) had no problem with that — she and the plumber bonded almost immediately when they discovered a mutual appreciation for the work of poet Edgar A. Guest — but she (and everyone else) knew how Archie would react if he knew the assistant was a convict so she encouraged everyone not to say anything.

Eventually, though, Archie did find out, and it made him uneasy. After all, there were two women in the house, and there would be times when he would be at work and his son–in–law would be at school.

Archie mouthed off at the neighborhood bar about the con who was assisting the plumber, and it affected the plumber's business. The plumber decided he would have to let the con go, and the con began to openly question whether he could make it on the outside.

But then Edith, in her understated way, quoted Guest:

"For failure comes from the inside first,
It's there if we only knew it,
And you can win, though you face the worst,
If you feel that you're going to do it."

Then Edith said, "You wouldn't want to let down Edgar A. Guest."

Archie, ignorant as always, asked, "Who the hell is he, another plumber?"

When the laughter died down, the con smiled at Edith and said, "I wouldn't want to let you down, Mrs. Bunker."

The episode isn't regarded as a classic episode. It had few truly memorable lines.

But I have always felt it showed All in the Family at its best. It certainly showed Edith at her best.