Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Christmas With the Bunkers

In the last season of the All in the Family series, Archie (Carroll O'Connor) and Edith (Jean Stapleton) visited Mike (Rob Reiner) and Gloria (Sally Struthers) in California for Christmas.

The result was one of the most honest and thought–provoking episodes of the entire run of the series. It aired 35 years ago tonight.

The Bunkers, along with their young charge, Edith's grandniece Stephanie (Danielle Brisebois), made the trip from New York to California for the holidays. They didn't know that Mike and Gloria were separated, and Mike and Gloria were determined to keep it that way. Well, Gloria was. Mike wanted to tell the Bunkers the truth, but Gloria wanted to keep up appearances through Christmas.

So Mike stayed overnight on Christmas Eve to keep up the charade. Apparently, the original plan called for Mike and Gloria to give Archie and Edith their bed and they would sleep on the sofa bed in the living room — presumably, when everyone was asleep, Mike would leave. But Edith double–crossed him, insisting that Mike and Gloria sleep in their own bed.

Gloria, however, did not feel comfortable sharing a bed with Mike, which led to an amusing bit of physical comedy in which Gloria tried unsuccessfully to go to sleep in a piece of bedroom furniture that clearly wasn't made for sleeping. Finally, at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning, Gloria had had enough, and she told Mike she wanted to trade. He refused, and they fought. Gloria fled the bedroom and went, sobbing, to the bathroom. Edith followed her in, and Gloria told her the whole story.

She and Mike had drifted apart since coming to California, Gloria told Edith. Mike had a whole new life with his career, one that kept him busy day and night, and Gloria stayed at home with the child — and ate.

And then she met a man, and she confessed to Edith that she had started a relationship with this man.

Edith returned to the living room, where Archie wanted to know what was going on — so Edith told him, and Archie stormed into the bedroom to confront Mike.

Archie was under the mistaken impression that Mike had been cheating on Gloria and that was what had led to their breakup. But he soon learned that Mike hadn't been unfaithful.

And that led to the dialogue that made this Christmas episode unique among Christmas episodes.

The four adults had a conversation about love and marriage and commitment and infidelity. It's the kind of conversation that could happen — and almost certainly has happened — under different circumstances in different families the world over. It's probably not much of a stretch to say that it probably happens somewhere every day.

The critical moment came when Archie implied that Gloria and her male friend had been sleeping together, and Gloria said she wouldn't say anything because it was none of Archie's business. And Edith sided with her daughter.

"No matter what she's done, it's none of your business," she told Archie.

"What are you talking about?" Archie asked. "It's the world's business."

"No," Edith replied, "it ain't the world's business, neither."

"Well, it's certainly God's business," Archie insisted.

"Then you let God tend to it," Edith said.

It was so often the case that Edith was the wisest, most insightful member of the family.

Edith wanted to know if Mike and Gloria loved each other. When they admitted they did, she asked if they loved each other enough to save their marriage. Mike said yes; Gloria said she wasn't going to talk about it in front of her father. But Archie and Gloria reconciled, sharing a heartfelt father–daughter embrace and joining the rest of the family in the living room to celebrate Christmas.

That's what Christmas is about — love, forgiveness, acceptance.

As far as I am concerned, the folks who write the Christmas specials and Christmas movies these days forget that and emphasize more of the commercial aspects of the season. But the folks who wrote this hour–long episode — Milt Josefsberg, Phil Sharp, Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf — were nominated for a Primetime Emmy for their work, as was director Paul Bogart and deservedly so.

The series was frequently nominated in both categories, and sometimes it won. But it won neither of the nominations it received for this episode.

That's a shame. As all truly good comedies do, All in the Family often balanced humor and poignance — rarely, if ever, better than it did 35 years ago tonight.