The time when even Edith Bunker had a hard time at Christmas

Of the handful of reasons that seem to make the two-part “Edith’s Crisis of Faith” holiday episode of 70s classic All in the Family remarkable — that it questioned the existence of God, that it preached gender tolerance long before the idea went viral, that in airing on Christmas night it marked an actual original episode of TV on a night long since given up to repeats, that it even aired at all on broadcast television given its content — what’s most noteworthy is that the award-winning episode came during the landmark sitcom’s eighth season. Eighth.

Archie’s blood transfusion? Edith’s change of life? Mike’s impotence? Gloria’s miscarriage? Hell, even Sammy Davis Jr.’s legendary visit to the Bunker rowhome? Old news already when this episode of the long-running show aired, 40 years ago Christmas night.

At a time when premium scripted series can go forever between original episodes, when cable shows exalt themselves for getting through another thirteen installments, or when broadcast sitcoms chug their ways to second seasons (some barely at that: the explanation from Kevin Can Wait’s Kevin James at the start of the current sophomore season that co-star Errin Hayes was dropped after a single year because “they’d gone as far as they could with story ideas” was actually funnier than any episode of the show to date), it’s telling that 40 years ago All in the Family added further history to its history-making run with a 170th (and 171st) episode.

Now what was Kevin James saying again about exhausting storylines after that lone first season?

The actual history that “Edith’s Crisis of Faith” made was in its threading of a gay-bashing storyline with one of religious introspection. At Christmas. In 1977. Set on the eve of the holidays, the episode tells of the aftermath of an off-camera mugging of Bunker son-in-law Mike Stivic (Rob Reiner) and family friend Beverly LaSalle (a female-impersonator character introduced in the show’s sixth season). Mike is roughed up but survives; the dressed-as-a-man but effeminate Beverly, trying to defend him, isn’t as lucky. She’s beaten to death with a pipe. In the wake of such inexplicable hate-fueled loss, devout Christian Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) is not only unable to find the holiday spirit, she questions the very existence of God and refuses to attend Christmas services, a depression that leads to a private intervention of sorts by son-in-law Mike in the Bunker kitchen.

Mike: “Ma, who you mad at?”

Edith: “I’m made at God.”

Mike: “You think that God was responsible for what happened to Beverly?”

Edith: “I don’t know. All I know is that Beverly was killed because of what he was. And we’re all supposed to be God’s children. It don’t make sense. I don’t understand nothin’ no more.”

Mike: “Ma, did you ever have a subject in school that you didn’t understand?”

Edith: “Yeah. Algebra. I hated it. I couldn’t understand it, so I dropped it.”

Mike: “But you didn’t drop out of school, did you? … Ma, what I’m trying to say is that… maybe …maybe we’re not supposed to understand everything all at once. Maybe we’re just supposed to understand things a little bit at a time.”

Mike Stivic, it’s worth noting and to the bane of God-fearing Bible-misquoting father-in-law Archie Bunker, is a loud-and-proud atheist. But here his love for his mother-in-law is greater than his disbelief. “Ma,” he tells her, “if there is a God, you’re one of the most understanding people he ever made.

“We need you.”

Take that, Facebook discourse and Twitter presidency: Black, white, and shades of gray all wrapped up in one respectful conversation between two people of differing beliefs.

At no time does either call the other a tool.

Written by Bob Weiskopf and Bob Schiller, “Edith’s Crisis of Faith” (Part 2) was nominated for an Outstanding Comedy Writing Emmy, losing that year to another seminal episode of All in the Family — “Cousin Liz,” about Edith’s in-the-closet lesbian relative. Both episodes broke ground in the gay community, opening prime-time’s doors to more sympathetic explorations of alternate lives a full two decades before Ellen. “Crisis” actually went one step further with a reasoned portrayal of transvestism at a time when dressing in drag tended to mean freak.

That it broke any ground at all so late in its run is made all the more impressive by the fact that in addition to “Edith’s Crisis of Faith” (and “Cousin Liz”), the 1977–78 season of All in the Family, the final one to feature all four principals, also had episodes about the KKK (!), Edith’s near-rape, and the Stivics leaving the Bunker nest for a new life in California. Again, all this in its eighth season. It’s a testament to TV that roots itself in character and storytelling ahead of anything else. Beyond the trope of mining humor from generational conflict, All in the Family was never simply a pitch or a concept; it never traded on the self-limiting and self-impressed concepts of arc and journey. It featured real people living real and ongoing lives, as written by writers and overseen by producers as keen on a 170th episode as a second. Can we imagine many a sitcom today doing as much? Finding new things to say and new ways to say it, new contributions to make to a national dialogue, in an eighth season? More, can we imagine a broadcast network in today’s TV and social-media marketplace airing an episode of TV on Christmas night that questions the existence of God? The Internet would explode. And what’s-his-name would call for a boycott of all five boroughs of New York City. (No doubt attempting a Queens joke in the process.)

Noteworthy TV on all these levels, “Edith’s Crisis of Faith” talked of tolerance and differences and equality — concepts difficult to grasp in 1977 and yet more elusive than ever on the eve of 2018. (Sad, aint it?) More important too, if there’s ever to be any kind of peace on earth. Or on Twitter.

(Photos courtesy of CBS, Tandem Productions, Sony Pictures Television)