Original Air Date: 18th of December, 1977
Lee Gambin is currently working on a book looking at the phenomenon of Very Special Episodes in American TV sitcoms. He and a number of contributing writers will be examining multiple episodes that dealt with serious subject matter within the realm of comedic episodic television, with many examples from shows such as Maude, Diff’rent Strokes, The Facts of Life, Mork and Mindy, M*A*S*H, Mr. Belvedere and many more. Here is a sample essay from the book-in-the-making that critically discusses “Edith’s Crisis of Faith” from the legendary Norman Lear ground breaking TV hit All in the Family. Stay tuned for more news regarding the book in the months to come.
Airing during the holiday season and just a week before Christmas Eve, “Edith’s Crisis of Faith” is a heartbreaking and acutely raw examination of personal belief systems in the face of violence against gay and transgendered people. Opening with Edith (Jean Stapleton) excited about Christmas, hanging up the mistletoe and such, we soon discover that something is even more thrilling in the eyes of the matriarch of this poor working class Queens home. Edith’s good friend Beverly LaSalle (Lori Shannon), a recurring drag queen character, is set to perform at the legendary Carnegie Hall – something that he has worked towards and something that brings Edith much joy. Gloria (Sally Struthers) arrives at the house (during this season, she and husband Mike (Rob Reiner) and their infant son Joey have their own place down the street) to hear such fabulous news, and we get a wonderful sense of Beverly becoming part of the family. Playful back and forths shared between Gloria and Beverly imply that the big bawdy drag queen has made a wonderful impact on the family with Gloria calling out “Ya big bogus bimbo!” only to get the sassy Beverly bellowing back “Ya little blonde sexpot!” Here, the wonderful love the ladies of the Bunker family have for Beverly is on show, with Edith not even seeing Beverly as simply a friend, but as a blood relative – something that Beverly confides in also.
Beverly descends the Bunker staircase in full drag singing a number from the cross dressing themed hit musical La Cages aux Folles (a musical that actually had straight male audiences who were dragged to see it by their wives, stand up in the show’s final moments and applaud loudly, cheering on the plight of gay men, drag queens and queer culture) and in classic drag “street” style lends herself to self-deprecating humor and quick wit in the face of a world outside the safety of the Bunker household that might not understand him. Edith asks if his dress maker is a “he or a she”, to which Beverly replies “Yes” – a hilarious take on the blur that is gender. The friendship between Edith and Beverly is so pure and loving; Beverly makes Edith feel special and worthy, and even within their comfortable union, there are nice jibs at one another that come from a longstanding genuine friendship. Beverly does an impression of Mae West, to which Edith responds with: “Bette Davis!”, sparking a funny look from the warm drag queen. A testament to Edith’s love for her friend comes in the form of a scrapbook that she has made, collecting all of Beverly’s reviews. “I love you Edith, to me, you’re like a sister”, says Beverly, and a TV friendship between a housewife in the impoverished neighbourhoods of New York and a street smart drag queen is cemented forever.
Archie’s (Carroll O’Connor) arrival brings in the gags strong and heavy with Beverly kissing his forehead leaving a bright pink lipstick mark and prompting wonderful facial expressions that embody confusion and disdain all at once from the super talented O’Connor. When he “tests” the fake breasts he makes mention of a certain “rubbery feeling” and the laughs come thick and fast. On top of Archie’s blind sighted homophobia that is played as a joke on Archie himself, and never on Beverly whatsoever, his fear of the wave of “dirty plays and musicals” that were massively popular in the seventies steps up to the fore when he is nervous about the idea of seeing one of Beverly’s shows. This advent of sexually charged theatre during the period cannot be understated when detailing the history of seventies sitcoms – musicals like Let My People Come, Oh! Calcutta! and Stag Movie embraced sexuality on stage, and of course game changers like Hair brought taboo subject matter onto the platform that is the mainstream American theatre. In the case of drag and gay themed plays and musicals, this would also be the case with shows such as The Boys in the Band, Fifth of July and Tribute hitting the stage. Drag queens would also become a staple in mainstream entertainment – and heterosexual audiences flocked to see such acts, including those of performer Lori Shannon who played Beverly LaSalle. Shannon would consider himself a stand-up comic in drag, and performed mostly on stage at popular night spots such as San Francisco’s famed Finocchio’s Club, but would be mostly known to TV audiences as Beverly LaSalle in the three episodes he would appear in, which would ultimately be the first time a drag character would be presented in a sympathetic light on American television, rather than relegated to the clown or the pervert.
Countering Shannon’s camp and sass would be Carroll O’Connor’s Archie who throws a fit and is angry at Edith for inviting Beverly to Christmas dinner. He even makes reference to Beverly’s family “dying of shame”, which in turn has Edith proudly defending her friend and making a profound and beautiful statement that will be the heart of this two-part Very Special Episode: “We are all God’s children, including Beverly.” Edith standing up to Archie is always a brilliant thing to see, and although it seldom happens throughout the series, when it does it is powerful television. Edith Bunker is the emotional heart of the sitcom, and her devotion to both God and her family and friends make her a character that oozes warmth and joy, even though she herself never sees anything special about who she is – as a woman who solidly believes she does not astound, she most certainly does.
Mike’s entrance instantly sparks an argument (Archie’s disdain for human affection, which is targeted at Mike and Gloria kissing under the mistletoe, but also an added expression of Archie just not understanding sentiment) and Beverly re-enters outside of drag, dressed in men’s clothes. Archie is excited by this premise (“She looks wonderful in these pants”), even considering the fact that Beverly may be able to “turn himself around” (code for turning heterosexual). Mike and Gloria look at him with expressions of stupor and Archie turns his anger onto them, expressing the notion that perhaps it’s the heterosexual liberals that are to blame for gay visibility. What follows of course is the catalyst of this double episode, where Beverly and Mike are attacked on the dark New York streets – Mike mistaken for a gay man, and Beverly persecuted for being who he is. Initial news about the attack is a “simple” mugging, however as the episode plays out, it is revealed that it was a homophobic attack on a straight man and a gay man – ultimately bringing these two men together as victims. Here the writers do something incredibly poignant, they dissect the essence of horrible homophobic violence and say “sexuality is not even a factor, even the heterosexual Mike is attacked because he is “thought to be queer”’ rendering Mike and Beverly as one and the same in the Norman Lear universe of human compassion and empathy. However, Mike survives and Beverly is killed. In hospital, Mike makes mention to Gloria that it wasn’t even about money, and that it was simply a violent attack, and here we start to see the onset of an episode from All in the Family dealing with gay bashing. However, this would be a catalyst sidebar, as the episode truly is about Edith and her questioning her faith system – questioning the existence of God; a God who would let someone be killed on the cold frosty Winter streets just because he was “different”. Upon hearing the news of Beverly’s death, Edith’s response is pure confusion and bewilderment that will eventually lead into disillusionment. Jean Stapleton’s remarkable performance here runs a gamut of denial, anger, frustration, deep sorrow and heartache, and what is truly intelligent here is also the role Christmas has in the sphere of grief and loss.
Edith’s duties at home offer an insight into her grief: serving Archie his breakfast coffee being a prime example. This is a statement clearly expressing the fact that Edith is not at all herself, and interestingly enough, when she was sexually assaulted in the episode “Edith’s 50th Birthday”, she threw herself into domestic duties to hide from her ordeal, whereas here in this episode, she forgets duties and rejects religion, because of overwhelming anguish. “Somebody had to kill him…” sobs Edith, held together by her daughter and husband, and when Gloria mournfully responds with “Just because he was different”, her statement hits Edith like a blow in the face, and the very idea that Beverly was killed because he was gay and effeminate drives Edith into a fury against her God whom she thought accepted and loved everyone. Following her exit (supposedly en route to church), Archie voices his personal opinion on the matter, which ultimately is once again a laughable perspective: “Just be ‘normal’ and life can be easier”. But what he is saying is absolutely profound – something that gay men have heard forever, the role of “passing”, of not being themselves, and denying their mannerisms, voice, methods of communication. That the closet can keep you safe from the perils of society and that hiding will keep you alive.
The image of Edith on the porch, sitting alone, with the snow falling before her, is a quietly moody and depressing one. She angrily states “I ain’t going to church”, emphasising her anger at God, and with the follow up of “I may not go to church ever!” When her faith is questioned by the jittery nervous Archie, and she is asked what going to church means to her, she angrily responds “What good does it do?” leaving both Archie and Gloria with a situation on their hands, and an audience perplexed at the normally earthy and grounded Edith Bunker, a blubbering mess confused with rage and anti-religious sentiment. This is powerful television at its best – and to use a gay bashing and gay death as a launch pad for a character like Edith Bunker to question her faith in God is a brave and honourable approach. Beverly LaSalle has died for a generation of older working class Christians to rethink their beliefs and thoroughly understand that gay people are just as important, just as valued and just as loved as their heterosexual counterparts – turning this episode into a bridge towards social (and more importantly) spiritual equality.
The second part of the double episode opens at Gloria and Mike’s place, where they are playing with their infant son. Christmas is meant to be a time of merriment and joy and yet here we have Edith depressed and disengaged; something unsettling to see, especially when it comes to the usually perky and fun loving “dingbat”. Archie tries to force Edith to “snap out of it” and his reasoning comes from a place of misunderstanding and horrific perspectives. He basically suggests that Beverly may have been killed earlier, and that Edith should be thankful that he got to live as long as he did. He explains that “fags kill one another anyway” and this is coming from a place of mainstream media reports that did highlight queer-centric deaths within the “gay community”. Films like Cruising (1980) would reinforce such beliefs, that the world of gay men is dangerous, sick, perverse and contagious like a disease. And as superb as William Friedkin’s thriller is, the film did spark outrage from gay activist groups in that it said what Archie Bunker (a loose representation of straight middle America) believed: that being gay is deadly.
Edith continues her anti-religious sentiment with a stern statement of “God not caring”, and in turn she somehow becomes a “Grinch” of sorts, completely disinterested in the celebration of Christmas. The show once again works more magic within the realm of what makes Christmas episodes in the lexicon of the American sitcom so special, and here it tarnishes the language of Yuletide bliss and forces the audience to associate Christmas time with a period to mourn the devastating loss of queer people. There is an unspoken truth that gay people have been persecuted and killed for the sake of making heterosexual society feel comfortable; a hard hitting message that there is no place for the gay kid at the Christmas table, and therefore these outcasts should die on the street like Beverly LaSalle. What Norman Lear’s universe forces its audience to do is to pay tribute to those invisible queers who have lost lives because of fear, hatred and bigotry and that sometimes it takes that “outsider” (Beverly) to make an “insider” (Edith) feel valued and appreciated.
The heterosexual Edith is drawn to the gay cross dressing Beverly because she sees joy and strength in such a character; something she admires and loves dearly. Beverly was also someone that understood Edith and loved her for who she was. This is present in the devastatingly moving sequence where Archie reveals his Christmas present for Edith (an atrocious fruit hat that does not reflect Edith at all). Later, in an attempt to keep Edith at Gloria’s house in order to “celebrate Christmas”, Archie collects another present addressed to her. Edith opens it and finds a lovely scarf that completely “says Edith Bunker”. It is a beige earthy scarf that would well suit the working class older woman’s house dresses that Edith would don. Archie even comments: “Somebody knows what you like, huh Edith?” When Edith mournfully reads the card: “Merry Christmas to my lovely friend Edith, love Beverly LaSalle” it breaks her heart (and also the hearts of some members of the studio audience too as we hear gasps and “Awwwws”) and it spirals her into a breakdown, running home – running out on her “blood relatives” and wanting to race back to her “soul sister” Beverly.
Finally, “Edith’s Crisis of Faith” brings the message of faith, understanding and love home in the most unlikely manner, because it utilizes the most unlikely member of the family to offer some loving advice. Mike aka “Meathead”, a devout Atheist, delivers a heartfelt speech that moves Edith and reinstates her love for a God who truly does love Beverly and truly does love “all his children”. “I’m sorry I spoiled Christmas”, remains Edith’s sorrowful plea, and then when asked who she is angry at; she replies “I’m mad at God.” Mike consoles her and hears her out: “All I know is that Beverly was killed because of what he was, and we’re all supposed to be God’s children…” Following this, Mike’s words of wisdom unfold and melt Edith’s heart, as he explains: “Maybe we’re not supposed to understand everything all at once…” and then later, in what is one of the most moving moments in the episode, he expresses his own love for his mother-in-law, “If there is a God, you are one of the most understanding people he ever made…we need you…” What Mike is also saying here is that he and the rest of the family need Edith’s faith restored – that her love for God and her compassion for humankind are essential for the dysfunctional Bunkers. Edith re-enters the living room and comes back to the dinner table for Christmas lunch with her faith restored. She begins saying grace: “Dear God…E. Bunker here…I’m sorry that I can’t understand everything all at once, but I am thankful for Mike and Gloria and Joey…” and eventually, “oh…and Archie!”
Transgendered representation in films of the seventies would come as varied as Doris Wishman’s Let Me Die A Woman (1977) and I Want What I Want (1972) starring Anne Heywood in both the male and female counters to the character. However, television would deliver the goods also, as TV seemed to be more issues based, and could explore these topics in far more intimate and intricate spaces. Second Serve (1986) would be a pivotal made for TV movie about transgender surgeon turned professional tennis player Rene Richards, in what would be a sensitive and beautifully drawn piece about a man coming to terms with his desire to become a woman. But Beverly LaSalle would be a pioneering figure in this legacy, and her compassion, warmth, sensitivity, sass, intelligence and absolute love for performance and nurturing the long suffering Edith, will always be a vitally important crowning achievement in such representation in popular culture.