This will be the first in a series of retrospectives about the sitcoms of Norman Lear and how they changed the landscape of Television.
I never said a guy who wears glasses is a queer. A guy who wears glasses is a four-eyes. A guy who is a fag is a queer.
The ancient Egyptian kings, the fairy-ohs.
No bum that can’t speak poifect English oughta stay in this country…oughta be de-exported the hell outta here!
Back in my day, they wasn’t called Chicanos or Anglo-Americans or Afro-Americans, we was all Americans so if a guy was a jig or a spick, it was his own business.
If your spics and your spades want their rightful share of the American dream, let ’em get out there and hustle for it like I done.
If you were prejudiced, Archie, when I came into your house, you would have called me a “coon” or a “nigger.” But you didn’t say that, I heard you clear as a bell, right straight out you said: “colored”.
Now don’t go telling Lionel! He’ll get on his tom-tom and alert all the other jungle bunnies.
If you thought the above quotes could be attributed to Donald Trump, you’d be forgiven for that mistake. Wrong, but forgiven. No, these quotes are from the 70’s TV show All in the Family, each of them uttered by Archie Bunker, or about him.
Before we even dive into the series, it’s important to take a moment and talk about Norman Lear, the brain behind the show, as well as its spin offs. Lear is perhaps one of the most important figures in TV history, and many of the shows we take for granted today wouldn’t have been possible without Lear’s brilliance. In the coming weeks I’ll talk about his other shows, but for now, it’s all about the residents of 704 Hauser Street.
Based on the hit British show Till Death Us Do Part, All in the Family tells the story of “loveable bigot” Archie Bunker, his ditzy wife Edith, their daughter Gloria, and her husband Mike Stivic. After several false starts and a few cast changes, (Mickey Rooney was asked to play Archie Bunker originally but declined), the show as we know it today debuted on January 12, 1971. It would be the number one rated show for the next five years, and never going lower than 12th place in its remaining three years.
It was apparent from the very beginning that this was no ordinary show. Gone was the squeaky clean humor of The Brady Bunch or Gilligan’s Island. Harmless topics were scarce, as All in the Family was very much a reflection of the times, and the times were turbulent. It has the distinction of being the first show to have the sound of a toilet flushing, not to mention some potty humor to go with it. In nine seasons (not counting the Archie Bunker’s Place spin off), AitF covered the following topics:
Gloria has a miscarriage
Edith goes through menopause
Edith is the victim of an attempted rape
Archie joins a white supremacist group
The murder of a drag queen that causes Edith to lose her belief in God
And those are the stand outs, as there are many more-most really-which dealt with the dynamics of a bigot and a bleeding heart liberal living under the same roof. Race, politics, sex and sexuality were weekly topics, and the language used wasn’t always politically correct (though to be fair, the idea of political correctness hadn’t taken hold thankfully). Individually, none of the characters are especially likeable. Archie is a short tempered racist who verbally abuses most everyone he comes into contact with, especially his family. Edith is almost too good (and there’s a very funny episode about that sentiment), and usually just puts up with her husband, though occasionally she fights back when her belief in something is strong enough. Gloria aside from being annoying, would smack her father on the top of the head, or yank his fingers apart when he really pissed her off. Lastly, there’s Mike, the perennial college student. The bleeding heart liberal who thinks he knows everything (and would love all the PC language of today). Yet mix them together and it works.
There are two reasons for this: the writing was top notch, and then of course the actors were simply amazing. You believed in these characters. In my case, I knew people like Archie and Edith, even had some in my family, but at its heart they all loved one another though it never dwelt in manipulative emotion. No, when something happened like Edith’s near rape, or Mike and Gloria leaving for California, when Beverly LaSalle is murdered, all these situations evoked honest emotion from the characters and from the audience. While AitF is known for its comedy, it really excelled at the drama. In one episode, one of Mike’s friends comes to visit. When Archie finds out he’s a draft dodger, Carroll O’Connor lights up the screen with a performance and speech that leaves you breathless. It’s one of the few times you are put in his shoes, and understand why he acts and feels the way he does.
Archie is a complex character, and in lesser hands could have been nothing more than a caricature of the suburban white racist. O’Connor and the writers imbue him with shreds of empathy and humanity. As the series progresses you see he does the wrong things for the right reasons. That certainly doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it makes him relatable. Who wouldn’t do whatever it takes to take care of their family or do what they believe is right. Whether it’s forging Edith’s name on a loan paper to buy a bar, sneaking his grandson off to be baptized against Mike and Gloria’s wishes, or faking a back injury to get a settlement from a car accident, it’s never been for personal gain, but to make life better for Edith and his daughter.
Archie, like many today, is confused and ill prepared for all the changes going on around him. This is a man who went through the great depression, served in WWII (the big one, as he referred to it), and lives in his cocoon of nostalgia. He dreams of a time when things were better, or he thinks were better. He does try to make sense of things the best he can, but his attitudes are so ingrained into his persona, he simply can’t get through the fear of progress. Nowhere is this more evident than when two major things upend his life: 1: when he gets laid off and faces the very real possibility of having to go on welfare, and 2: when he buys the bar, and it nearly shuts down. This is Bunker at his most vulnerable and most pitiable.
When all is said and done however, there’s still that warmth and love he has for Edith, especially after her assault. His awkwardness in trying to comfort her is almost painful. He wants to help her, but doesn’t know how. When Mike and Gloria leave for California, and he has an awkward goodbye with Mike, he sits in his chair, and dabs at the tears in his eyes.
Archie though, without Edith, would be nothing. In many ways they do complete one another. Despite her being called a dingbat and to stifle herself, it’s her strength and wisdom-yes, wisdom-that binds the family together. Edith’s inability to lie about anything is a direct result almost of Archie’s willingness to bend the truth when need arises. She’s the peacemaker, the mother we always wanted, and as ferocious as a Mama Bear when she has to. Her reaction and response to her husband when he confesses he had an affair is pitch perfect, and though she ultimately forgives, she’ll never forget. Jean Stapleton is remarkable in her portrayal of the Queens NY, housewife. From the shrill voice, to the blank looks, Edith is the embodiment of maternal love.
Mike and Gloria the daughter and son-in-law are merely the other side of the coin from Archie. As unwilling to bend in their beliefs as Archie is in his, much of the friction comes from Mike and Archie butting heads. Whether it’s Archie calling Mike a meathead or dumb polack or Mike calling him a racist or a bigot, there’s really little difference between them. Sally Struthers as Gloria, while not the best actress in the world is uplifted and made better by her peers. There are times where she does get it right and it either breaks your heart (such as when she has a miscarriage), or making you laugh (when she gets a good zinger off on her father). Rob Reiner is about on par with Struthers, and if nothing else they have a great dynamic, and he is also lifted up from the strength of others. His finest moment is when he’s stuck in the cellar of the bar with Archie and they get drunk together and allow themselves to be open. It’s tender, funny, and very human. This is how people talk in real life, they talk with each other and not at one another. I think the writers understood that, and when dialog overlapped as it often does, it gave it an authenticity that shows previous to AitF lacked.
There are many shows that don’t hold up over time. Leave it to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, etc, but not only does AitF pass that test, it’s as relevant today as it was 45 years ago when it debuted. It’s very easy to see Donald Trump in Archie, Bernie Sanders in Mike, Hillary Clinton in Gloria, and as a mix of all of them. The racial issues, the homophobia, the cold war of Archie’s time (and the terrorist threat of ours), makes it seem like not much has changed. Yet we have gay marriage, the first African American President, the first woman to run for President, so there have been changes-yet there’s still so much further to go, and All in the Family will always be the barometer by which we judge our society.
And that’s why I think not only is All in the Family the best and most important TV show to ever air, Norman Lear is the most important person to ever work in the business. AitF broke boundaries, took risks, and threw light on subjects that had never been discussed in a serious fashion while making us laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Those were the days, indeed.