In the library in my city, one can check out a wide selection of DVDs, from feature films, to documentaries, to foreign films, and whole seasons of a television series. One day I noticed a few DVDs of the series All In The Family. I vaguely remember watching the show as a kid, and I’ve heard a lot about how great a series it is, so I decided to check out a few seasons worth of shows. During that week I was on an “All In the Family” binge. I found it to be a very funny, very touching, and very socially conscience show. I looked up youtube and found that you could find whole episodes of the show in that site. I’ve always heard it said that television is just a vast wasteland with no redeeming value, but a show like “All In the Family” challenges that notion. For a show that first aired over thirty years ago, All In The Family is still a very relevant and entertaining show and it still challenges us with problems that remain thirty years later.
The show began on Tuesday, January 12, 1971, with the following disclaimer:
“The program you are about to see is All In The Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter we hope to show, in a mature fashion, just how absurd they are.”
Norman Lear and his partner Alan Yorkin had taken the idea of “All In The Family” from a British comedy called “Till Death Us Do Part” about a bigoted blue-collar worker named Alf Garnett. Fred Silverman, the head of CBS, was looking to replace shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies”, “Mayberry RFD” and “Green Acres” with shows that would appeal to younger audiences, so he give Lear and Yorkin a chance to produce thirteen episodes of the show as a midseason replacement. To prepare for the reaction to the controversial subjects that “All In the Family” would deal with, the switchboards at CBS were put on alert when the first episode was aired. The initial episodes, though, garnered low ratings and there was talk about canceling the show. Summer reruns started word of mouth and its initial episodes won 3 Emmys. When it returned for a full season in the Fall of 1971, it was a popular hit, becoming the top rated television series for six consecutive seasons.
Watching these shows on DVD, I’m amazed at the range of subjects that this show dealt with. Racism. Homosexuality. The Vietnam War. Labor strife. Gun control. Watergate. Rape. Draft resistence. Women’s equality. When I think of the shows that preceded “All In The Family”, like “The Beverly Hillbillies”, I realize just how different this series must’ve seemed to the audiences of the early 1970s. What I like about this series, though, is how this show could be socially relevant and still be entertaining and funny. I’ve seen quite a few movies and television series from the late 1960s and early 1970s that try to be political, but are boring and a bit overly serious.
“All In The Family” manages to be both politically relevant and entertaining because the four main characters are so funny and endearing. Archie Bunker, Edith “Dingbat” Bunker, Michael “Meathead” Stivic, and Gloria Stivic are very likable and funny people, in spite of all their prejudices, weaknesses and frailties. Archie Bunker is a bigot, but he’s also a loving husband and father. Many of the episodes begin with Archie expressing some bigoted opinion of his, and the rest of the episode puts him in the position where his prejudice is challenged by some circumstance. In one of the episodes that I watched, Archie Bunker goes on television to give an editorial against gun control. When Archie and his family go to a bar to celebrate his appearance on television, they are held up to gun point by some muggers. In a famous episode that I watched on youtube, Sammy Davis Jr. visits the Bunker home after he leaves a briefcase in Archie’s taxi cab. Archie usually is uncomfortable around African Americans, but he has also been a big fan of Sammy Davis Jr. and is thrilled to have him in his house. I wanted to watch it because it is one of the most famous episodes in the series’ run. Here is a segment from that episode.
It’s not just Archie that makes the show. Edith is a lovable and kind woman. Though she may seem like a submissive woman who puts Archie’s interests over her own, Edith is able to stand up for herself when she has to. In one episode that I watched, Edith gets into a fight with her daughter Gloria because Gloria felt that Edith was a doormat. In the end of the episode, Edith puts her foot down and prevents an argument from Gloria and Meathead from escalating to a point of no return. In another episode, Edith defies Archie and stays at a job that Archie wants her to quit. I like Edith’s kindness and her ability to see the good in people.
Michael “Meathead” reminds me a lot of myself when I was younger. Earnest, a bit bookish, very liberal and sure of himself. My favorite parts of many of the shows are when “Meathead” is debating Archie Bunker on some political issue. I used to have these same type of political debates with my father and with various conservative friends during my teens and my twenties. Though the show is a fairly liberal show, it doesn’t hesitate to deflate some of Meathead’s self-righteousness, even though he and Gloria are the liberal spokespeople in the show. In the early episodes, Meathead is a bit of a male chauvinist, until his clashes with Gloria teach him to be more sensitive to the prejudices that women face. One of my favorite Meathead episodes occurs when he is tempted to have an affair with Bernadette Peters, but he runs away before anything happened. I’ve only watched up to Season 6, but it seems that Meathead’s relationship with Gloria grew more as equal partners than in the early episodes.
Part of that has to do with the evolution of Gloria. In the first season, Gloria is actually kind of boring to me, more prone to lecture and to spout feminist ideas. In the later seasons, Gloria is funnier and more human. In that episode where Gloria gets into a fight with her mom, I like how Gloria grows to respect Edith and sees the wisdom behind the “Dingbat” facade. When Gloria gets pregnant, she is very forceful and asserts herself with her husband.
One of the things I most admire about the series is how it tackles serious issues. It is a comedy that risks dealing with very serious subjects, and it can be funny one minute and deadly serious the next minute. In one episode, Archie finds a swastika sprayed in the front of his door. It turned out that the grafitti was meant for a Jewish man a few houses away. A man from the Jewish Defense League, a vigilante group, visits the Bunker home to protect them, and Michael and the vigilante get into a heated debate on the merits of violence as a deterrent to antisemitism. When I listened to the Jewish vigilante defend his violent tactics as the only means of protecting the Jewish people in a hostile world, it made me think of the arguments I often hear from the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Two episodes deal with the sad issue of rape. In one episode, Gloria almost gets raped when she walks alone one Saturday morning near a construction site. When they report the crime to the police, the officer relates how rape victims are often treated in court at that time, which intimidates women from ever reporting the crime. Edith relates to her daughter how as a young person she was almost a victim of a rape and that Gloria had a responsibility to report the crime so that other women do not become victims. In another episode, Edith is attacked by a rapist, and Gloria reminds her mother of the responsibility to identify the rapist who was caught and to put him in jail. Both episodes challenge the prevalent notion that somehow the rape victims were responsible for being raped due to the way they dressed or where they chose to walk. The episodes were very powerful because horrible things happened to television characters that I grew to care about. When I was in college, I remember women’s student groups organizing “Take Back The Night” walks to assert a woman’s right to walk in safety in night classes. Sadly, in Afganistan, Iran, and the Sudan, sexual violence is used as a way of controlling women.
Racism is a frequent subject of the show. Lionel Jefferson, an African American, becomes friends of the Bunkers, and he frequently makes sarcastic remarks after hearing some of Archie Bunker’s bigotry. Lionel’s father is just as prejudiced against whites as Archie is prejudiced against African Americans, and he challenges both their prejudices when he first dates a white woman, then marries an interracial bride. The arguments between George Jefferson and Archie Bunker are some of the most entertaining parts of “All In The Family”. I especially appreciate the fact that Lionel’s in-laws are an interracial couple because I am in an interracial marriage. In 1967 Richard and Mildred Loving won the Supreme Court case that won the legal right for interracial marriages in all fifty states, and shows like “All In the Family” helped make it more acceptable to middle America.
At the time “All In The Family” was on television, America was going through great changes. I’m sure the average American had a hard time adjusting to Watergate, the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, inflation woes, terrorist threats, the problems of integrating the races, the feminist and gay rights movement. Some of the changes were good, some were bad. Many people criticize “All In The Family” for glorifying Archie Bunker’s bigotry, but I don’t think the show does so. When I watch the show , I see a man who is scared of changes in society that he really doesn’t comprehend. Rob Reiner once said that All In The Family showed that “people can be ignorant and still have loving, human qualities.”The point of each episode in “All In The Family” is to challenge Archie’s prejudices, and it seems that Archie slowly grows. A great example of this is the episode where Mike invites a draft dodger to the Bunkers’ home for a Christmas dinner.
My early childhood was spent in navy bases, so I had a rather sheltered life. When my dad retired from the navy and I lived with civilian families, I first encountered racism. I met Filipinos who didn’t like Chinese. Chinese who didn’t like Vietnamese. Vietnamese who did not like Mexicans. Mexicans who did not like African Americans. African Americans who did not like whites. Whites who did not like gays. And so on. Archie Bunker’s diatribes sound very familiar to me, as I’ve heard similar things coming out of the mouths of various people. I think everyone has some sort of prejudice. It’s only a bad thing when one doesn’t try to learn and overcome whatever prejudices a person has. I think that’s the main lesson that I learned from “All In The Family”.
Youtube interviews with Carrol O Connor, Jean Stapleton and Rob Reiner