I’ve been reading a lot about the growing partisan divide, and I’ve been as exasperated as many of my fellow liberals at Donald Trump’s latest rantings. It got me thinking of two great television shows: “All in the Family” and “Family Ties”. Both shows are premised on the idea that we can deeply care about friends and family members whose political opinions we deeply oppose. I’ve found this true in my own life. I’m a lifelong liberal Democrat, but in the course of my life I’ve had many close conservative friends and family members whom I deeply cared about. It hasn’t stopped me from expressing my liberal views and it hasn’t stopped them from expressing their conservative views, and we’ve gotten into many arguments. But for those friends and family members, the friendship is far more important than our political differences.
When I listen to Donald Trump, I wonder who would support these views. But by Donald Trump’s ongoing lead in various Republican polls these past few months, it seems that a large segment of the population holds similar views. This shows a great divide within America on how one segment sees the world as oppose to how another segment sees the world. I think it’s important not to demonize those with a different point of view, even if I deeply oppose what they believe in. Emily Nussbaum wrote a similar insight about Archie Bunker in the New Yorker. She wrote:
A proud liberal, Lear had clear ideological aims for his creations: he wanted his shows to be funny, and he certainly wanted them to be hits, but he also wanted to purge prejudice by exposing it. By giving bigotry a human face, Lear believed, his show could help liberate American TV viewers. He hoped that audiences would embrace Archie but reject his beliefs.
…Lear responded with his own Times essay, ‘As I Read How Laura Saw Archie,’ arguing that of course bigots could be lovable, as anyone with a family knew. If Archie Bunker didn’t use harsher language, it was because those words were ‘from another decade.’ Besides, Michael and Gloria, the bleeding-heart liberals, always got the last word. Despite Lear’s playful response, later episodes of ‘All in the Family’ contain many echoes of this debate. The show’s tone gradually softened, and the more caustic slang dropped out; Archie even stopped telling Edith to ‘stifle.’ (As with “M*A*S*H,” its creators were influenced by the rise of feminism.) In Season 8, there’s a trenchant sequence in which Archie, drunk and trapped in a storage room with Michael, talks about his childhood. Yes, his father said ‘n****r’ while he was growing up, Archie says—everybody did—and when Michael tells him what his father said was wrong, Archie delivers a touching, confused defense of the man who raised him, who held his hand, but who also beat him and shoved him in a closet. It was all out of love, Archie insists. ‘How could any man that loves you tell you anything that’s wrong?’ he murmurs, just before he passes out. The scene should have been grotesquely manipulative and mawkish, but, strengthened by O’Connor’s affecting performance, it makes Lear’s point more strongly than any op-ed, even decades later: bigotry is resilient, because rejecting it often means rejecting your own family.
Despite the criticism that “All in the Family” reinforced racism in it’s audience, various studies show that the show actually helped the country become less racist. Christina Von Hodenberg wrote in an article:
Today, 40 years after the sitcom ended its five-year-long reign as the No. 1 prime-time show, we know the answer. Looking at the remaining evidence, historians have concluded there was no “silent majority” of racists cheering on Archie Bunker. Rather, for most viewers in the U.S., the show furthered racial tolerance.
…Without fail, all studies confirm that the truly bigoted liked Archie more than others. But this only concerned a comparatively small camp. All indications were that the cheering white racists (between 5 and 15 percent) were vastly outnumbered by a large majority (60 percent or more) of “mid-dogmatics.” These groups were then complemented by a small camp of progressives (about 20 percent). Thus, “All in the Family” had not only two different audiences, as contemporaries suggested — the progressives laughing at Archie, and the bigots laughing with him — but at least three. The group most neglected by researchers, the middling majority, was key to the program’s overall impact on racial relations.
These were the viewers whose attitudes were in flux, and who were ready to learn from racial satire. We know that this group generally understood the satire, and that it displayed “contradictory” attitudes, such as liking and disliking Archie, or simultaneously liking Archie and his anti-racist counterparts Mike and Lionel. As lead actor Carroll O’Connor reported about his conversations with white viewers in 1972: They would “tell me, ‘Archie was my father; Archie was my uncle.’ It is always was, was, was. It’s not now . . . I have an impression that most white people are . . . in some halting way, trying to reach out . . . or they’re thinking about it.”
Most viewers got a thrill out of Archie while knowing he was wrong.
Robert David Sullivan wrote about the positive influence of “All in the Family”:
All In The Family wasn’t the first TV series to tackle controversial subjects such as racism, rape, and homophobia. What was groundbreaking about the series, which ran from 1971 through 1979 and was the highest-rated show on television for five seasons, is that it mined comedy from hot-button issues, and it explored them through characters we got to know every week, as opposed to guest stars on heavy-handed dramas like The Defenders or Marcus Welby, MD.
And boy, did we get to know the Bunkers, the family at the show’s center.
Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) was an antihero decades before the term was regularly applied to TV characters. Archie never totally “broke bad,” but he had a deep mistrust of the human race, and he tried to provide for his family by taking advantage of every opportunity he could find, including his inherent privileges as a white man in America. He wasn’t “politically incorrect” just for the fun of it, which is why so many sitcoms with superficial “Archie Bunker types” have failed. In the earliest episodes, his cynical worldview is primarily challenged by liberal son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner) and daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers), both boarding at the Bunkers’ while Mike attends college. But by the second season, wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) assumes the show’s voice for optimism and compassion, and her slow struggle to pull Archie away from his comfort zone of suspicion and bitterness becomes the main theme of the series.
Here is one of my favorite episodes of “All in the Family”, when Michael and Gloria finally leave the Bunker house to go to California. Michael finally tells Archie how much he loves Archie, even with all their political differences.
The Family Ties reunion cast members Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton, Meredith Baxter-Birney as Elyse Keaton, Michael Gross as Steven Keaton, Justine Bateman as Mallory Keaton, Tina Yothers as Jennifer Keaton, and
Tracy Pollan as Ellen Reed talk about the relevance of “Family Ties” and the its poking at liberal and conservative attitudes.
In their only talk show appearance together, Carrol O’Connor and Jean Stapleton look back on “All In The Family”
Carrol O’Connor talks about “All in the Family”
Jean Stapleton is interviewed about “All in the Family”
Rob Reiner speaks in detail about his work on the groundbreaking sitcom “All in the Family”. He discusses working with the series ensemble, describes his character “Mike ‘Meathead’ Stivic,” and talks about the atmosphere on the set.
Bud Yorkin discusses the controversial subject matter on “All in the Family”