It is a fitting epitaph to today’s mediocre and thoroughly pedestrian slew of sitcoms that one of television’s finest, if not the finest, has finally been given its due on home video. Perhaps a challenge, it is not entirely impossible to suck the same startle and amusement from the marrow of All in the Family some 40 plus years after the show’s debut. But when All in the Family (1968-79) premiered, Hollywood, and indeed America, were at a cultural crossroads. The ground beneath both had shifted with what was then perceived as a steady decline in our socio-economic prosperity. Until All In the Family, television had basically chosen to ignore these looming changes, flooding the market with sanitized versions of life at home, or with a roster of fanciful adventure and sci-fi shows to counterbalance the status quo, even as all chose to maintain that oppressively squeaky clean reputation of America as a somewhat glamorous, clean cut portrait of quaint domesticity.
All in the Family did more than simply alter this perception. Quite simply, it shook television’s complacency about the ‘traditional’ American family to its core. For the very first time we were given a portrait, not of the socially affluent suburban house dweller who dressed for dinner with every hair and behavioral nuance firmly in place, but that of the sloppy, haggard and emotionally frazzled chaos facing middle class working families valiantly struggling just to get by.
The genius of All in the Family was that it sought to illustrate the American family unit not as we all wished and hoped it could be, but rather as it was for millions living across the fruited plain. The Bunkers could have been our neighbors. In fact, we probably knew more families like theirs than we did the Van Dykes or the Cleavers who had come before them. And that made All in the Family poignantly relevant to an America striving to keep its collective head above the water.
With so much written about the Bunkers since their debut it’s easy to forget that they almost didn’t make it to TV. Initially CBS only commissioned 13 episodes to fill a mid-seaon programming gap. Norman Lear had unsuccessfully tried twice to market the series under two different titles with an alternate cast but to no avail. It is rumored that Lear’s first choice for Archie was Mickey Rooney. But with the necessity to fill dead air CBS reluctantly agreed to green light Lear’s new show under its new title ‘All in the Family’ - but only if Lear preempted each episode with a disclaimer profusely apologizing for what executives had already deemed its incendiary content.
Neither Lear nor CBS could have expected the tidal wave of audience inquiries that followed once the initial 13 episodes went off the air. Yet flood the front offices fans did, with enthusiastic praise for both the show and its stars. Officially debuting in the fall, All in the Family went on to become one of the flagship programs in CBS’s lineup – launching two successful TV spinoffs (Maude and The Jeffersons). It also became a cultural touchstone and the only series in CBS’s history then to remain #1 in the Nielson ratings for a consecutive 5 years.
It’s become somewhat fashionable in this age of political correctness, and far too much of an oversimplification, to simply whitewash Carroll O’Connor’s iconic Archie Bunker as nothing more than a bigoted, hate-mongering hypocrite and racist. Had Archie only been a bigot and a racist, it is unlikely we would still be talking about him some 40 years since All in the Family’s premiere. But the show’s creator, Norman Lear and his staff of savvy writers knew better, as did Carroll O’Connor who created one of the most loveably flawed and outrageously sympathetic patriarchs that television has ever known.
The comedy derived from watching O’Connor rail about the ‘hebes’, ‘spics’, ‘wops’ and ‘jungle bunnies’ – to name but a handful of the slurs Archie frequently bandied about - does not stem from the insult, but from Lear’s ability to illustrate just how utterly mistaken Archie was in his views; exposing his foibles while making none of the more obvious judgment calls that would have rendered All in the Family liberal speak-ease for the ‘message’ sitcom. Nevertheless, the point is made by both Lear and O’Connor. Archie might be misguided in his views, but he could also be your grandfather.
And Lear and his writers also proved unafraid to challenge the more pressing social issues facing America at that time; abortion, rape, homosexuality, race related violence, staggering unemployment, the war in Viet Nam and so on. Indeed, the world-weary oppression that had caused Americans to increasingly feel isolated in their own homes came charging up the steps of 704 Hauser Street in Astoria, Queens; the fictional home of the Bunkers. But the cast of All in the Family did not simply face these demons as a morality play. Rather, like the lower middle class scrappers they are each character challenged and fought back on their own terms to keep their own thin slice of the ever-dwindling American apple pie.
To say that All in the Family reinvigorated America with hope and promise for the future at a time when both were in woefully short supply is perhaps overstating the show’s premise. But there is no denying that the Bunkers were a walking illustration of America’s collective desire to rise above its then current malaise and forge a new, more permanent place that reality seemed intent on denying the traditional family unit of its generation.
During its initial run, All in the Family took a stark, unvarnished good look at the social issues that both traditional entertainment as well as the political machinery of its day seemed unwilling, or at the very least, powerless to address in any sort of concrete way. Crime, inflation, economic instability, et al; the show became a flash point of heated discussion that sought to frankly address, often in a pseudo-humorous way, the socio-political anxieties that had all but crippled America’s ability to take a clear-eyed look at itself.
Of course, Archie couldn’t do this alone, even though he arguably would have rather tried. So Lear and his writers gave him a dysfunctional family unit to navigate through; ‘dingbat’ wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton), daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers) and her seemingly unemployable college hippie husband, Mike ‘Meathead’ Stivic (Rob Reiner). The disagreements between Archie and Mike eventually became an integral part of the show, pitting Archie’s arch conservatism, often sympathetically flawed, against Mike’s equally problematic ultra-liberalism. “Sticks and stones may break my bones…but you are one dumb Pollock!” Archie would rail, forcing Mike into a juicy shouting match in which no barb was spared.
Over the years Archie’s mounting inability to cope with his own changing social times made for some very funny TV moments. As when he erroneously suggested that Shirley Temple was too young to know she was doing anything ‘wrong’ by dancing with Bill Bojangles Robinson to which Mike reasoned that if God had wanted whites and blacks to dance together “he’d a’ given us rhythm too.” Or the moment when Archie frustratingly attempted to explain that ‘God-damn’ was “beautiful words from the holy book…don’t show your ignorance, Edith!”
But the moment that elicited the longest recorded audience laugh in series’ history came when Archie shared a cab with Sammy Davis Jr. In gratitude, Sammy – recognizing Archie’s aversion to blacks but refusing to be riled or even unruffled by it – agrees to pose for a photograph with Archie. On the count of three Sammy kissed Archie for the photo, resulting in one of the most awkward and deeply paralytic angst ridden double-takes Carroll O’Connor ever made.
During the show’s run the Bunkers had their share of neighbors; Louise (Isobel Sanford) and George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) and their son, Lionel (Mike Evans), Irene Lorenzo (Betty Garrett) and Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur). All of them made their mark, the first and the last getting their own successful spinoff series.
In the 40 plus years since its premiere, All in the Family has lost none of its raw intensity to get under our skin. The cultural angst over war, abortion, race relations, the foibles of human sexuality, etc. are perennially with us. Topics that were timely back then seem strangely more timeless now, even as that TV vintage that spawned the Bunker clan looks more like a relic, not simply from another time, but another planet. It isn’t an overstatement to suggest that everyone watched All in the Family back in its heyday. With only three major networks to choose from, the show’s audience was practically guaranteed and 65 million regularly tuned in to get their fill of laughter and social commentary seamlessly blended and effortlessly sold as mass entertainment.
The tragedy in today’s programming is that there is no room for ground-breaking television like All in the Family. Thankfully, there is more than ample room for it on home video. Ah yes, “those were the days”. And Shout! Factory has resurrected them in one box set for the first time. To what effect? Plenty. Sony, the previous custodians of single season incarnations marketed on DVD has afforded Shout! the opportunity to repackage everything from those single seasons, while tacking on a few more extras to sweeten the deal. First off, Shout!’s transfer quality seems to be identical to Sony’s. Is that good or bad?
Norman Lear always wanted a very earthy ‘real’ look to All in the Family, and while I would have sincerely preferred that Shout! go back to the original elements and do some digital boosting and clean up to get these transfers looking their optimal best, I can’t rightly say that these episodes look any better or worse than I recall from my original TV broadcast viewing experience. Recorded on digital tape, rather than film, the image suffers from color bleeding and all the other shortcomings inherent in the medium; halo effects, streaking during fast motion, and a general softness that pretty much kills fine detail. The Dolby mono is adequate, but just that. Again, it’s a pity that one of the best TV sitcoms ever made hasn’t been given the upgrade it so obviously deserves. But considering the time and money it would take to remaster 208 episodes properly, frankly, it isn’t all that surprising either!
Extras include a new, very brief interview with Norman Lear, two documentaries about the series, the pilot for Archie Bunker’s Place and Gloria (the two failed spinoffs after All in the Family went off the air) and the two failed pilots that helped launch the series; both starring O’Connor and Stapleton, but with Tim McIntire and Kelly Jean Peters as Mike and Gloria in the first, and Chip Oliver and Candy Azzara in the latter. We also get a handsome 40 page booklet with critiques by noted TV critics, with background info on the series. While this DVD box set won’t win any awards for best remastering effort, strictly speaking its content is worth its weight in gold. Recommended on that basis alone. Plan your purchases accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)