All in the Family

views updated

All in the Family

All in the Family, with fellow CBS series The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H, redefined the American situation comedy in the early 1970s. Based on the hit British show Till Death Us Do Part, All in the Family introduced social realism and controversy, conveyed in frank language, to the American sitcom while retaining the genre's core domestic family and revisiting its early blue-collar milieu. That generic reconstruction proved to be as popular as it was innovative: It was number one in the Nielsen ratings for its first five full years on the air and ranked out of the Top 20 only once in its 12-year broadcast life. At the same time, it created a long and occasionally vituperative discussion over the propriety of racism, sexism, religious bias, and politics as the situation of a half-hour comedy.

All in the Family was the creation of writer/producer Norman Lear, who purchased the rights to Till Death Us Do Part in 1968 after reading of the turmoil the show had provoked in its homeland. Citing the British comedy's attention to major social issues such as class and race and to internal "generation gap" family conflicts, Lear and his Tandem production company developed two pilot remakes, Justice for All and Those Were the Days, in 1968-69 for ABC. Concerned about audience tests showing a negative reaction to protagonist Archie Justice, ABC rejected both pilots. Lear's agents shipped the second pilot to CBS, which was about to reconfigure its schedule to appeal to a younger, more urban demographic. Though sharing ABC's concerns about the coarseness of renamed paterfamilias Archie Bunker, CBS programmers were enthusiastic about Lear's show, now called All in the Family, and scheduled its debut for January 12, 1971.

The first episode of All in the Family introduced audiences to loudmouth loading-dock worker Archie Bunker (played by Carroll O'Connor), his sweetly dim wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), their rebellious daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers), and her scruffy radical husband Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner), all of whom shared the Bunker domicile at 704 Hauser Street in Queens. After an opening that suggested a sexual interlude between Michael and Gloria far in excess of what sitcoms had previously offered, the audience heard Archie's rants about race ("If your spics and your spades want their rightful piece of the American dream, let them get out there and work for it!"), religion ("Feinstein, Feinberg—it all comes to the same thing and I know that tribe!"), ethnicity ("What do you know about it, you dumb Polack?") and the children's politics ("I knew we had a couple of pinkos in this house, but I didn't know we had atheists!"). Michael gave back as good as he got, Gloria supported her husband, and Edith forebore the tirades from both sides with a good heart and a calm, if occasionally stupefied, demeanor in what quickly came to be the show's weekly formula of comedic conflict.

Immediate critical reaction to all of this ranged from wild praise to apocalyptic denunciation, with little in between. Popular reaction, however, was noncommittal at first. The show's initial ratings were low, and CBS withheld its verdict until late in the season, when slowly rising Nielsen numbers convinced the network to renew it. Summer reruns of the series, along with two Emmys, exponentially increased viewership; by the beginning of the 1971-72 season, All in the Family was the most popular show in America. In addition to his "pinko" daughter and son-in-law, Archie's equally opinionated black neighbor George Jefferson, his wife's leftist family, his ethnically diverse workplace and his all-too-liberal church became fodder for his conservative cannon. Household saint Edith was herself frequently in the line of Archie's fire, with his repeated imprecation "Stifle yourself, you dingbat!" becoming a national catch phrase. The social worth of the Bunkers' battles became the focus of discussions and commentary in forums ranging from TV Guide to The New Yorker to Ebony, where Archie Bunker was the first white man to occupy the cover. Social scientists and communication scholars joined the debate with empirical studies that alternately proved and disproved that All in the Family's treatment of race, class, and bigotry had a malign effect on the show's viewers and American society.

As the controversy over All in the Family raged throughout the 1970s, the series itself went through numerous changes. Michael and Gloria had a son and moved out, first to the Jeffersons' vacated house next door and then to California. Archie, after a long layoff, left his job on the loading dock and purchased his longtime neighborhood watering hole. And Edith, whose menopause, phlebitis, and attempted rape had been the subjects of various episodes, died of a stroke. With her passing, All in the Family in the fall of 1979 took on the new title, Archie Bunker's Place. Edith's niece Stephanie (Danielle Brisebois), who had moved in with the Bunkers after the Stivics left Queens, kept a modicum of "family" in the show; with Archie's bar and his cronies there now the focus, however, Archie Bunker's Place, which ran through 1983 under that title, addressed character much more than the social issues and generational bickering that had defined the original.

Time has been less kind to All in the Family than to its fellow 1970s CBS sitcom originals. Its social realism, like that of Depression-era dramas, is so rooted in its age and presented so broadly that it translates to other places and eras far less successfully than the character-driven MTM and the early M*A*S*H. Its most lasting breakthrough in content was not a greater concern with political and social issues but a growing obsession with sex as a verbal and visual source of humor. Even Lear's resurrection of three-camera live videotaping, a standard of early television variety shows, which added speed and intensity to the bristling wit of the early episodes, looked cheap and tired by the end of the series. Nonetheless, at its best, All in the Family used sharp writing and strong acting to bring a "real" world the genre had never before countenanced into the American situation comedy. If its own legacy is disappointing, the disappointment may speak as much to the world it represented as it does the show itself.

—Jeffrey S. Miller

Further Reading:

Adler, Richard P. All in the Family: A Critical Appraisal. New York, Praeger, 1979.

Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. Boston, Unwin Hyman, 1989.

McCrohan, Donna. Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria. New York, Workman, 1987.

Miller, Jeffrey S. Something Completely Different: British Television and American Culture, 1960-1980. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999.