Sunday, August 13, 2006

Classic Comedy Lookback - All In The Family

I'm not sure when it happened but somewhere along the line I started feeling sympathy for Archie Bunker. Or maybe not sympathy, maybe just empathy. I mean I don't like the guy, and I think that his attitudes on race ethnicity and sexuality are about as repugnant as you can get, but somehow I can muster at least a little feeling for him. Maybe because I've known people like him all my life. Not the bigotry and racism part - although I've known people like that too - but the whole sense of Archie as a hard working average guy in a world over which he has no control. And worst of all, Archie has to deal with his son-in-law the Meathead.

All In The Family came to CBS at a very interesting point in the history of the network and television, the rise of Demographics. At the time CBS had a string of extremely successful shows including, but not limited to, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Mayberry RFD, The Ed Sullivan Show, Gunsmoke, Gomer Pyle USMC, The Jackie Gleason Show, Hogan's Heroes, and Hee Haw. The networks were starting to become more interested in who was actually watching their shows - demographics - and at CBS what they were discovering was that the people watching their shows were older and a higher percentage than with the other networks lived in rural areas. Then as now these groups tended to be less attractive to advertisers so that while the shows were still popular they weren't attracting the people advertisers were interested in. (I've read that there was a sound technical reason for the high rural viewership of CBS, although I don't know if it is entirely accurate. At the time many of the CBS affiliates were Channel 2 in their local markets and the frequencies assigned to that particular channel carries further than frequencies for stations higher on the dial.) What CBS TV president Robert Wood proposed was to sweep out the older skewing rural based programming and introduce newer, more sophisticated programming focussed on winning the urban market. When head of programming Mike Dann objected to cancelling shows that were still successful he soon found himself replaced by a young executive named Fred Silverman. Of the shows named above only Gunsmoke survived the infamous CBS "rural purge". Among the shows brought on to replace the rural shows were M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore and All In The Family.

Based on the BBC series 'Til Death Do Us Part, All In The Family had in fact started at ABC in October 1968 as a pilot called Justice For All (the family name at the time was Justice) and a second pilot was shot in February 1969 as Those Were The Days, but ABC became nervous about the content of the show and passed on the concept. CBS picked it up and shot a third pilot retaining Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton - their characters now renamed Archie and Edith Bunker - but adding Rob Reiner as Michael Stivic and Sally Struthers as his wife (and Archie's daughter) Gloria. Although the basic conflicts between the bigoted and conservative older man and his more liberal son in law were retained from the British series, by the time All In The Family debuted in January 1971 there were other, uniquely American sources of conflict arising. All In The Family wold be one of a rare breed, a relevant topical network situation comedy.

Archie Bunker is clearly meant to be the antagonist of the piece. He's a combative, uneducated, opinionated, bigoted and whiny blue collar worker, a man who demands to be the lord and master of his home ruling from a well upholstered throne placed squarely in front of the television. He uses the whole gamut of racial slurs, including on vary rare occasions the N-word. He verbally bullies his wife, the naive but goodhearted Edith, who has a significantly less well-upholstered chair next to his in front of the TV. The principal irritant in Archie's happy home comes in the form of his son-in-law Michael who is all the things Archie hates - a liberal, a Polish-American, and an unemployed college student who is eating Archie's and having sex with Archie's daughter. It seems relatively clear that not only aren't we supposed to like Archie, but that Archie was created to ridicule bigotry by making him such an unattractive character and one who generally loses because of it. Indeed the network sought to make this clear in a disclaimer that ran before the first episode: "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." However CBS did a survey after the show had become a hit and writers were suggesting that by making Archie Bunker and his prejudices a figure of ridicule it would reduce prejudice. The survey showed that All In The Family actually reinforced prejudices; William S. Paley, had it repressed.

The show debuted to controversy about everything from Archie's language and bigotry to the fact that for the first time on television we actually heard a toilet flush, things which also CBS chairman William S. Paley. However in the first season - or rather half season since the show debuted in January - the show did not perform well, finishing in 34th place and facing the possibility of cancellation. The next season though the show finished in first place, and for the remainder of its run it never finished lower than 12th and that was only in one season 1976-77. The 1971 ratings can probably be explained by noting that in that year the show was airing right after CBS's rural block of The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Hee Haw while for the 1971-72 season it let off the Saturday night lineup, a lineup remade to eliminate the rural shows.

Archie Bunker has been referred to as "a lovable bigot" and it's probably true. There were people who could identify with him, and people who knew people like him who were basically good people except for some of the views they held. The truth is that Archie was a basically good person who held views that more "enlightened" people found repugnant. Archie worked hard, sometimes driving cab at night in addition to his day job at the loading dock in order to support his family. For all that he told Edith to "stifle yourself" he was devoted to his wife and wanted only the best for his daughter. He was ecstatic the first time that Gloria got pregnant even though it meant another mouth to feed and when she suffered a miscarriage he was there for her. Perhaps the most absurd thing that I have seen from time to time about Archie is that the character was a bad father. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

While Archie was clearly meant to be the show's antagonist because of his views the character who was meant to reflect the "more enlightened" viewpoint was Michael. And yet viewed over the course of the series and a bit beyond, Michael is essentially a mirror image of Archie and not necessarily any more attractive. Through most of the series their relationship is combative. Michael always seem to be poking Archie, attacking the older man's preconceived notions with his own positions, which in their own way were just as preconceived and biased in their self-righteousness as Archie's. There were other sources of antagonism. Michael's education fuelled his self-righteous side - he was smarter than Archie and so knew better on the "important issues." It entirely ignores the root causes for Archie's lack of education; like many men who came of age in the 1930s he was forced to quit school to work to help support his family during the Depression, after which he found himself in the military during World War II after which he had to get a job to support himself and his wife and eventually his daughter. And I suspect that that is another reason why Archie has problems with Michael - he doesn't believe that "The Meathead" is good enough for his "little goil" and in the end (although it is long after All In The Family ends) we find out that he's right. While Michael works on his Masters and his PhD in whatever he's studying, Gloria is the breadwinner for her family. She has bought into the notion that so many women did of supporting her man while he goes through school, and even though she considers working to be "liberated" behaviour in the end she doesn't benefit, particularly since his attitudes towards women aren't nearly as progressive as his positions in other areas. At times he makes her feel stupid and inadequate because she doesn't have his level of education, even though he had promised that she'd get the chance to go back to school once he completed his degree. Eventually, established in a home of their own in California and away from Archie and Edith, Michael and Gloria's marriage crumbles. Although there had been signs before the true rift is first seen in the two part episode "California Here We Are", where the couple have separated because Gloria has had an affair, and later - after the show become Archie Bunker's Place - we learn that Michael has abandoned his wife and son and taken up with a "flower child" on a commune (this was part of the set-up for the short lived Sally Struther's spin-off series Gloria).

All In The Family was one of the truly great television shows of all time. Although it was followed by a number of socially relevant series over the years, some adapted from British originals - notably Sanford And Son which had originally been the British Steptoe And Son - All In The Family seemed consistently willing to tackle taboos, more so than other shows. All In The Family did episodes about menopause, breast cancer, miscarriage, rape, homosexuality and the right to die. For that it's noteworthy, but for the creation of a character like Archie Bunker it shines. If the show had simply been Archie and Michael squabbling, with Archie being perceived by us as just a stupid bigot then the controversial material wouldn't have been enough for it to become the most popular show on TV and stay there for several seasons. The writing was excellent, and the cast one of the best in television then or now. But for me, perhaps the most important aspect was that Archie wasn't a static character. He evolved. While he may have remained a bigot he grew increasingly accepting of people and their differences. In the end that sort of character development is what sets All In The Family apart from so many other series

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