Home / All in the Family: The greatest show in television history

All in the Family: The greatest show in television history

Please Share...Print this pageTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Tumblr0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

All in the Family made its debut 32 years ago today, January 12, 1971. To a significant extent, the show was designed by it’s liberal Jewish creator (Norman Lear) to be a set-up about the working class white Republican bigot. Ol’ Archie’s foolish bigotry was to be the butt of the jokes. Not that Archie was ever evil, but just stupid and uneducated- otherwise, he’d be a good liberal.

However, unlike the wickedly demagogic so-called “People for the American Way” that Lear later founded, he had greater honesty and integrity in the development of this show. Having set up the basic characters and situation, Lear and his co-writers followed the logic of the characters -how real people would react in these circumstances- rather than just delivering cheap political broadsides.

Following this path led them to significantly different effect than they probably originally intended, and indeed than what they may have thought they were creating. For one thing, it rapidly became clear that Archie Bunker was not really a racist or bigot in any meaningful sense. This is not to say that he was always well informed, or that he didn’t have a distorted understanding of other ethnic or social groups than his own, but that he was not hateful nor did he assume any air of smug superiority. Most importantly, he would never have acted to oppress anyone. Indeed, he had love and compassion for his fellow man (though he had the graciousness not to carry on about it) – if not always a good understanding.

The aspect of the show that most especially came out different than what the creators probably intended was the substantially negative nature of the Michael Stivic character. For starters, the meathead was very much both a mooch and -much worse- an ingrate. He constantly disrespected and baited Archie, who was putting him through school. High emphasis on totally unwarranted displays of smug superiority to his father in law, very minimal displays of appreciation. His little rote recitations of liberal rhetoric about poverty causing crime and so forth had no better logic or evidence than Archie’s rants; they were but the bigotry of his age and social group.

Mostly though, the show worked because, as I implied, it worked on the personal human level. Edith Bunker probably would come out as one of the half dozen most beloved characters in the history of television, and politics was ultimately ALWAYS secondary to family. The girls had the task of civilizing the men and keeping the family whole. They called the show “all in the family” not “all in the congress.” They made humor mostly out of family politics, not electoral contests.

Anyway, they created a great television landmark, arguably the greatest and funniest show in the history of the medium. Other than The Simpsons, what shows even come close?

Powered by

About Gadfly

  • cephusj

    I do agree with you that it is def one of the greatest shows of all time. It was so good that it actually created a spinoff which turned out to be very successful also – The Jeffersons. To your point about what comes even close to being as funny as All in the Family. My personal choices would have to be The Honeymooners or Married with Children.

  • Dew

    It’s sad that this show premiered on my Birthday (although 8 years prior)I will fall asleep watching it on Nick at Nite but to say greatest show of all time I digress.

    Although I do not dispute the purpose it served. It brought to the main stream socio-economics that at the time were necessary. So to that I it was pivotal, but great?

  • Harry Mandel

    I think it is a lot more complicated than that. A lot of shows simply grow and change from their original intention, usually by public demand.

    Look at another TV show that is a 70’s icon, Happy Days. Initially, the show was to center around nerdy Richie Cunningham and his clean-cut family and The Fonz was made out to kind of be a kind of bad seed “juvenile delinquent all grown up” who was to be a minor player in the show.

    But Fonzie turned out to be so popular and so identifiable with much of the public that they not only eventually centered it around him, but made him more “human”; the Cunninghams kind of “took him under their wing” as they learned about his abandoned child background and how it shaped him. Of course, they ended up taking it too far; to the point that when the show ended a decade later Arthur Fonzarelli becomes headmaster of a boys reform school. Get real!

    I think it too was public perception and popularity that changed Archie and Meathead and made both sides less extreme and less “black and white” (no pun intended) than in the initial season.

    Like you said, deep inside Archie was more human than it initially seemed, not just in supporting Meathead during his grad school years despite Michael Stivic’s apparant raw hatred of his father-in-law, but also in the episode where someone paints a swastika on his door and he notes how his life was saved in the past by a blood transfusion from a black man and that this goes too far. Also in that episode he notes how he and others went to war to fight everything the Nazis stood for.

    And in the later years of the show, when Meathead loses a prime teaching position to a member of a minority through affirmative action, he starts to show some of the kinds of opinions and feelings that he baited his father-in-law for.

    But I think in changing things through the years Norman Lear was fairer than you think. His point in spinning off the Jeffersons was not only to make a show with the characters being part of the black upper middle class, but to show that with money and status, a member of a long oppressed minority can turn into a bigot too. That is not something a typical knee-jerk “limosene liberal” would want to create for TV. Just like in All in the Family, George Jefferson was initially essentially a “reverse racist” version of Archie Bunker but grew more human over time.

  • Nobody has mentioned that it was based on the earlier British sitcom “Till Death Us Do Part” starring Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett.

    Sounds like one of the very few times an American TV network has bought a successful British TV concept and made a successful translation.

  • Excellent notes, Harry. I hasten to add, however, that whatever I think of his later political activities, I’m giving Lear et al full credit for the way they wrote all their shows.

    Further, I don’t think they were particularly developing the Bunker family based on public demand. The show looks like it organically, naturally developed out from the basic personalities and situation.

    Happy Days, on the other hand, was basically treacly sentimental crap to start with. There wasn’t really much artistic vision to sell out in the first place. Really, the Fonzie character was so watered down right from the beginning as to be pretty much a big pile of nothing.

    I have a great deal of affection for the George Jefferson character. He was a hard working family man with a strong personality and a great sense of humor.

    I don’t have any problem with his attitudes, and I wouldn’t particularly consider him a “bigot.” He had a little bit of attitude about white people- fair enough. He wasn’t hostile and hateful though, just skeptical. Most important, he wasn’t using whitey as an excuse to be a loser.

    I, for one, would LOVE to have George Jefferson for a neighbor, and I would relish his little barbs. He’d be a LOT of fun at a barbecue.

    Long live George Jefferson!

  • “Other than The Simpsons, what shows even come close?”

    Seinfeld and South Park, to name two…

  • bhw


  • Seinfeld’s a little short of Archie Bunker’s sitcom gold standard, but it would be hard to argue against South Park or MASH.

    I might also consider King of the Hill.

    It’s a little early to say yet, but Malcolm in the Middle and Bernie Mac sure look like contenders, too.

  • Josh

    First of all, M*A*S*H* is the greatest show in TV history. It’s not even worth debating. Always has been, always will be.

    But “All In The Family” is definitely in the top five, or maybe even top three. You can’t even imagine how many times I’ve watched this show and LAUGHED MY ASS OFF!!! I think the funniest thing of all is when Archie mis-pronounces words and phrases. That always killed me. Examples: “Mouth-to-mouth restitution”, “the crotch of the problem”, etc.

    And wasn’t Sally Struthers one luscious piece of female in those days?

  • kclam

    Fawlty Towers is my all time favourite. Taxi another contender.