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 Sidelines