Tuesday, November 19, 2019

All in the Family

In the gritty, not-quite bright living color days of the 70s, there were certain realities of the Adams house.

At least, in terms of TV.

Among those realities, All in the Family was to be on the TV. That was not a point up for debate.

My father was Archie Bunker. No, not as severely, but he had his own recliner, and if he found you in it, you were quickly discharged.

But given our house was one in which everything was in play to mine for humor, the stories out of 704 Hauser Street in Queens rang true.

The simplicity of the show in the sets belied the amazing depth of the writing. In the early years, there was the Bunker house, an office or some other set piece, maybe a neighbor's house, and not much more. It was the four main characters with a collection of other players.

It dealt with race, religion, gender, and sex. Nothing was taboo, despite how Archie dealt with it.

I watched the sixth season premier tonight when Gloria announced she was pregnant.

No matter how happy Archie was, he cringed every time Gloria used that word.


"Oh, don't say that," Archie bellowed.

It was all addressed. Edith went through the change of life in painstaking detail. Another couple (played by Vincent Gardenia and Rue McClanahan) introduced the naive Bunkers to the idea of swinging. Yes. Really.

On the occasion of Edith Bunker's 50th birthday, a stranger appears at the house and attempts to rape her.

You want a gun control episode? Got it.
Abortion discussion? Yep.
Homophobia? You bet.
Women's lib? For sure!

And so on.

If you're not familiar with the show, please don't think it was a "Very Special Episode" every week. What All in the Family did was create howling laughter, even in intense moments. The show was very adept at balancing the serious with the comedic.

It was a master class of sitcom, filling in brilliantly with The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, and others. Indeed, its distant cousin on CBS in the 70s -- M*A*S*H -- was also watched religiously in the Adams household. M*A*S*H went into heavier territory as well in the middle of laughs before completely becoming a "dramedy" (ugh, that term) by its last few seasons.

Archie was another in a long line of loudmouths who entertained us, starting with The Great One's (Jackie Gleason) Ralph Kramden, rolling through Fred Flintstone and onto the Archie.

More than anything, the cast drove this show. There were excellent character actors who went on to become stars (Bea Arthur and Sherman Hemsley come to mind), but it was the simplicity of Carroll O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, Sally Struthers, and Rob Reiner that propelled this show, with each one of them eventually earning an Emmy for their performances.

O'Connor -- a noted Democrat -- played the iconic Archie with full-blown MAGA gusto in the time of Richard "E" Nixon (as Archie frequently said incorrectly). Reiner, it should be noted, didn't play against type and can be found on Twitter still railing, most notably against the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

But the two key players were Archie and Edith. Stapleton was magnificent, changing her voice to become the "Dingbat" but smarter than that Mrs. Bunker. She figured out how to be the ying to Archie's yang, and be the one person who Archie couldn't afford to screw up with.

There are so many moments to pick to show up (in case you've never seen it). For sure, Sammy Davis Jr's kiss on Archie's cheek might be one of the most uproarious laugh out loud moments of shock in television history.

But I immediately thought of this scene that, in one minute, brings all four characters into an explosion. Archie's ultimate insult to Mike Stivic will be shocking if you've never heard it, but I'm telling you, I cry laughing watching this every time. It's a brilliant moment of TV, building from tension into complete bombast.

Also, consider that All in the Family spawned a large number of spinoffs, beginning with Maude, which led to Good Times, followed by The Jeffersons, and several others that didn't find the success of the first three.

The show also brought an album of segments from the first season, in 1971. I still proudly own a copy of it that belonged to my father. It, too, is screamingly funny. I found it on YouTube.

I know the reviews of the live version of All in the Family (and The Jeffersons) last year were good, but that was sacred ground to me. I haven't watched it.

I'm not sure I ever will.

There are sadly still many Archie-like characters now, and the show remains important watching in 2019.

Long live the Bunkers and the Stivics.


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