January is almost by definition a time of new beginnings and fresh starts, and this January presides over no less than FOUR milestone anniversaries marking some of the best small-screen achievements. On January 10th, 1971, PBS unveiled the first of its definitive “quality television” anthology, Masterpiece Theatre. Ten years later, on January 12, 1981, Aaron Spelling defined the “greed is good” decade with Dynasty, followed three days after by that equally iconic drama from the other side of the tracks, Hill Street Blues. (And for those counting in more recent years, Tony Soprano’s celebrating the adolescent anniversary of his series, which turned 12 this week.)
But as important as all of those shows were, perhaps no show in the history of television had as big a cultural influence as the one that celebrated it’s 40th anniversary on Wednesday. On January 12, 1971, a nervous CBS aired a disclaimer on the new sitcom they were launching that night, featuring ballistically un-PC language and situations, telling the story of a middle-aged dockworker, his dithery but good-hearted wife, his newly-liberated “little goil” Gloria, and her hippie husband Meathead – er, Mike. ”The program you are about to see is ‘All in the Family’,” the disclaimer warned, a show that “seeks to throw a humorous light” on our foibles and prejudices, so we could all see “how absurd they really are.”
Outspoken former CBS head of programming Michael Dann recalled in a 2000 E! True Hollywood Story the day in 1970 that one of Lear’s partners came in to his office to present the pilot of the show (originally ordered by ABC, which promptly deemed it too hot for TV). The pilot-drugged Dann thought to himself, “Well, I can work and not-listen to this show… And then all of a sudden, I hear this guy saying nigger and kike and coon and mick and wop and fag, and I looked up and said ‘OK, now you’ve got my attention!’”
Of course, Archie Bunker was largely intended as a satire of American closed-mindedness in the era when American politics was defined by the hardhats and hard-heads supporting Spiro Agnew, versus the flower-power radicals swooning for George McGovern. (The show’s genesis was the hilarious late ’60s Brit-com ‘Til Death Do Us Part, about a working-class industrial British patriarch railing against the world around him.) Yet no matter which side of the fence you were on, the show both illustrated and anticipated the massive change in American politics from the ’70s through today, with its play-by-play of the era when wages first started to stagnate, and when the “culture war” first reared its ugly head.
Before Archie Bunker, the stereotype of a “Republican” in both feature films and television, came in only two flavors. There was the stingy, hoarding, greedy old miser (say, “Mr. Potter” in It’s a Wonderful Life). And there was the natural default, the country-club judge, doctor, lawyer, or executive (say, Carl Betz on The Donna Reed Show). Likewise, most people’s stereotype of a ”Democrat” (especially a white one) would have been of a gritty New York longshoreman or trucker right out of an Elia Kazan or Paddy Chayevsky movie. In terms of movies and TV at least, Archie Bunker almost single-handedly changed all that.
And Norman Lear wasn’t finished. In the first (and best) of the many spinoffs Archie Bunker would launch, Lear might just as well have adapted Tom Wolfe’s groundbreaking book Radical Chic, with Beatrice Arthur’s wonderful tour-de-farce as Edith Bunker’s well-off cousin. As the soul music theme song sang, “And then there’s Maude!” Just as Archie Bunker was the new face of the post-Nixon Republican party, who better mirrored the entry of wealthy, middle-aged, outspokenly liberal feminists like Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Dianne Feinstein (and even Betty Ford, Rosalyn Carter, and Frances Lear) into our political scene than Maude Findlay? The redefinition was now complete: the Republicans represented the struggling and uneducated, while the Democrats were pushy, rich white liberals. Back when the only “tea parties” Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann were attending were with their Barbie dolls, Archie Bunker and Cousin Maude were rebooting the grammar of American political identity.
In the incomparably talented hands of Carroll O’Connor and Norman Lear (and top-notch writers that included veterans of Your Show of Shows, and Mel Brooks’ and Lear’s own feature films), Archie Bunker was a “lovable bigot”, without making bigotry itself seem lovable. And All in the Family became America’s family — not as we wished we could be, but as we actually were. We pulled ourselves through Vietnam and Watergate with it (or as Meathead would taunt, “Watergate-Watergate-Watergate!!”), plus quotas and busing, stagflation and decline, fears of breast cancer and rape, and even the death of the woman who’d become our small-screen mom or grandma, when Edith suffered a fatal stroke in 1980. And by the time Archie signed off for good in 1983, the show had proved its point: Archie never exactly joined the NAACP or the ACLU, and remained loyal to Richard Nixon to the end, but he had started to accept (if not understand) the changed world around him — just as many of us could start to accept the Archie Bunkers out there, and their very real backgrounds and concerns.
Looking at a cable rerun of All in the Family today, we can see both how much things have changed, and how much they have stayed the same. When Law & Order‘s Lennie Briscoe and NYPD Blue‘s Det. Sipowicz went end-of-watch in 2004-05, lower-middle-class men on the wrong side of 50 all but disappeared from our TV screens. And except for some punchline-buffoon window dressing (William Shatner on Sh*t My Dad Says, Ed O’Neill on Modern Family), they have never returned. And shows that featured unmistakably senior-citizen leads have been a thing of the past ever since CBS death-paneled Diagnosis Murder in the summer of 2001. For all our supposed diversity, the concerns of ordinary, non-professional people like Archie have all but disappeared from our small screens, as advertisers crave $100,000-plus yuppies aged 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 (and TV shows that directly reflect and speak to them).
What about talk radio and FoxNews, you say? Well, let’s take a look. While Archie certainly believed in “the man upstairs”, how much would this gritty Brooklyn-born New Yorker really have in common with the Southern-fried, small-town evangelicalism of today’s Republican spokesmodels? Archie surely would have recoiled in disgust at arrogant elitists like John Kerry and Al Gore (and probably Mitt Romney), but would he have found any use for the Ned Flanders fundamentalism of Mike Huckabee, or field-dressing “mama grizzlies” like Palin and Bachmann? (I think we all know what he’d have thought of President Obama.) Archie dared to go where no man had gone before, and say the unsayable in 1971 (and 1981). And it would seem that even today in 2011, someone who is neither a tear-stained hand-wringer like Glenn Beck, nor a glamorous high-powered professional like Mad Men‘s Don Draper, would still be ”too hot for TV.”
And that is the ultimate irony of this very irony-laden, classic and classy show, one that may the truest test yet of why Archie Bunker still matters today. The world that Archie and Edith Bunker lived in, and the things they stood for and took for granted in their day-to-day lives, are long gone. But the questions they asked, and too many of the problems they made fun of on All in the Family all those years ago, still remain unsolved today.