'All in the Family' Stands Out During An Outstanding Summer Season
But as I think about the programs I have enjoyed the most since the last week of May, when the traditional television season ended and the so-called summer season began, it occurs to me that the show I have watched and thought about the most is the peerless comedy classic "All in the Family." I didn't plan a summer-long refresher course on a four-decade-old TV classic that is widely regarded as one of the best series of all time.
There are few shows that were more controversial in their day, and fewer still that so vitally and insightfully reflected the day-to-day life of a specific group of people as they experienced a specific time in American history when virtually everything was in flux. In this case, the Bunker family -- bigoted but good-hearted conservative Archie, his doting wife Edith, their liberal son-in-law Mike and their sweetly progressive daughter Gloria -- were the epitome of a working-class family in transition from the old rules of the World War II era to those of the early '70s, a time marked by a failing economy, an unpopular war and a government that simply couldn't get anything right. (Who says this show is outdated?)
One might say that "Roseanne" accurately reflected the working-class experience of the late '80s (when, once again, the economy was spiraling downward) just as ABC's "The Middle" does today (again with the economy). That's true of both, just as it's true that ABC's award-winning "Modern Family," though brilliant, focuses largely on a family of great privilege that seems not to worry about gas prices or unemployment or paying taxes or much of anything except their interpersonal problems.
But "All in the Family," more than other past or present comedy about families, really drilled down into the issues of the moment, not so much preaching about them as showing with great heart and humor how changes in the world enter ordinary people's homes and impact their lives. Archie is looked back upon simply as a bigot, especially by younger people who have never watched "All in the Family." But he was so much more: a loving husband, a devoted father, a loyal friend and a hard worker who couldn't understand why he had increasingly less to show for his paycheck as he got older. Through the years Archie suffered cutbacks at the factory where he worked, the trials of making ends meet while collecting unemployment, the difficulties of managing the cost of health care and the challenges of becoming self-employed in an economic environment that favored corporate growth over small business. (Again, sound familiar?)
I can thank two networks for my sudden renewed interest in "All in the Family": TV Land and the increasingly fantastic Antenna TV, each of which runs two episodes of "Family" each weeknight. (I can't say enough about Antenna TV. It offers a bit too much of "The Benny Hill Show" and "The Three Stooges" for my taste, but it makes available a treasure trove of classic television gems, ranging from such oldies as "Father Knows Best," "Dennis the Menace" and "Hazel" to more contemporary fare, including "Maude" and "Soap," the latter utterly addictive all over again.)
One of the best things I can say about "All in the Family" is that its writers clearly gave television viewers credit for having attention spans that ran longer than 30 seconds. The average episode is filled with very long (by today's standards) sequences featuring two or three people interacting in one room -- sequences that sometimes run through an entire first or second half of the show. The characters actually talk and respond to each other for minutes on end, engaging in actual conversations as they get around to saying what they really want to say -- just like in real life, or in theater, which "Family" often resembles. That's something at which legendary producer Norman Lear and his talented team excelled, and the end result is the same now as then: The pleasure of watching actors at the top of their game deliver dialogue that is filled with rich rewards for anyone who chooses to sit and listen.