Anthony's Film Review
All in the Family
(TV Series, 1971-1979)
This television sitcom is very funny, emotional, and realistic, making it a timeless American classic...
Any television show doing something that has never been done before, particularly something controversial, is always worth noting. Such a show takes a big risk that'll either result in a bad reputation for the show or a mix of critical acclaim and admiration for its creative genius and bravery in challenging established norms. The 1970s sitcom All in the Family is the perfect example of the latter, mixing the humor of everyday life with commentary on many real-life political and social topics originally considered too sensitive for broadcast television, including gun control, the Vietnam War, birth control, homosexuality, rape, racism, feminism, religious intolerance, and many more. With so many topics to cover, character interactions to explore, and many TV viewers loving it all, no wonder All in the Family lasted nearly a decade.
Let's talk about the show's cast and main characters. Carroll O'Connor plays Archie Bunker, a grumpy conservative who is prejudiced in every way you can think of: by race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, political beliefs, and whatever case can divide us. Basically, he disagrees with anyone who isn't Anglo-Saxon, Christian, straight, and/or Republican like he is. Jean Stapleton plays Edith Bunker, the wife of Archie who is an obedient traditional housewife and a very honest person, but also naive at times. Sally Struthers plays Gloria, the family daughter who is more liberal and feminist than her father Archie. Finally, Rob Reiner plays Michael "Mike" Stivic, who is the opposite of Archie in so many ways. With characters like these, all sorts of interesting interactions take place.
I'll just focus on two of these. The show is mainly known for the heated political arguments between the conservative Archie and the liberal Mike. In real-life, such debates can be unpleasant to hear, but on this show, they're quite funny, because one side may have an upper hand over the other, even for just a brief moment. Also, Archie sometimes looks like a fool with his bigoted beliefs, like when he goes on the television news to suggest that airline hijackings can be prevented by arming all passengers with guns. Then there is the relationship between Archie and Edith representing how marriages had been before, like in the 1940s and 1950s. When Archie wants a beer, Edith gets one from the fridge without question. Edith is such a devotee to her husband that some minor characters throughout the series wonder why she even bothers to stay married to Archie.
This isn't to say that the characters act the same way throughout the show's entire run. What makes All in the Family brilliant, in addition to its laugh-out-loud humor, is the opportunity for the characters to evolve. There are episodes where Archie's sexist and chauvinistic actions really upset Edith, forcing Archie to take another look at his marriage and discover what is really important. In fact, the show's seventh season provides an unexpected twist in one episode, in which Archie has an affair after succumbing to the charms of another woman who has a big crush on him. Even Mike and Archie learn to get along, though it takes a very long time. The eighth season includes an episode where Mike learns about Archie being abused as a child, an episode in which Archie accidentally joins the Ku Klux Klan and wants to protect Mike from Klansmen, and an unforgettable season finale where Mike and Gloria move to California and all the characters exchange heartfelt tear-jerking goodbyes. Even Mike and Archie find it hard to say goodbye to each other. (Several fans think that the show should've ended on this high note, not one season later.)
Let's get back to the topic of mixing comedy with commentary. The writers of All in the Family did an outstanding job making us laugh at the absurdities of getting hung up in life's challenges. For example, one episode involves Archie's niece dating an African-American man and Edith desperately hiding a photo of the interracial couple from Archie, before he finally sees it and explodes into rage. In another, Archie misjudges one of Mike's friends as being gay because of his less-than-masculine mannerisms, yet Archie has no problem when one of his own friends, who is definitely masculine, admits that he is gay. Then there is the somewhat weird episode where Edith responds to an ad by an elderly couple wanting new friends, without realizing that the couple consists of swingers who find excitement in briefly exchanging sexual partners with other couples. The look on Edith's face when she learns that the trading of partners is "not for dancing" is quite funny.
Even so, there are times when All in the Family handles certain topics in a serious manner, with little or no laughter from the live studio audience. I'll start with the show's most shocking episode: the eighth-season episode "Edith's 50th Birthday." Here, a man claiming to be a detective looking for a rapist enters the Bunker home with Edith's permission, before revealing that he is the rapist. With a gun pointed at her, Edith is scared to death as the man removes his shirt and positions himself against her. There are a few laughs with Edith's attempts at distraction, but they're otherwise overshadowed by the uneasiness of the scene. It does end with loud audience cheers when Edith uses a burning cake in the kitchen to strike back before running out of the house. Aside from that, other emotional episodes include Archie letting out rage against a Vietnam War draft dodger, Gloria having a miscarriage, and the Bunkers witnessing, at the end of the episode, a car bombing that kills someone involved in trying to avenge a hate crime. (That episode fades to credits against a black background, with no sound from the audience whatsoever.)
No matter how funny or serious the episodes are, All in the Family is ultimately about the ups and downs of life and family relationships that we can all relate to. It'll make you laugh, cry, frown, and smile, because every moment is engaging and interesting. But it's not just the writing that is excellent. The cast is also fantastic in their roles, especially Carroll O'Connor who plays Archie Bunker so perfectly that it's very hard to imagine anyone else in that role. Thanks to the performances of the stars, the characters of All in the Family come alive as real people, no matter how much we like or dislike them.
This review is a retrospective look at the show from a member of a younger generation. I was not yet born when All in the Family first aired, yet I could related to much of the show because the situations and the topics were still relevant even decades later. In fact, here's an interesting (though sad) tidbit that illustrates this. A few days after a horrific shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, delivered a speech that, as many critics noted, focused more on violence in popular culture and his suggestion if having armed guards in every school. In response, All in the Family creator Norman Lear distributed a clip from the show's gun control episode, with Archie's suggestion of arming airline passengers, to show how an issue like this could still be relevant even after the show ended. This might seem like a somber way to end this review, but if a fictional television sitcom can get us to debate, disagree, think, compromise, and laugh (not to mention predict future issues in America), I say that's a huge achievement.
The bottom line is that All in the Family is a timeless American sitcom and one of the best shows to ever hit the television airwaves. Go watch it if you want a great show to enjoy from start to finish.
For more information about All in the Family, visit the Internet Movie Database.