The case can be made that All In the Family is the greatest series to ever appear on television, and a watershed event in the history of the popular culture of the 20th century. It could just as easily be argued that Archie Bunker, as embodied by Carrol O’Connor, was one of the most indelible characters ever created in any medium. All of that is very nice, but here’s the main reason that the show is so fondly remembered — it was jaw-dropping, sidesplittingly funny.
This is going to be hard for some people to believe, but back in the early ’70s many people stayed home on Saturday night to watch television. It becomes a little simpler to comprehend when you realize that in addition to All In the Family, the CBS Saturday night lineup in those days included the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the Bob Newhart Show, Carol Burnett & Friends, and for a couple of years, MASH. No network, broadcast or cable, has approached that level of programming before or since. Keep in mind that at that time time-shifting didn’t exist, so you watched a show when it was on.
Since All In the Family, which was adapted from the British series Till Death Do Us Part, ended its run in 1979, it has appeared in reruns sporadically on several different networks. And while you might think that the show was very much of its time and wouldn’t age well, the fact is that is that time has proven that the truths that the show embodied were, and are, universal.
All In the Family had a seemingly simple set up. Archie worked on a loading dock, while his wife Edith (played magnificently by Jean Stapleton) stayed home. Also under the roof at 704 Hauser Street in the Astoria section of Queens were the Bunker’s daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers), and much to Archie’s chagrin, their son-in-law Michael Stivic (also known as “Meathead,” and played by Rob Reiner).
Ok, so your typical dysfunctional family sitcom, right? Wrong. The big rub was that Archie was somewhat challenged when it came to issues like civil rights, women’s liberation, and the changing times in general. He yearned for the old days, when everyone in his neighborhood was white, and Meathead wasn’t living in his house. Times were changing, as was his neighborhood, but Archie was going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new reality. In the end, All In the Family is the story of how he got there.
In the event you think that we have made progress in the area of free speech since the ’70s, consider the fact that much of what was said in All In the Family simply would not get on the air today. The show was politically incorrect to the max, and the audience loved it. At some point someone apparently decided what we should and shouldn’t be allowed to hear, and that we should be treated like children. That’s why we’re unlikely to ever see the likes of All In the Family again.
The All In the Family reruns don’t seem to be playing anywhere on my cable system again, and even if they do, they’re likely to disappear again one day. Shout Factory has solved that problem with the release of All In the Family: The Complete Series 1970-1979 on DVD. The set includes all 208 original episodes of the show, plus the three-part retrospective from 1979. It’s all contained on a whopping 28 discs.
No set of this stature would be complete without bonus features, and there are plenty of them here. Included are a new interview with series creator and television legend Norman Lear, the documentary Those Were the Days: The Birth of All In the Family, the two series pilots “Justice For All,” and “Those Were the Days,” and a 40-page collectible book with essays by television critic Tom Shales, and media professor Marty Kaplan.
If you’re familiar with All In the Family, this set is something for you to consider. If you’re not, it’s a must.