Monday, February 11, 2013

"Where It All Started"

Debuting in the early seventies, the iconic sitcom All In The Family insightfully delineated – what is arguably even more prevalent today – the unbridgeable fault line between the Left and the Right.  Archie Bunker represented the blue-collar Republican who felt his personal liberty being eroded by an avalanche of changes in society, his countercultural son-in-law Mike “Meathead” Stivic emblemizing the New Guard, dogmatically insistent upon justice.

(This may be a minority opinion, but it always seemed to me that the Right’s primary source of irritation had less to do with a rapidly changing society than with the fact that, as a result of a more relaxed code of behavior, the Left was having a lot more fun than they were.  Those godless hippies would certainly wind up in Hell for their sinful practices, but in the meantime, they were having one heck of a time, while the “Good People” were required to chastely stand on the sidelines and watch.  I, as usual, straddled the middle ground, siding with modernity, while having as little fun as the conservatives.  I would love to have another crack at that era.) 

Especially in All In The Family’s earliest seasons, before it succumbed to the fumes of its own self-righteousness – the show had also, as all long-running series invariably do, used up its best storylines and was relegated to producing less compelling variations on the same theme – but during those first couple of years, All In The Family was not only groundbreaking, but explosively funny. 

Aside from its provocative subject matter – as compared to its sitcom counterparts – the show’s first wave of writers arrived equipped with First Class comedy-writing resumes, having worked on the staffs of such classics as Your Show of Shows and The Jack Benny Program.  Wielding some rock solid comedy chops, these writers made us laugh while learning essential lessons for improving society. 

Add that to the courage of the show’s creators, and you have Sammy Davis Jr. kissing Archie Bunker right on the mouth, initiating “The Joke Heard Round the World.”  That’s how loud the people across America were laughing; they woke up people in other hemispheres, who, at that moment, were unlikely to have appreciated the uproariousness of a black guy planting a big wet one on a bigot.

Almost from the get-go, stemming from my obsession for fairness above everything, there was something about All In The Family that always rubbed me the wrong way. The “values arguments” – which were the meat and potatoes of the series – appeared to be heavily stacked against the conservative, whose reactionary views came encased in ignorance, derision, malaprops and intolerance, while the arguments of the Left were articulate, reasonable, compassionate and assiduously researched.          

“But Arch, you know that forty percent of all Eskimo-Americans suffer from a seriously unbalanced diet.” 

To which Archie would respond,

“Well, if those Blubber Eaters would just plant a few carrots up on that fundra up there, the government wouldn’t be wastin’ our hard-earned tax dollars on their health reficiencies!”

Archie’s solitary “hole card” was that “Meathead” and his wife, Archie’s daughter Gloria, were living in Archie’s house for – if I recall correctly – nothing, which should have at least earned Archie some appreciative slack.  But it didn’t, his intolerance trumping his personal generosity.

I realized the pervasiveness of the All In The Family template when I found myself arguing the exact same issues with my grandfather, a generally mild-mannered orthodox Jew, who turned red when we debated. 

Our most passionate disagreements involved his belief that the Old Testament was the determining arbiter of all matters, ignoring the fact – though I brought it to his attention – that the Old Testament was noticeably biased in favor of the Jews, leaving the people who believed differently pretty much out in the cold.  Which, as it turned out, was exactly where my sweet grandfather wanted them.   

My grandfather always called All In The Family, “Archie”, which made me fear that the show’s liberal intentions, at least for a substantial portion of the audience, may be backfiring.   This turned out, as I would later discover, to be the perspective of one Doctor William H. Cosby Ed.D, who viewed All In The Family as an insidious platform for poisonous beliefs.  In my view – borne out, I would argue, by the immobilizing fractionalization we experience today – those divisive beliefs were already out there.  All In the Family merely gave them a televised airing.     

As often happens here, what I wanted to talk about today, I never got around to, which are the problems generated by the dominance of two almost equally powerful factions, as opposed to the multiple factions that actually exist.

I shall take another shot at it tomorrow.


Canda said...

Mr. Cosby was right. Many people sided with Archie, and said, "That's me". But that was the show's fault, because it was often more of a political debate than a character study.

It was one of the few successful shows where the writers did not empathize with the main character. They made fun of him, too. Like you said, Earl, Archie was being put upon, trying to help his daughter, despite having a guy in his house who mocked him. I don't ever remember Edith reminding Gloria that her father made a big sacrifice having them in the house. In fact, I don't remember Edith ever telling anyone about her personal feelings toward Archie, and why they fell in love.

Controversy can last awhile, but it's probably not going to last forever. As George S. Kaufman said, "Satire is what closes on Saturday Night".

There's a reason people are still watching "The Cosby Show", but not "All In The Family". Of course, people are still watching "Married With Children", but that never presented itself as more than it is, a fluffy, fun T&A romp.

Aaron Chuwates said...

Perhaps we need to remember that ALL was, 1st and foremost, a TV comedy, not a political platform. Of course, Archie was 'put upon' by Gloria and Meathead, and in real life, he likely would've thrown them out. But since the show was a sitcom, he could hardly toss his primary foil. The politics was merely a continuing set-up for the comedy, just as the kids were. If they were really concerned about 'balance,' they wouldn't have made Archie such a buffoon.

Next, Cosby needs to look up the definition of 'insidious.' The FAMILY was surely blatant, but hardly insidious.

My television service has stations that are still airing Archie, the Huxtables and an even older Cosby show titled The Bill Cosby Show (when he portrayed a PE teacher). I do occasionally watch the Bunkers, but not often. The same for the Huxtables. The earlier Cosby doesn't interest me anymore. (Nor does I Spy, which is also on, but never attracted me.) Both were excellent shows - comedies. Archie was the first of its kind. Today, Archie would not be so funny. But in its time, it was initially, stunningly funny. As mentioned by Earl, after the first few seasons, the premise was worn out. The Huxtables, not so much first of its kind, but certainly entertaining. (Edith did on occasion, express herself, usually when alone with Gloria, and Gloria persistently asked her mother to tell her things, or when serious illnesses prevailed; but you're right, Canda, Edith wasn't often forthcoming. But then, the show was about Archie first, second and always.)

I've rambled too much but, I'll leave a few bucks under the mat, then...stifle it.

pumpkinhead said...

I think I've seen interviews where Normal Lear said that both Mike and Archie were intended to be foolish blowhards. Although I don't share Archie's politics, I admit, the episodes where Mike's hypocrisy came to light were some of my favorites.

ATrueModerateUnlikeEP said...

Oh my God. America, you imply, is more or at least AS racist now than it's ever been before even though it just RE-elected its first black president (would that have been possible even as recently as the 1990s?), not to mention seen more blacks in politics and at the top of the income ladder than at any time in its history, and seen a commensurate drop in the "cities on fire" rioting that seized much of the country in the 1960s. (Does Watts ring a bell? How about "The Long Hot Summer of 1967"?)

Is racism still a reality in this country? Of course it is.

Is it arguably at its lowest level since the very founding of the Republic? Once again, of course it is.