“All in the Family” was arguably the greatest television program in U.S. history, and certainly the most groundbreaking and controversial. Archie and Edith Bunker are as famous and beloved as other American icons such as baseball, apple pie and The Statue of Liberty.
While I love and admire the show immensely, I can’t help but point out that there were several things that just didn’t make sense about the program, or were simply wrong.
In honor on the tenth anniversary of Carroll O‘Connor’s death (in June 2001), and the upcoming 89th birthday of show-creator Norman Lear, kindly allow me to list some of my (mild) grievances about “All in the Family.”
Archie’s A Republican?
Archie Bunker claimed he was Republican, as reflected by his admiration of President Richard Nixon; and later President Ronald Reagan. While it is true that many white working-class men in the Northeast strongly supported Nixon in both 1968 and 1972, most of them were firmly Democrats, particularly the proud union members (as Archie himself was). These men also tended to vote Democrat in local/regional elections; and would not identify themselves explicitly as “Republicans.”
Archie’s A WASP?
Friends of mine who grew up in blue-collar Queens, N.Y. in the 1960s and 1970s have told me there were very few White Anglo-Saxon Protestants living among their midst in those days. Working-class whites in that area were overwhelmingly Irish, Italian and Polish (all Catholics).
Archie probably should’ve been depicted as an Irish Catholic (as O’Connor himself was). Of course, Lear was forced to make Archie a WASP so that he could attack the Catholic Church, the Pope and the Irish.
Edith Bunker, portrayed beautifully by Jean Stapleton, is depicted as having no bigoted feelings whatsoever and openly embraces her hippie son-in-law Mike Stivic, as well as the black neighbors, the Jeffersons. However, since Edith grew up in the same millieu as Archie, it is hard to believe she didn’t share some of his beliefs and attitudes. On a dramatic license basis, Edith had to be made out to be Archie’s polar opposite; and, naturally, an openly bigoted Edith wouldn’t have gone over well with the public.
Black Family Moving In
My friends from Queens also have told me that it would’ve been close to impossible for a black family to have moved into the type of neighborhood the Bunkers lived in during that period. While the show did explore Archie’s fear and anger over having black neighbors, the Jeffersons seemed to have little trouble settling into Hauser St.
What About Drugs?
One of the biggest social issues at that time was the drug culture and skyrocketing use of narcotics among the young. All in the Family referred obliquely to drugs occasionally, but generally seemed to avoid the subject. If Mike was a 1960s hippie it seems reasonable to believe he, too, dabbled in drugs. But the show never even touched that topic.
The ‘Sammy’ Episode
Perhaps the most popular and hilarious episode during the entire run of All in the Family involved legendary entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. dropping in on the Bunkers. Forgetting for a moment the utter improbability of such an event ever happening, Sammy Davis was a bizarre guest star for the show,
Although the episode made some trenchant observations about how Archie’s racism permits him to distinguish between “successful” blacks as being “acceptable” and “ordinary” blacks as being “beneath” him – the choice of Sammy Davis is puzzling.
By 1972 (the approximate date this episode aired), Davis was a polarizing figure among the black community. Among other offenses, he alienated many blacks by (literally) embracing Richard Nixon during the 1968 election. It is incomprehensible that young people like Mike and Gloria, and especially Lionel Jefferson, would be so thrilled to meet Davis
The Show Ran Too Long
This is true for virtually any pop-culture vehicle that enjoys immense popularity and acclaim. All in the Family ran from 1971 to 1979; beyond that, a successor show, “Archie Bunker’s Place,” lingered on for a few years more.
But the magic was pretty much gone by 1976 or so.
All in the Family was a superb, creative, funny, deeply moving show for the first four seasons, By the fifth year of its existence, it started to show cracks. The show became tired, and the quality of the writing declined dramatically.
Part of this was due to the changing times – indeed, without Nixon, Vietnam and Watergate, the conflict between Archie and Mike (which was really at the core of the show) seemed forced and stale.
Another problem was that O’Connor demanded more creative control of the show – with his clout, he got it. Although he was a brilliant actor, he was no comedy writer.
However, since All in the Family remained hugely popular (especially Archie and Edith), CBS wasn’t going to pull the plug on a veritable cash cow.