All in the Family: The Complete Series (1971-1979)
Studio: Shout! Factory (originally produced by Tandem Productions)
Length: 5304 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Languages: English 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH on seasons 1 and 2 only (Closed-captioned on seasons 8 and 9)
Series Premiere Date: January 12, 1971
Disc Release Date: October 30, 2012
Disc Review Date: January 14, 2013
“Let me tell you something, Mr. Bunker.”
“No, let me tell you something. You are a meathead. Dead from the neck up. Meat head.”
One evening in December 1970 on Stage 31 at CBS Television City, four relatively unknown actors: Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner, and Sally Struthers, stepped in front of the cameras to perform a sitcom pilot for a live audience. The following January 12 at 9:30 PM, the rest of the country got to meet Archie Bunker (O’Connor) and his family for the first time. Needless to say, the heretofore placid television landscape hasn’t been the same since.
Archie is a dockworker and a World War II veteran who came from a poor family. He loves his country, his President (Nixon, that is), his after-work beer in his favorite chair, and spending time at Kelsey’s Bar. He works hard to support his family and make sure food is on the table every night and the bills are paid. He also happens to be white. But when dealing with people of different races, ethnicities, religions, nationalities, sexual orientations or political viewpoints than his own and forced to confront his deeply ingrained prejudices, he is unable to come up with any good reason why they should be treated differently than he. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to come up with one.
Archie’s wife Edith (Stapleton), née Baines, has always striven to be a good wife and mother, seldom losing her temper and rarely challenging Archie, except when she tells long, drawn-out stories about her relatives. Yet where Archie is strident and closed-minded, constantly telling Edith to “stifle [herself]” during his metathetic rants, Edith is warm, open-minded and surprisingly wise at times despite her slowness to react. Despite the constant tumult between them, their love is genuine.
Their high-strung twentysomething daughter, Gloria (Struthers), is married to Mike Stivic (Reiner), an idealistic college student involved with one of Archie’s pet hates: campus activism. Mike opposes the Vietnam War, rejects religion and is constantly trying to expose everyone to new ideas and make them aware of society’s problems. Archie resents Mike living under his roof without paying rent and does not approve of him and Gloria showing far more public affection towards each other than he ever would with Edith. Worst of all, he resents his “little goil” marrying outside her ethnicity; Mike is of Polish descent and Archie constantly calls him a “dumb Polack” whenever he’s losing an argument and tires of his other pet name for him, “Meathead.”
Several other outside forces challenge Archie’s worldview. His next-door neighbors, the Jeffersons, are a black family who is gradually becoming upwardly mobile. While George (Sherman Hemsley) has such a deep-seated distrust of whites, he won’t even set foot in the Bunkers’ house until season 4. Until that time, his brother Henry (Mel Stewart) finds himself getting into racially heated arguments with Archie whenever he visits. But Henry’s foul-tempered chauvinism for his own race is nothing compared to George’s bluster. On the other hand, George’s wife Louise (Isabel Sanford) believes in the spirit of forgiveness and acceptance, but can stand up to George and bring him back down to reality. As soon as she moves in, she and Edith form a close friendship. Even before they move into the house, their son Lionel (Mike Evans) is already friends with the Stivics, helping Archie with odds and ends while studying electrical engineering. Beginning in season 4, Archie meets Frank and Irene Lorenzo (Vincent Gardenia and Betty Garrett, respectively), an Italian-Irish couple who share modern views of gender roles; he cooks and she fixes things. Irene challenges Archie head-on, making him even more uncomfortable. Archie can only find like-minded people his job, such as the ill-fated clown Stretch Cunningham (James Cromwell), or at Kelsey’s Bar, such as his best friend Barney Hefner (Allan Melvin).
The roots of Archie Bunker lie in two sources: Johnny Speight’s BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part about East End bigot Alf Garnett, and Lear’s father, a working class Connecticut Jew who called black people “schvartzers,” harangued Norman’s mother constantly and called his son “the laziest white kid [he] ever met.” Lear and Yorkin bought the rights and sold their Americanized version of the show to ABC, making two pilots: Justice for All into Those Were the Days. Possibly because of the disastrous reception of George Schlatter’s Turn-On, a Laugh-In clone that lasted a week, the family-oriented ABC got skittish about a show with such frank dialogue. CBS picked up the show with great trepidation, airing a warning about its content.
The initial reaction to the show was one of relative indifference and, in some cases, critical disdain. Some critics misinterpreted the show as endorsing Archie’s prejudices. Others shamed the writers for incorporating content they deemed inappropriate; how lucky for them they lived then and not now. And as much as Archie may have loved President Nixon, the feeling was not mutual, as some of his tapes later revealed. But the most scathing contemporary review came from LIFE Magazine’s John Leonard, who charged:
“…the program is a double-edged lie. Cutting one way, the lie tells us that working men are mindless buffoons; their opinions, unlike ours, are unrelated to social, psychological or political conditions; their knee-jerk responses to stimuli are so unreal as to be amusing. … Cutting the other way, the lie tells us that Mr. O’Connor’s Archie is, anyway, charming. Forgivable. Purely a premise, a given, in no way dangerous, certainly incapable of roughing up antiwar demonstrators. A bad mouth, maybe; a sloppy mind, yes; but somewhere anterior to his style of speaking and thinking is an essential decency, or harmlessness, that makes him a figure of fun. Bigotry out loud, like scatology out loud, robs the words of their subterranean power to shock and destroy—another maybe.
But the words were only approximations of feelings which are in no way defused by making a sly joke out of them. A double-edged lie and a two-way pandering (we—CBS and the audience—are better than he is; he is ridiculous) … just who is the joke on?
Obviously not all working-class men are ignorant and bigoted, but the point Leonard missed in his review is that the joke is on prejudice itself. While the show mocks the Archie’s fallacious reasoning, it does not trivialize the dangers of prejudice. Yet Archie is never malicious. In fact, whenever he’s in a situation dealing with a minority or a woman in a position of authority, he bends over backwards to try and watch what he says. And he usually fails. But he is making an effort in earnest to adapt to a changing world. Sammy Davis, Jr., recognized this, persuading Norman Lear to cast him as himself in season 2’s legendary "Sammy’s Visit." He is a fundamentally decent man who needs to get out of his comfort zone and see past the superficial. Mike has very definite ideas about fairness, but he is just as fallible and can be very difficult when challenged on his own presumptions, especially regarding his marriage to Gloria.
In addition to the battles over race, Edith and Gloria also had different perspectives on women's issues. As an increasing number women started to go out into the workforce, eventually both of them got jobs. Unsurprisingly, Archie objected to any of Edith’s attempts to challenge the status quo, yet Mike was not always as sensitive to Gloria as one might expect. Over the course of the series, Edith learns to assert herself both at home and in the outside world. Her inherent strength is tested on numerous occasions, from a lump in her breast to the brutal murder of a friend to an attack inside her own home in season 8's "Edith's 50th Birthday," an alternately funny and horrifying hour of television, and possibly one of the darkest episodes of any sitcom in history. But nothing can stifle her inherent goodness.
What many found shocking about All in the Family at the time was the fact that, in terms of content, they got away with murder compared to TV in the past. A handful of TV sitcoms had tried to incorporate social issues before in a covert way (some of the early Bewitched episodes used the witch metaphor this way), but few in an overt way. And the sound of a toilet flushing was a point of contention, though it still leaves more to the imagination than its successors. But the main taboo the show broke, the only one that is even more taboo today, was Archie’s use of racial slurs. But the show uses these words not to celebrate them in and of themselves, but to challenge the idea of censorship.
One would think all the Bunkers and Stivics ever do was fight about the headlines, but that was far from the case. They found other things to fight about, too. In the absence of a political hot button issue, Archie and Mike still found time to disagree on everything from what to watch on TV to the order of putting on socks and shoes. Yet underneath all that, they did learn from each other over time. Divorced from its historical and social contexts, All in the Family still has all the ingredients that made sitcoms great: the obviousness of the writers’ liberal perspectives were tempered by their desire to focus on the storytelling, characterizations and jokes, while the cast was uniformly excellent. Watching the verbal sparring between Carroll O’Connor and Rob Reiner is like watching a delicately choreographed ballet of well-timed invective, logical fallacies, and sarcastic observations that still are funny. Each possible combination of the four principals provides endless possibilities for both comedy and drama. Sally Struthers does a great job capturing Gloria’s emotionally charged nature, her sense of fairness and her love for everyone around her. She bonds believably with Jean Stapleton’s Edith, a touching portrait of innocence, kindness and wisdom.
Whatever anyone thinks about it today, it was almost a moot point. Up against Movie of the Week on ABC and NBC, the ratings weren’t great. CBS was considering canceling the show, but that summer, when it won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series over Arnie, Love, American Style, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Odd Couple, viewers discovered the show in summer reruns. In its second season, CBS moved it to 8:00 PM on Saturdays, where it shot to the top of the Nielsens and stayed there for five consecutive seasons, never ranking below 12th place. Its success led Norman Lear to spin-off several characters onto their own series. Bea Arthur’s memorable battle with a sick Archie in the season 2 episode “Cousin Maude’s Visit” led to her own six-season series, Maude, which, in turn, spawned the smash hit Good Times, while The Jeffersons claimed a successful decade-long run of its own beginning in 1975. That same year, as Watergate was a bitter memory and the nation prepared for its bicentennial, All in the Family changed dramatically. In season 6, Mike and Gloria finally get their own home when they move into the Jeffersons' old house, while Gloria gives birth to her first and only son, Joey.
By season 8, things really had changed both on and off-screen. Though it was still issue-driven, well-written and acted, and every episode managed some very funny lines, the edge had worn off, and it had settled into a very good example of a more traditional sitcom. Like his former neighbor, Archie had become upwardly mobile, buying Kelsey’s Bar after its owner’s health crisis. Hank Snowden (Jason Wingreen) was tending bar. By this point, Archie had softened a little; perhaps a 1974 salary dispute with Carroll O’Connor influenced the show’s subsequent direction? Norman Lear was ready to call it quits, producing a three-part intended finale that would have closed the book on the Bunkers and Stivics with a poignant goodbye between Archie and Mike as the Stivics move to Santa Barbara. But CBS wasn’t ready to call it quits yet, and neither was Carroll O'Connor; the network paid Tandem Productions a hefty sum for one more season. But while Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers would not be back, Archie would soon find another little girl in his life when Stephanie Mills (Danielle Brisebois), daughter of Edith’s alcoholic cousin Floyd Mills. Bright and inquisitive, she grates far less than other kids brought into sitcoms in their winter years, largely because Ms. Brisebois acts the role well. However, the show doesn’t make full use of her in her debut season, choosing to focus more on the bar, while Barney Hefner plays a more prominent role. While the characters never descend into caricature, the season’s best episodes are the two that see Archie and Edith visiting the Stivics in California, reinforcing how much Reiner and Struthers’ efforts were missed. It works best when thought of as the transition into Archie Bunker’s Place.
Looking back at the show from the perspective of the 21st century, it plays like a time capsule of 1970s cultural trends and hot button issues. Yet it would be wrong to call the show “dated.” In comparison to the present day, it seems less has changed than we think. Maybe some people have it better than they did before, but we have new things to drive wedges between the Archie Bunkers and the Michael Stivics of the 21st century, as well as new outlets for the collective national expression. But conflict is a defining characteristic of the human condition; as long as that is the case, All in the Family will always be relevant.
The series is presented in its original broadcast ratio of 1.33:1. Norman Lear did not want the show to look pretty. And pretty it is not. To that end, he had the show shot on 2” quadruplex videotape and had art director Don Roberts create a 1930s-era living room with no primary colors. Color balance, detail and contrast vary from episode to episode and even from shot to shot, with seasons 1-5 being the worst. Season 1 looks bad even for 2002 standards, with five episodes on the single-layer third disc creating compression problems. In season six, Norman Lear moved to Metromedia Square from CBS Television City, and the picture quality improves. It never reaches the current definition of “reference quality,” but color and sharpness are superior. Seasons 1-6, 8 and 9 are identical to the original releases, but season 7 has been corrected to fix the weird motion errors caused by accidentally deinterlacing the picture. For the foreseeable future, this is the best it’s going to look.
The episodes are presented in mono, as they originally aired. Broadband noise and studio ambience are there, but the dialogue sounds compressed and echoed, though intelligible. Music is limited to the opening and closing themes.
While the individual season sets contained no bonus material whatsoever, Sony angered many fans by including extras in their Norman Lear Collection. Shout! has rectified the situation with this set by including the extras herein. All are 4x3 unless otherwise noted.
• New Interview with Norman Lear (11:31, 16x9): Lear discusses the show from its birth to its modern-day legacy.
• Those Were The Days; The Birth of “All in the Family” (27:00): A documentary in which Lear talks about his family life and how he saw parallels at his father in Till Death Us Do Part’s Alf Garnett. He also recalls the casting and the two ABC pilots, while the show’s three surviving principles contribute memories of their own.
• The Television Revolution Begins: ‘All in the Family” is On The Air (30:40): Another documentary in which Lear discusses CBS’s the show’s premiere, the censorship battles and the public’s acceptance of the characters. This extra contains the only interview clips of the late Carroll O’Connor, taken from the show’s 20th anniversary special from 1991.
• Justice For All (35:03): The original pilot, long thought lost, which has the same plot as Meet the Bunkers, the first episode proper. O’Connor and Stapleton play Archie and Edith Justice, while Kelly Jean Peters and Tim McIntire play Gloria and Richard, and D’Urville Martin plays Lionel.
• Those Were The Days (27:41): The second pilot, which went unaired until TV Land showed it in 1998. It has the same plot and cast as Justice For All, except this time, Chip Oliver and Candace Azzara play Dickie and Gloria.
• Archie Bunker’s Place pilot episode (47:35): The hour-long debut of the show’s 1979-1983 sequel series, introducing liberal Jewish businessman Murray Klein (Martin Balsam) to the cast of characters. In the sole season Sony released, part 1 was inexplicably edited by at least 2 minutes, while part 2 was uncut. Unfortunately, this is identical to the Sony version.
• Gloria pilot episode: The original pilot episode of Sally Struthers’ 1982-1983 spin-off in which Gloria is a divorcée—Mike left her and moved into a commune—raising Joey (Christian Jacobs) alone while working as a veterinarian’s assistant in Fox Ridge, New York. Also starring Burgess Meredith and Jo De Winter, this pilot was later added to the Archie Bunker’s Place syndication package.
• 704 Hauser pilot episode (24:35): The first episode of the short-lived 1994 series which starred John Amos as Ernest Cumberbatch, the liberal head of a black family now living in Archie’s house, and Lynnie Godfrey as his wife, Rose. Their adult son, Goodie (T.E. Russell)—named for Thurgood Marshall—is a conservative whose girlfriend, Cherlyn Markowitz (Maura Tierney), is white and Jewish. Though the now-college-aged Joey Stivic (an overwrought performance by Casey Siemaszko) showed up, the series failed to mention Archie’s then-current whereabouts. A show that had the potential to hit its stride with time and care, it has as much in common with The Jeffersons and Gary David Goldberg’s Family Ties, the closest 1980s equivalent of All in the Family, as it does with the original.
• 40-page Collectible Book: TV critic Tom Shales of The Washington Post and Marty Kaplan, USC Media Professor, look at the show’s impact on TV and politics and the subsequent instances where the twains have been able to meet because of it (Shales cites Stephen Colbert as the 21st century successor to Archie Bunker).
It is impossible to overerestimate All in the Family’s impact on television, culture and the country’s political discourse. Though over the next four decades, its oft-namedropped political figures passed into history, and television pushed the limits of content even further with each succeeding decade, the characters’ failings, foibles and quirks have not lost the power to entertain. Recommended, although I wish Shout! had a way for those who already bought the sets to trade up.