Senior HTF Member
- Apr 19, 2000
- Salinas, CA
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All in the Family: The Complete Ninth Season
Studio: Shout! Factory (originally produced by Tandem Productions, now owned by Sony Pictures Television)
Length: 675 Minutes (calculated from the individual disc lengths)
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Languages: English Mono
Subtitles: none (Closed-Captioned)
Season Release Date: September 24, 1978
Disc Release Date: May 17, 2011
Review Date: June 17, 2011
“Boy the way Glenn Miller played; Songs that made the Hit Parade.
Guys like us, we had it made. Those were the days.”
On January 12, 1971, All in the Family, Norman Lear’s remake of a controversial British sitcom called Till Death Us Do Part, premiered on CBS with warnings to viewers that they may be offended by what they may see. However, most viewers ignored it, and it was almost cancelled until it won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series that year. During the summer reruns, when viewers witnessed the show’s frank depiction of bigotry, its use of profanity and racial slurs, and its writers’ stridently political, unashamedly liberal perspective all within in the context of a sitcom—Mr. and Mrs. Brady and their bunch would surely have gotten the vapors—some were indeed offended. Others absolutely loved it, and in its next season, it moved to Saturday night and became the number one TV series in America for five consecutive seasons, a feat only repeated twice since then by The Cosby Show and American Idol. Having mainly written for variety shows and produced such screen comedies as Divorce American Style, The Night They Raided Minsky’s, Start the Revolution Without Me, and Cold Turkey (which he also directed), Lear built his sitcom empire on the success of this series. With such recognizable trademarks as the use of videotape, soap opera-style staging, the absence of background music, and often controversial subject matter and up-to-the-minute sociopolitical references throughout the scripts, Lear’s company was responsible for the hit parade of Sanford and Son, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, making him one of the three producers who defined the sitcom in the 1970s—MTM Productions and Garry Marshall were the others. It is often said that All in the Family changed television, but in the forty years since the first war of the words between Archie and the Meathead, the changed television environment has been the norm for longer than that which it changed. Therefore, it may be difficult for some viewers, especially younger ones, to put the show’s impact into context; toilet humor is so common on TV today, even on kids’ shows, a 10-year-old is unlikely to realize the controversy caused by the mere sound of a toilet being flushed at the time. Additionally, as the envelopes the show pushed have been pushed even further by dozens of shows in the past two decades alone, they may find the show tame compared to South Park or Family Guy. However, they can still enjoy the show for some of the finest acting and writing in television sitcom history. As the world changed, for better and for worse, during the 1970s, All in the Family changed along with it.
With their daughter Gloria, her husband Mike—lovingly dubbed “Meathead” by Archie for his left-wing politics and anti-war activism—and their two-year-old son Joey now in California (Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers refused to come back after the production company agreed to one more season), blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) and his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) are truly alone at 704 Hauser Street, until Edith’s alcoholic cousin Floyd Mills leaves his nine-year-old daughter Stephanie (Danielle Brisebois, who played Molly in the Original Broadway Cast of Annie) with them. Archie was looking forward to finally spending his golden years alone with Edith and was reluctant to take on the responsibility of another child, but he relents. The show’s focus is divided between home and work; Archie is now the owner of Kelcy’s Bar, which he rechristened “Archie’s Place” when he bought it last season, foreshadowing the show’s transformation into Archie Bunker’s Place, which would increase the focus on the bar even more, the following year.
If Norman Lear had had his way, the eighth season would have been the last. In fact, the last episode of the season was shot as the finale and a wrap party was held after the taping completed. People magazine even had a “Farewell to the Family” cover. Lear was ready to move on. He had ceased to personally supervise the production of his shows by this point, and would turn his attention things like liberal political activism—founding People for the American Way in 1981—and film production—buying Avco Embassy Pictures in 1982. However, Carroll O’Connor was not ready to hang up Archie’s hat, and neither was CBS. They persuaded Tandem Productions to produce one more season, but even the final finale wasn’t the end. This final season of the original series is the least popular among fans of the show. It didn’t even rate a mention in the show’s 20th anniversary special in 1991 (for that matter, neither did Archie Bunker’s Place). Admittedly, it is far from the best season, but unlike some shows' declining years, it’s certainly not a train wreck, and there are plenty of things to recommend in it.
Watching a first season episode, or even an episode from a more recent season, and then watching a ninth season episode is almost like watching two different shows. The quality of the acting from Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, who both earned Emmies for their work in past seasons, is as good as ever. So is their recurring cast: Allan Melvin as Barney Hefner, Archie’s best friend, and Jason Wingreen as bartender Harry Snowden. The characters have not degenerated into desperate self-parody like too many once-great sitcoms in their declining years. Archie still looks down on anyone not white, Protestant, male, heterosexual, and born in the USA, but without the Meathead to challenge or provoke him, he is far less strident about it. Nevertheless, there are times when he is forced to confront his deeply ingrained prejudices, and in some instances, his reactions are surprising, especially in one episode when he learns what Stephanie’s religion really is. On the other hand, Edith has become much stronger, less naïve, and more assertive. She is much less willing to stifle herself when she sees Archie doing or saying something she knows is wrong, and she even tells off a banker who won’t give her a loan. Though there are still plenty of well-written and funny scripts, the red-hot anger of the early seasons is gone—it had already begun to mellow in season six when Mike and Gloria moved into the Jeffersons’ old house next door after they moved on up to the East Side. Some of the episodes are sequels to episodes from past seasons, which just remind viewers how much better the originals were. The hour-long Christmas reunion between the Bunkers and the Stivics is easily the best episode in the set, reinforcing what was lost when Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers left. However, it’s Stephanie that seems to get more than her fair share of the criticism, possibly from the systematic denunciation, deserved or otherwise, of any “cute kids” shoehorned into aging sitcoms. In all fairness, she is different than most other kids who join a show in the autumn or winter of its years, largely because she doesn’t take away from the remaining established characters, and because Ms. Brisebois does more acting and less mugging. If anything, there should have been more focus on Archie and Edith having their niece unexpectedly dumped on them; a lot of the episodes focus either Archie and Edith with Stephanie being a background player—if, indeed, she’s there at all—or on the friendship between Archie and Barney. The worst one could really say is that this comparatively placid “final” final season seems anticlimactic after the intended finale, though the actual finale ends with one of the series’ most touching scenes: after Edith survives a bout with phlebitis, she and Archie lie in bed together, and Archie tells her “I ain’t nuttin’ without you”. The press and critics preferred Archie the hothead, but the ratings showed that the public at the time would rather have had a kinder, gentler Archie than none at all; it came in ninth place for the year, making it CBS’s top-rated sitcom (after its first season it never ranked lower than 12th place). Nevertheless, this isn’t the All in the Family that had all of America talking and arguing. Essentially, this is Archie Bunker’s Place: Season Zero. Ironically, despite never leaving the Nielsen Top 25, that series was cancelled in 1983 by CBS, leaving Carroll O’Connor bitter that they were not given a proper finale.
This season features a number of guest stars that observant TV fans might notice such as Estelle Parsons (Roseanne), Howard Morton (Gimme A Break!), Charles Siebert (Trapper John, M.D.), Eugene Roche (Soap, Webster), George Wyner (Hill Street Blues), Peggy Rea (The Dukes of Hazzard), and Victor Kilian (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman). One guest star provides an interesting coincidence: Leonard Stone, who also played Mr. Beauregarde in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, plays the manager of the retirement home where Edith works. Jean Stapleton turned down the role of Mrs. Teavee in that film to do this show. Additionally, Broadway veterans Janis Paige and Theodore Bikel also make return appearances, and Isabel Sanford returns for one last episode as Louise Jefferson rents out the house next door to another black family. Needless to say, Archie isn’t pleased.
The disc also features something that hasn’t been seen in over 30 years: the 200th Episode Special. Hosted by an earnest and self-congratulatory Norman Lear and reuniting all four original cast members for their penultimate appearance together, this uncharacteristically glitzy special brings in one couple from each of the contiguous 48 United States to look back at the show’s celebrated past and its impact on the history of television. What was then its present goes unacknowledged. Lear also fails to acknowledge any show prior to 1971 that mentioned, whether covertly or overtly, any social issues at all. He is especially hard on sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s for not dealing with the social issues this show prided itself on depicting. This raises some questions: whether television has a responsibility to educate as well as entertain, and, if it does, whether a sitcom is the right form for doing so. Nevertheless, while he does point out his own battles with network Standards and Practices and points out two specific examples of past struggles with censors (Jack Paar’s “WC” incident and Petula Clark’s TV special with Harry Belafonte in which she touched his arm), his characterization of pre-1970s sitcoms is a bit unfair. Now that we have representative examples of all eras of television at our fingertips thanks to DVD, we can judge them all for ourselves. Still, this show’s historical impact cannot be denied, and this special provides plenty of great clips; today we can watch them in the context of their respective episodes whenever we want, but back in 1979 only those who had a thousand bucks or more to spend on a VCR had that luxury. It’s better than the flimsy and hokey narrative frameworks around which most sitcoms used to build their clip shows.
As they always said in the closing credits, All in the Family was shot on tape before a live audience, though this season the format changes; the audience responses are original, but they are not watching it live; supposedly the live studio audience for One Day at a Time stayed around to watch this show fully edited. The early years looked pretty bad, even considering the fact that Norman Lear wanted the show to be visually unappealing (I remember that Ronald Epstein called Sony’s set of the first season one of the worst-looking DVDs he had ever seen). None of Lear’s other sitcoms had picture quality issues like this one has had on DVD, and nor did any other shows shot at CBS Television City. Yet starting with the sixth season, when this and most other Lear series moved to the now-demolished Metromedia Square, the picture quality improved. It’s still not a breathtaking work of visual splendor, and it never will be, but for what it is, it’s fine. The show’s muted color palette is accurately rendered, and color banding—a huge problem on several shows that originated on 2” Quadruplex videotape—is not present except in a few scenes, though sometimes color saturation is inconsistent from shot to shot. While the highlights get a little blown out at times, blacks are not crushed. The lighting has some depth to it that many three-camera sitcoms lack, especially in things like the bar scenes. Compression artifacts are minimal; one must keep in mind how tricky it is to compress analog videotape to MPEG-2. The past clips on the 200th Episode Special are inferior, suggesting that they were taken from dubs; the rest of the special looks adequate. Like most analog videotape material, the smaller your screen, the less noticeable the picture’s flaws will be.
The show’s mono audio is presented as a Dolby 2.0 track and, presumably, accurately represents the sound quality of 1970s TV broadcasts. It is serviceable but not spectacular. Dialogue is easy to understand, even Archie’s malapropisms and the theme song’s infamous line “gee, our old LaSalle ran great.” There is a little noise, some of it from the studio atmosphere, but thankfully, no one made a heavy-handed attempt has made to de-noise the audio, which can often lead to disastrous results if misused. My only real complaint is that, for some reason, the closing theme (“Remembering You,” by Roger Kellaway) is played about one key lower than it used to be, and sounds a little muddy. This is not a fault of the DVD; it was always like that.
While Shout! considers the show’s 200th Episode Special an extra, I don’t. I consider it an actual episode of the show. They didn’t bother with real extras on the eight preceding seasons, so why would they start now? Of all the shows that should have gotten substantial extras but didn’t, this is one of the main ones. Actually, the show did get extras, including the two original unsold pilots. You just had to repurchase the first season—along with those of six other Lear sitcoms—as part of Sony’s Norman Lear Collection to get them. Those extras remain exclusive to that box set, which most fans rightfully considered a despicable cash grab.
Partly an epilogue to the first eight seasons and a prologue to its sequel, All in the Family: The Complete Ninth Season doesn’t represent the show at its best, but it’s worth watching and essential for anyone who wants the complete series and to observe the evolution of one of television’s most iconic characters, which would continue with Archie Bunker’s Place. Whether Shout! will pick that up from Sony remains to be seen—true to form, Sony dumped out its first season with little fanfare several years ago—but after nine years, the original show is at last complete (and this season has earned the right to be called complete, as the episodes all run a few seconds short of 25 minutes), and for that, they have given fans something to shout about.