Television was never the same after January 12, 1971.
Norman Lear’s All in the Family premiered then, breaking barriers and leaving critics holding their breaths. Simultaneously, this deceptively simple series about two generations trying to get along in the same house turned Rob Reiner into a household name.
It’s hard to believe that this classic sitcom is 50 years old. But it’s still so relevant today that ABC recently broadcast a couple of one-off specials rebooting some of the most famous episodes with all new actors.
All in the Family premiered during a tumultuous time in American history.
Between the ongoing Vietnam War, women entering the workforce in record numbers, and the election of Richard Nixon, the United States was going through massive social and political changes, leaving many people feeling lost.
In many ways, the series reflected the turmoil of the times.
Although some of the dialogue and situations depicted on this show shocked audiences used to TV being a far quieter medium, fans flocked to it because it showed the struggle many families had to get along despite massive disagreements about the way things should be.
This is a timeless theme. In fact, many feel that generational and other political divides have gotten far worse since 1971.
The series is famous for its political arguments. Archie was an ultra-conservative, bigoted working-class guy, and his son-in-law Mike could never resist jumping into the fray with his own politics whenever Archie said something Mike thought was stupid.
But at its heart, All in the Family wasn’t a show about politics. It was a show about family relationships.
Archie’s point of view was one that many Americans shared and, judging from the 75,000,000 people who voted for Donald Trump in 2020, many people still share today.
He didn’t understand the changes he saw all around him, wanted the world to go back to the way it was when he was growing up and was struggling to hold onto his sense of safety. And he was bewildered by how the rest of his family couldn’t see the destruction that he saw all around him as society changed.
Both Norman Lear and Caroll O’Connor deserve massive props for making Archie likable even though many of his views were abhorrent.
It would have been easy to write or act as if Archie were a villain. But Lear and O’Connor (whose real-life views were much closer to Mike’s on-screen viewers than to Archie’s) injected him with a ton of humanity.
That’s one of the reasons this series continues to be so important today. In our hyper-polarized political atmosphere, it’s so easy to see those who disagree with us as absolute enemies, especially if they hold views that disgust us.
All in the Family made it clear that while there are some truly bad people in the world, there are also decent people who hold views we see as problematic.
There was a huge difference, for example, between Archie and some Ku Klux Klan members who wanted to burn a cross on Mike’s lawn, and Archie stood up for his son-in-law against such people.
But for the most part, neither Archie nor Mike could ever see the other’s point of view. They were both wedded to what they believed was right, and both saw the other one as an idiot. That was effective both comedically and as a political statement.
There were times when a viewer could completely agree with Mike’s politics yet wince at how he was approaching an issue with Archie. Conservative viewers might identify with Archie’s views but dislike the crude way he expressed his opinions.
That reminder that we are all human beings and that understanding each other counts for something is one that is well worth considering today.
This is not to condone racism, sexism, or other forms of bigotry, of course. Regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, most people agree, at least in the abstract, that prejudice isn’t good or desirable.
But if we want to eradicate these -isms and create a more just society, the first step is to understand what motivates people to hold these beliefs or vote for leaders and policies that reinforce prejudice.
It’s not always because they are evil, hateful people. Sometimes, like Archie, they feel left out, left behind, and scared, and we need to address those feelings effectively if we want things to change.
The other debt of gratitude we owe to All in the Family is that by addressing so many formerly forbidden topics, the series opened up so many creative possibilities for shows that followed.
Without All in the Family as the first to do a story about Gloria being sexually assaulted, for example, there would be no Law & Order: SVU, nor would there be comedies such as The Neighborhood that address serious issues in a comedic way.
Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton have passed on, but All in the Family continues to thrive in syndication. Happy 50th anniversary to this iconic show!
Your turn, TV Fanatics! Are you an All in the Family fan? What is your favorite memory from this classic series?