Like most of the citadels of culture, Hollywood is in thrall to liberalism, whereas those who consume its products are, like the country itself, a grab bag of Left and Right. Every once in a while, waking up to a constituency it ignores or belittles, the entertainment industry acknowledges the great unwashed: those who value honest work, hold true to traditional values, maintain confidence in the American experiment, even when it fails them, and, by and large, vote Republican.
It would be lovely to say that this sort of cultural outreach bears fruit. Still, films and shows that try to depict what is, for most in Hollywood, an undiscovered country, e.g., those who reside in “flyover country,” blue-collar voters who switched from Obama to Trump, and so on, usually miss the mark. There is something singularly phony about patrician Glenn Close donning a fright wig and three-sizes-too-big T-shirt for her turn in Hillbilly Elegy, or Jack Nicholson, a longtime resident of Mulholland Drive, placing an order at a Dairy Queen in About Schmidt.
Decades before either of those movies, a hugely popular, much-talked-about sitcom represented one of the industry’s most notable efforts to depict a character who fell, loudly and unapologetically, outside the liberal consensus. The brainchild of Norman Lear, All in the Family had at its center a blue-collar fella from Queens named Archie Bunker (played by Carroll O’Connor). He was a racist, misogynistic loudmouth who issued indelicate pronunciamento from his easy chair. His audience included his shrill, wound-up spouse Edith (Jean Stapleton) and, more contentiously, his women’s liberation-minded daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and her hippy-dippy beau Michael, aka “Meathead” (Rob Reiner).
In a new oral history that ably recounts the making of All in the Family but strains to make a case for its staying power, Lear describes the series' roots. “Sometime in the late ’60s, I heard about Till Death Us Do Part, a British show that centered on a bigoted father and his liberal son who fought about everything,” says Lear, who recently turned 99. “Immediately I thought, ‘That’s my dad and me.’”
Seen again today, almost everything about All in the Family has the whiff of mothballs; it’s about as timely as a news broadcast anchored by John Chancellor or documentary footage of feminists burning their brassieres. Even so, during the Trump era, its surviving creative personnel did their best to claim its continued relevance. In interviews, Lear argued that Trump was either equivalent to, or was worse than, Archie Bunker. During an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show after Trump was elected, Rob Reiner blurted out to enthusiastic audience response, “We’ve got Archie in the White House!”
It’s a funny line, but the commonplace practice, predating Trump but continuing to the present moment, of describing Archie more broadly as a “conservative” is more troubling and reflective of the characteristic showbiz misapprehension about who conservatives are and what views they hold. Guest star Holly Neal said during an interview, “I know that progressives could watch and enjoy it, and so even could conservatives who might see themselves in Archie."
Wait a minute, “see themselves in Archie”? As conceived by Lear and fleshed out by O’Connor and a team of writers, Archie is indeed no self-respecting conservative’s idea of a hero or even a figure of much sympathy. Yes, Archie wails and whines about changing times, thereby possessing a rudimentary sense of “standing athwart history, yelling stop,” but his manners have more in common with Ralph Kramden than William F. Buckley. Though right-leaning viewers at the time likely chuckled at his sneers at the counterculture, Archie’s willingness to go to combat with his kith and kin makes him a poor standard-bearer for family values. Archie is no right-leaning Average Joe but a liberal sitcom’s uncharitable caricature of the same.
Archie is what a particular recent presidential candidate might call a “deplorable,” and his views in many episodes are surely that: racist, sexist, retrograde. The show’s fans know this. “While I was unaware of his ignorance when it came to race, religion, gender, and just about everything else, Archie’s malaprops made me laugh,” writes late-night host Jimmy Kimmel in the foreword. Even a cursory look back at the series reveals that Archie is not an honest spokesman for the eternal verities but a crudely imagined, one-dimensional pinata for the liberal supporting characters.
Indeed, All in the Family’s cast of characters most often functions as vessels of social commentary. This book highlights episodes meant to reflect the show’s timeliness; a representative chapter subtitled “14 Episodes that Pushed Buttons” goes into programs on such topics as race relations, male chauvinism, and sexual assault. The book’s interviewees speak with pride at introducing cutting-edge material to the masses. Discussing the “wife-swapping” episode, with future Golden Girl Rue McClanahan as a swinger, Lear says, “No matter what the audience felt about swinging itself, we are reminded, as we hear Rue’s character talk about it, and watch Archie and Edith’s reaction, of their humanity.” Talking about an episode titled “Edith’s Problem,” Lear says, “Today, it doesn’t seem like depicting menopause would upset anyone, but these were definitely more conservative times.” And discussing the episode “Archie and the Miracle,” Reiner comments, “All in the Family wasn’t just about liberal and conservative. It was also about somebody who believed in God and somebody who didn’t, and we had these great religious arguments on the show.”
Too often, All in the Family’s treatment of its themes are ham-fisted and obvious. Archie and Meathead squaring off wasn't exactly on the level of Dostoyevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor.” Moreover, the series’ relentless pursuit of topical subjects renders it far more dated than sitcoms with believable characters whose lives are not governed by politics or the social issue du jour. Would anyone today rather watch All in the Family than less preachy but more human series such as Laverne & Shirley, Cheers, or The Cosby Show?
Even the performers, talented though they were, played to the balcony: O’Connor could be a sensitive actor, but if you look up the term “one-note” in the dictionary, you will see a picture of Archie Bunker. Stapleton, who died in 2013, said that she based Edith’s “nasality” on her performance onstage in the musical Damn Yankees, an impulsive decision that resulted in a generation of potentially wrecked eardrums. All in the Family is a relic, and this book, no matter how lovingly assembled it is, merely reinforces the point. Stills from the show remind us of how drab the Bunkers’ domicile was — all those awful beiges and taupes.
The best part of All in the Family is over before the show begins — with the opening song. “Those Were the Days,” penned by the team that wrote "Bye Bye Birdie" and nicely warbled by O’Connor and Stapleton, expresses a nostalgia for the passing parade that is more authentically “conservative” than any of Archie’s unhinged eruptions. Lear intended for the song to be an indictment. He wanted an opening song that reflected that Archie is “afraid of change and progress.”
Politics do ruin everything, don’t they?
Peter Tonguette is a frequent contributor to the American Conservative, National Review, and the Wall Street Journal.