Thursday, January 13, 2011

The show that changed it all

Television -- and American society -- changed forever 40 years ago this week.

A groundbreaking new comedy, "All in the Family," debuted on CBS Jan. 12, 1971. It is not a cliche nor hyperbole to say that viewers had never seen anything like it.

No doubt you all know about it, but just in case, "All in the Family" centered around the home life of blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker (played to perfection by Carroll O'Connor). With him at his Queens abode (704 Houser Street) were his dim-witted but goodhearted wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), his "with it" daughter Gloria (Sally Strothers) and her liberal Democrat husband Mike Stivic (Rob Reiner).

Archie regularly railed against virtually every ethnic group, religion and idea that was different from his own. He called his wife a dingbat and his son-in-law a meathead. He regularly dropped racial epithets and four-letter words previously taboo on TV.

"Brady Bunch" it ain't.

CBS was so nervous that the network brass insisted a "warning" air before the first few episodes, telling viewers that what they were about to see was comedic satire. It went on to become the No. 1 TV show in America for five straight years (which may still be a record).

Topical to the point of irritation, the program delved right in the middle of controversial current events -- everything from wage and price controls to the war in Vietnam. It hit racism head on (Archie was the butt of virtually every episode) and dealt with previously forbidden subjects such as rape, homosexuality, menopause and marital infidelity -- all in prime time. It helped open up a national discussion on all things controversial and never failed to pack a punch.

The show was Norman Lear's first big hit. At one point, nine of the most popular shows on television were Norman Lear programs. They included "Maude," "The Jeffersons," "One Day at a Time," "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and "Sanford and Son."

I watched the pilot episode of "All in the Family" earlier tonight. Laughed as hard as I always have. Even clapped a time or two in all the right spots.

I told somebody the other night that this was the first show I ever watched that made me think I was looking at real people -- warts and all -- belching, blathering, arguing, agreeing, disagreeing, yelling, laughing and crying. Archie even used the GD word and audibly flushed the toilet. It felt a whole lot more relevant than talking cars, monsters-as-families and rural rubes. I daresay the original 1971 viewers couldn't believe what they were seeing.

Television briefly entered a Renaissance period filled with real and relevant programming such as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (which debuted the September prior to "All in the Family"), "M*A*S*H," and virtually all of Lear's hits.

The other thing that strikes me about the show when watching it now is the realization that we've almost somehow reverted to the Dark Ages. Network TV wouldn't dare allow anything like "All in the Family" on the air today. Topics that became wide open in the 1970s are once again considered too controversial. Most of the shows on the tube today are total crap.

We're a worse nation for it.

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