All in the Family at 50: The TV They're Afraid to Air Today

Joseph Serwach

When liberals and conservatives could live together, get nasty — and still love each other
Focusing on changes in Queens, New York, "All in the Family" debuted 50 years ago.Publicity photo by CBS Television via Wikimedia Commons.

Rolling Stone Magazine just ranked All in the Family the fifth-best comedy in television history as the breakthrough show turned 50.

“A transformational show for television, and a Rorschach test for its audience,’’ Rolling Stone concludes. “The show’s blunt discussion of current events was revolutionary, but so was its crude humor… as well as its focus on a theoretically unlikeable protagonist. In time, it would pave the way for Tony Soprano and the modern age of antiheroes.”

Even though it’s at the top of Rolling Stone’s Top 100 list and hitting a major milestone, there have been few to no celebrations or specials on the show hitting the half-century mark, and it’s the least visible of the “top five” shows in rerun and streaming syndication.

The top four shows are timeless and can be seen nearly any hour of the day in reruns or streaming services: The Simpsons (1989-Present), Cheers (1982–93), Seinfeld (1989–98), and I Love Lucy (1951–57).

All in the Family is different. Before Twitter, talk radio, and snarky memes, All in the Family shocked people. It barely got on the air in 1971, and it probably couldn’t air today. Yet, it was the №1 show in the yearly Nielsen ratings from 1971 to 1976.

The “culture clash” between the Silent Generation and the then-young Baby Boomer generation was front and center. The Writers Guild of America ranked it the fourth-best written TV show of all time.

Liberal producer Norman Lear made the show as social commentary to make the world less racist, angry, and hateful by making Americans laugh and learn.

“Budding sitcom mogul Norman Lear (adapting the British series Till Death Us Do Part) was clearly on Meathead’s side, as were the show’s more progressive viewers,” Rolling Stone explains. “But plenty of conservatives — President Nixon included — took Archie as the hero, and Meathead as the clown rightly being lampooned.”

Your success can change the world — and be your own undoing

Television shows, especially top-rated “transformational” shows, change the culture and even society. All in the Family did all that and more, tackling and talking about every subject we were afraid to talk about.

The early episodes included viewer advisories to warn viewers they’d be tackling previously taboo subjects, everything from social issues like race, religion, rape, sex, menopause, impotence, cancer, sexual orientation, non-traditional marriages, and raw, blunt, and totally unfiltered political back and forth.

The show even went for breaking minor taboos like hearing the family toilet flush. Norman Lear’s goal: bring all the “untouchable” subjects into the light so all stupid, bigoted behavior would be exposed and made extinct.

But something slightly different happened:

  • Most viewers tended to like all the characters, making the show more real (showing we all have strengths, sins, weaknesses, and flaws).
  • Or, they preferred the characters they most identified with. Many conservatives liked (or loved) Archie Bunker while liberals identified with Bunker’s son-in-law Mike Stivic, or daughter Gloria, who championed feminism.
  • Everyone tended to like Archie’s wife, Edith (a book on her saintly Christian ways was a bestseller called Edith: The Good).
  • The show grew so popular it inspired a whole genre of Norman Lear spin-offs, including “The Jeffersons,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” and “Archie Bunker’s Place.
  • More recent efforts to revive or spin-off the show have flopped, including “Gloria” (a show featuring Archie’s daughter, Gloria), “704 Hauser Street,” (a show about a black family living in the old Bunker house). An effort to revive “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” with new actors went nowhere when it was tried two years ago.

What happened? America changed. Put-down humor peaked in the 1970s when comedians seemed to make fun of nearly everyone’s ethnic background.

Henry Fonda hosting the show's 100th ann

If you were Polish, you had to endure Polish jokes. If you were Irish, you had to hear Irish jokes. As Henry Fonda said in introducing “All in the Family’s” 100th episode, “There’s a little bit of Archie in all of us,” yet he quickly made it clear Archie was a bigot.

Still, we wince when we watch portions of these shows today. Even the most progressive liberals on “All in the Family” said things we wouldn’t say today (like “mentally retarded”).

It’s perhaps a reminder that the show exposed bigotry and then taught everyone to stop talking about biases, retreating to their own separate corners of the world, condemning and rolling their eyes at each other from afar.

How hanging with like-minded people is tearing us apart

In The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, we learn how an America focused on desegregation in the 1970s resegregated itself into clusters of like-minded people:

  • Between 1976 and 2004, the United States went from 25 percent of Americans living in “landslide counties” where an overwhelming majority went for one presidential candidate over another to more than half becoming landslide counties, either super red or super blue.
  • Businesses started targeting marketing to like-minded “image tribes,” modeling how parties “gin up their base” over the past 20 years rather than trying to appeal to undecided voters.
  • Newer mega-churches similarly follow a “homogenous unit principle” to attract “people like us.”
  • College graduates tend to dominate some areas and be few and far between in others, a change from the early 1970s when there was more of a spread-out blending.

Perhaps the biggest change? Archie was frequently called “a loveable bigot” at the time and today is only called a bigot.

The idea of liberals and conservatives sharing the same home, debating, getting nasty, and still managing to love each other may still happen in real life.

But not on TV (and even more rarely on social media), which both focus on appealing to a niche of like-minded people (consider the modern ability to “block” anyone you disagree with — not an option for the rest of your life).

Of course, no current show has the massive audiences that used to watch shows like “All in the Family.” The 60 million people who watched it every week would be unheard of in modern “niche-focused” marketing.

Perhaps the single best episode came when Archie and Mike got locked in the basement. Forced together, they got drunk, told stories, and learned to love and understand each other even more

Would "All in the Family" be more controversial today than it was 50 years ago?CBS Television public domain publicity photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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