Meet the Bunkers (Original Airdate: January 12, 1971)
Written by Norman Lear
Directed by John Rich
It began as Til Death Do Us Part, a British sitcom. The premise is nearly identical with the main difference being moving the setting from the East End of London to the borough of Queens in New York City. Norman Lear came across an article on the British series, and he was reminded of the relationship between his own mother and father. The arrival of All in the Family on CBS marked a significant shift in the tone of programming. Previously the network was peppered with shows like Andy Griffith and The Beverly Hillbillies. All in the Family was not a show that made you feel cozy, and it intentionally challenged small-minded viewers confronting them with a different side of the argument than they were used to being exposed to.
The face most viewers associate with All in the Family is Archie Bunker’s. Archie was played by Carroll O’Connor, a member of the prestigious Actor’s Studio and worked alongside fellow actors Burgess Meredith and John Astin. O’Connor became a character actor popping up in dozens of popular shows in the 1960s with one-off performances. Taking on the role of right-wing buffoon Archie, O’Connor was directly playing against his personal belief system. The actor was a left-wing socialist, profoundly supportive of the labor and civil rights movements. But, he has grown up surrounded by men like Archie, in the same way, Lear was inspired by his own father’s regressive beliefs. There is an authenticity to O’Connor’s performance, he never plays Archie like a cartoon character but isn’t afraid to emphasize the absurdity and hypocrisy of his fragile belief system.’’
Always next to Archie was his optimistic and naive wife, Edith. She was played by Jean Stapleton, a fellow New Yorker like her co-star O’Connor she also came up “on the stage.” Stapleton was also extremely different from the gullible Edith, with an active presence in the women’s rights movement of her time. She saw Edith as a way to portray the lives of women who were still in need of feminism to lift them up. Throughout the series, the character had many moments where she stood up for herself and put Archie in his place. Edith would always return to her passive, homemaker state, but that was a choice. In sober moments, she would elucidate other characters to the point of view they might be missing, and this lets the audience know that Edith was no “dingbat.”
Working in opposition to Archie’s backward thinking were Gloria and Mike, his daughter and son-in-law. Sally Struthers played Gloria, the only daughter of the Bunkers, who was open to the significant cultural changes in her world. She has no problem getting a job while her husband finishes school and dislikes the way Archie talks down to Edith. Mike Stivic, the long-haired lefty was played by Rob Reiner. Reiner was no stranger to Hollywood as his father, Carl who worked as the comedy partner to Mel Brooks, created the Dick Van Dyke Show and directed numerous films including the Steve Martin vehicle The Jerk. Rob would go on to become a major director in his own right helming pictures like This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, and When Harry Met Sally. Both actors don’t canonize their roles as a perfect contrast to Archie. The show spends time examining the intersections of these personalities as a way to humanize everyone and try to instill empathy while still holding Archie accountable for his ignorance.
When this first episode aired, television critics were clear that the show would either be the biggest hit or the most tragic failure. It was a program without the pretension of walking a middle line and keeping the audience comfortable. All in the Family was seen as giving television some form of relevance, a significant accomplishment in a decade where the medium reached some terrible lows. There was a tightrope to walk when Archie used racial epithets for every ethnic group from blacks to Jews to Italians. If the show allowed Archie’s rhetoric to dominate, then the sentiment of the series would come from a place of hate. Lear stated that he needed Archie to say these things as a matter of authenticity so that the character’s comeuppance would be that much more triumphant for those he wronged. We don’t have anything like All in the Family on television today. The landscape of television has changed, and now we have shows that feature casts predominately of color, still not enough though. I’m of the opinion that discussions of relevant social issues get relegated to “ethnic” shows and the dominating white-led programs focus on “universal” themes. It definitely feels like we need a series akin to All in the Family as a clarion call to apathetic and ignorant white households that need to be shaken up.
Mike’s Hippie Friends Come to Visit (Original Airdate: February 23, 1971)
Written by Don Nicholl, Bryan Joseph, Philip Mishkin, & Rob Reiner
Directed by John Rich
Mike and Gloria have invited their friends Paul and Robin to spend the night in the Bunker home the night before they leave for Europe. These friends are very openly hippies, living the lifestyle that comes with those ideals. Archie is annoyed by their left leanings but gets irate when he finds out they are unmarried and plan on sharing a bed together in his house. This is one of the earlier instances of Archie referencing the Bible and the Judeo-Christian god while being shown to have little actual knowledge of the scriptures and their meaning. For its time, this was a pretty daring condemnation of American Christian ignorance and hypocrisy. Archie only uses the Bible when it is a convenient bludgeon for people he disagrees with but lives the rest of his life as a spiteful, greedy, hatemonger.
It would be lazy to present Mike the infallible counter to Archie but Lear and his creative team, so they make sure to show he isn’t a one-dimensional character. After it becomes clear that Archie will not allow Paul and Robin to sleep in his home as planned, they contact another friend in the city. That friend eventually arrives only to tell them his dad is in the same camp as Archie, so Mike and Gloria offer to put their pals up in a nearby motel for the night. Paul says that Robin, who has taken a vow of silence, has communicated to him through her eyes that they have to stay in the Bunker home on principle to take a stand against Archie. At this point, it’s around one in the morning. Mike becomes utterly exasperated as he sees his friends adopting the same unwavering arrogant stance over a minor disagreement. No one appears to be able to pick their battles in this clash.
The Saga of Cousin Oscar (Original Airdate: September 18, 1971)
Written by Norman Lear and Burt Styler
Directed by John Rich
All in the Family had an almost unending parade of relatives, particularly cousins of which Archie and Edith had countless dozens. Cousin Oscar is never seen or heard, but his presence resonates during his visit to the Bunker home. Edith is catering to Archie’s Cousin Oscar, someone Archie considers to be a layabout and moocher. Oscar ends up dying in the Bunker guest bed which kicks off the real focus of the episode, Archie’s stinginess. One of the Bunker patriarch’s first decisions is to call another cousin in Detroit and try to offload the funerary expenses on him, which that cousin of course refuses. Archie then attempts to negotiate with his extended family over the phone into paying for Oscar’s burial. They are dragging their heels, which of course infuriates the comically cheap protagonist.
This episode was the introduction of Mr. Whitehead, a neighborhood funeral director who I was legitimately shocked to see pop up seasons later under even more comical circumstances. Whitehead was played by actor Jack Grimes who is likely more famous for his extensive voice-over work. Some of his credits include the original Speed Racer, Jimmy Olsen in multiple 1960s DC animated series, and Star Blazers. He was also a recurring character on the short-lived sitcom On the Rocks, which like All in the Family, was based on a British series. On the Rocks had Grimes playing one of several inmates who exchanged witty barbs with the guards at a prison. The show was made by John Rich Productions who were also behind All in the Family and a slew of the most popular shows of that era. Grimes, like a lot of character actors, was a product of the stage. He was New York-born and passed away there in 2009. In between, he had roles in hundreds of productions, and you can see from his performance as Mr. Whitehead that he knew how to take what could have been a throwaway role and steal the show from Archie effortlessly.
Flashback: Mike Meets Archie (Original Airdate: October 16, 1971)
Written by Philip Mishkin & Rob Reiner
Directed by John Rich
This seems like it could have been the pilot episode of All in the Family, but I prefer the way the series began with Mike and Gloria already married and a lot of history established before we meet the Bunkers. The newlyweds are celebrating their first anniversary and engage in reminiscing about the first time Mike came over to the house in Queens for dinner. Mike is presented as more hippy-ish in appearance wearing a tie-dyed long sleeve shirt and sporting a shaggy beard, as opposed to his mustache. Gloria is also subtly different, less developed in her feminist ideology and exhibiting some of Edith’s tendencies just slightly. She also plays into the “daddy’s little girl” idea here making demands of her father and knowing he’ll cave to her.
Carroll O’Connor and Rob Reiner knew how to regulate the energy levels of their conflicts so well, letting things simmer and naturally come to an explosive boiling point. The Vietnam War comes up in the conversation and becomes a flashpoint for the two, which leads to Archie’s use of the nickname “Meathead” and referring to Mike as a “dumb Pollack.” Mike storms out and calls Gloria from a nearby payphone, but she convinces him to come back for a second try. This time around Mike and Archie find common ground in their love of baseball. Safe territory, right?
They exchange thoughts on the chances of the Mets winning a pennant that year, that leads Mike to bring up the fact that Archie must have seen the game change a lot in his time. Archie agrees, and they mention games being televised live and other aspects until Archie mentions 1947. This leads to a second blow up when Archie says Jackie Robinson came in and “changed the whole complexion of the game.” Mike takes this as a slight to black people, and Archie corrects him by saying he meant that black people were so much better at the game; it made baseball unfair to white players. This second round of fighting ends up bringing out that Mike and Gloria are already engaged, and they plan on living with Archie and Edith for four years while Mike finishes college. All news that makes Archie even more apoplectic.