Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
Television became more cinematic in the ’60s, as the crews behind the cameras made greater use of editing tricks and state-of-the-art cinematography to apply a veneer of sophistication. As the decade rolled on, some writers began fighting to make the subject matter of their shows just as cutting-edge, tackling stories about racism, drugs, and student unrest with as much unflinching honesty as the networks would allow. Throughout Hollywood—from the movie studios to their TV offshoots—there was a youth movement afoot. Artists, craftsmen, and financiers bickered over how to reflect, exploit, subvert, or ignore what was happening in the culture at large. The result was, frequently, a fusion of style and content. When we think about the politically plugged-in entertainment of the ’60s, we often picture outright sloganeering bundled in op-art set designs, machine-gun jump-cuts, vérité interludes, and psychedelic lighting. Being “relevant” back then required a mode of presentation as audacious as the day’s headlines.
And then along came Norman Lear.
Lear broke into television in the ’50s writing for variety shows, and by the ’60s, he’d developed a reputation (along with his frequent partner Bud Yorkin) for combining the instincts of a gag-man with genuine wit, a lot like what Neil Simon was trying to do in the theater at the time. Then Lear bought the rights to the British sitcom Till Death Do Us Part, about an irascible working-class bigot and his counterculture-friendly son-in-law. He combined the original show with his own family experiences and developed a sitcom for ABC called Justice For All, named for the bigot, whom Lear dubbed “Archie Justice.” The 1968 pilot was rejected, so Lear tried again in 1969 with another pilot, titled Those Were The Days. In Harlan Ellison’s TV-criticism book The Glass Teat, he writes about attending the taping of Those Were The Days, and describes how Lear sat for a
Lear finally found a home for the show—now called All In The Family—at CBS, which aired the first episode on Jan. 12, 1971. The initial season ran 13 episodes, and barely made a ripple in the ratings or the culture, even though the show’s stories and language were so unusually frank that the network felt obliged to stick a disclaimer before the première. All In The Family became a surprise hit in summer repeats, and then from its second through sixth seasons, it was the most popular program on American television, spawning the spin-offs The Jeffersons and Maude (and Good Times, by way of Maude). Lear turned the success of All In The Family into a mini TV empire, scoring hits in the ’70s with Sanford And Son, One Day At A Time, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
By the time the decade ended, Lear had transformed the look of television—or at least a specific kind of television. Drawing on the traditions of social-realist theater and the live broadcasts from TV’s golden age, Lear’s work moved politicized entertainment away from the visual razzle-dazzle of the late ’60s and toward a plain, hard style: shot on videotape in front of a live studio audience, like a little weekly playlet.
In fact, if some local theater troupe wanted to stage the first-season All In The Family episode “Gloria Discovers Women’s Lib” as an actual play, they could conceivably do it on a single stage, performed straight through, with maybe just a quick dimming of the lights to indicate the passage of time, and some partitions to indicate the three locations where the story plays out. The episode starts in the kitchen, where Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) is preparing a special Sunday breakfast with her daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers). It then moves to the dining/living room, where the head of the household, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), gripes about the breakfast to Edith and Gloria, while Gloria’s husband Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner) backs his father-in-law, arguing that a woman’s place is to obey her husband. Gloria and Michael continue their argument in their bedroom upstairs, and then she packs to leave. That’s the end of act one. In act two, Gloria returns to gather some more of her things, and after another screaming argument, she and Mike make up. Roll credits. Again in act two, all the action takes place in just a few simple spaces.
Often the appeal of watching a television show week-in-week-out is entering the world of that show, but with All In The Family, there’s a yawning gap between the details of the decor—which are precise and evocative of an old house in an old neighborhood—and the staginess of the presentation. The Bunkers’ home is a
What did Lear gain from this approach? Primarily an emphasis on performance and dialogue. The All In The Family writers gave their cast lines full of regional flavor and carefully developed back-and-forth, which the actors were allowed to develop in scenes that played on much longer than on the average sitcom. (On All In The Family, just about every episode was a “bottle episode.”)
The effect is felt in that first scene of “Gloria Discovers Women’s Lib,” in which Edith and Gloria bond over Edith expressing herself through the breakfast she’s making for the family: a bacon soufflé. They chat a little about Edith’s wild romantic youth, which includes the time she kissed a boy for 11 and a half minutes as part of a contest. (He had a bucktooth, and she got a pain in her lip.) Then Archie walks in, tries to peek in the oven, gets yelled at, and announces that he has no plans to deviate from his usual Sunday-morning fare.
The scene plays on in the next room, but with no real break in the action. Gloria gets mad that her dad won’t even try the soufflé, complaining that he’s disrespecting his wife’s creativity. Archie raises an eyebrow and says, “Them ain’t your words; where you gettin’ all that from?” Gloria then explains that she’s been reading books about women’s rights, and so has Michael. But Michael won’t stand up for her. He says that he believes discrimination against women isn’t the same as discrimination against other races. She storms upstairs and he follows her—again, with no significant lag in time. In their room, Gloria says that the problem with men is that they always assume their problems are more important than women’s, and he shrugs, “Well?” Sensing that Gloria’s getting too mad, Michael allows that he personally believes women to be equal to men, but that they have to at least pretend to be inferior to keep the social order intact. And that’s when she bolts. Less than 15 minutes have passed in the lives of the Bunker family, and we’ve seen it all, from an idle chat in the kitchen to a bitter, seemingly irresolvable disagreement in the bedroom.
Listening to that Lionel line, and listening to Gloria rant about how she and Edith will rise up with “our black sisters and our Chicano sisters,” I had a sudden flashback to a newspaper comic I read as a kid in the ’70s called Wee Pals, in which the punchline of any given strip usually involved one of the children making a statement of racial or gender pride. As with a lot of ’60s and ’70s entertainment that strove to address modern life, Wee Pals too often let its characters be defined by their surface identities.
In All In The Family, on the other hand, even the episode title “Gloria Discovers Women’s Lib” is an implied joke. It isn’t that Gloria isn’t serious about her convictions, but the character is as fragile and presumptuous in this episode as she is throughout the series, especially as she drags her mother into a fight she doesn’t
Or as Lear himself put it in a 1976 Playboy interview, talking about Maude: “We knew we could have as much fun with the bullshit aspects of knee-jerk liberalism as we were having with Archie and his knee-jerk bigotry.”
In the case of “Gloria Discovers Women’s Lib,” Michael is made out to be a hypocrite and a fool. He talks a lot about how men and women need to have prescribed roles in the household, but as Archie is quick to point out, he doesn’t even have his own “castle” to be “king” of. (“You’re the lowly pheasant,” Archie cracks, in a malapropism that piles a joke about his ignorance atop a joke about Michael’s status.) As for Gloria, she pretends to return to pack more clothes, but she admits to her mother that she really returned because she missed Mike. And Mike realizes that he was mostly just on edge waiting for his grades to come in from college, and that when those grades turned out to be good, he couldn’t enjoy the moment because Gloria wasn’t there to share it with him. Even Edith stands up to Gloria, hinting that her daughter’s perception of the family power dynamic may not be the reality. (Newcomb also notes this aspect of Edith’s personality in TV: The Most Popular Art, suggesting that with All In The Family’s depiction of Edith, “The picture of the housewife, the backbone of the family, subtly becomes a repressive argument for maintaining the feather-brained persona.”)
In the end, Gloria is rightfully dissatisfied with Michael’s explanation that she’s only his equal in that she has the right to share in his academic success, and the two argue some more, before resolving their differences by having sex. (“In the middle of the day,” Archie notes, appalled.)
That bluntness about how Mike and Gloria make up is another reason why All In The Family became a sensation. The show came by its risqué jokes honestly, working them into scenes in ways that were bracing, but never gratuitously shocking. When Gloria complains that Mike sees women as “nothing but sex objects,” Mike quips, “I should be that lucky!” When Archie worries that Mike reading about feminism is “gonna turn him into a morphodite,” he explains that the term means “a freak with a little too much of each and not enough of either.” And when Gloria storms out of the house, Archie asks Edith, “What time of the month is it?” Lear and his staff didn’t try to force the dialogue to push buttons or “violate community standards.” These kinds of topics and jokes really weren’t beyond the pale for a typical American family, they were just beyond what overly cautious TV executives were used to.
A lot of the credit for the show’s wide appeal also goes to the cast, who played their characters broad enough to make a studio audience laugh, yet real enough that for many, it was hard to picture O’Connor as anything but a curmudgeon, or Stapleton a dingbat, or Reiner a meathead, or Struthers a whiny scold. In “Gloria Discovers Women’s Lib,” Stapleton has a wonderful moment after Archie says Edith “won’t burn her bra because she’s afraid of fire,” and her character jumps into a joyful, completely off-topic anecdote about roasting marshmallows. There’s something sweet as well about the way Gloria busies herself spooning jarred cherries onto sliced grapefruit while Edith prepares the soufflé…
…and something chilling about the way the happy chat between mother and daughter comes to an immediate close once Archie grouches his way into the kitchen.
The revealing lighting required for shows shot on videotape at the time created a sense of intimacy too, exacerbated by the frequent use of close-ups. Newcomb’s book quotes a 1942 prediction about television by Lee De Forest, who wrote that the frivolousness of radio surely wouldn’t carry over to the new medium because of the visual element. “One may dare a blind song, venture a wisecrack, a banality—the artist well knows this could not be tolerated if he were beheld by his listeners.” Obviously, De Forest was a little off the mark there, but
It also helps that nothing is really resolved at the end of this episode, at least regarding equality between the sexes—because that would’ve felt phony too. Preachiness was getting played out by 1971. (A year later, even the much-beloved John Lennon would discover this, as his feminist anthem “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World” flopped, along with his overtly political album Some Time In New York City.) All In The Family begins each episode with Archie and Edith singing about the good old days, and nearly everything about Archie Bunker—including his name, which is every bit as loaded as “Justice” would’ve been—marks him as what the youth back then called “a hard hat,” or a “Joe,” or part of Nixon’s “silent majority.” Yet as Lear explained in his Playboy interview, “I abhor bigotry, but I think it’s important to understand where it comes from, to realize that there are more areas of agreement between people like Archie and people like me than there are areas of disagreement.” In other words: Archie may complain about blacks, gays, Jews, and hippies all day and night, but he’s also worried about his wife and daughter, paying the bills, and staying alive—just like any of the rest of us.
In another book Newcomb quotes, the 1946 tome Here Is Television: Your Window To The World, Thomas H. Hutchinson writes that TV “should do more to develop friendly neighbors, and to bring understanding and peace on earth, than any other single material force in the world today.” And for a time in the ’60s and ’70s, it seemed like the medium’s brightest minds were ready to take Hutchinson up on his challenge, in bold, splashy ways. Lear achieved some measure of Hutchinson’s dream just by understanding that the task was impossible. “I don’t know where you find the time to dwell on what it all means,” he told Playboy. “Anyway, I just don’t see any evidence that I influence people’s opinions all that much. If anybody thought he was going to erase prejudice with a situation comedy, he’d have to be an asshole.”
Next time… a very special episode of A Very Special Episode.