In the mid 1980s I recall seeing comedian Bill Cosby on the Phil Donahue talk show. He was pushing his own mediocre sitcom, at the time, and as it had been #1 in the ratings for a few years, it was drawing comparisons to Norman Lear's breakthrough comedy, All In The Family, from over a decade earlier, which similarly had been a ratings titan. Cosby then showed off both his envy and stupidity when, on national tv, he declared that he did not think All In The Family a good show because its lead character Archie Bunker was an unapologetic bigot.
Yet, that was the POINT! The show's episodes did not follow in the now noxious habit of tidying up every episode at its ending. Similarly, like most real world bigots, Archie Bunker was unrepentant, although late in the series run, viewers found out part of Archie's bigotry stemmed from emotional sufferings he endured as a poor Great Depression era child.
Whereas Garry Marshall built a 1970s sitcom empire based upon relatively lightweight comedies like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley (the exception being his first hit, The Odd Couple), Lear built a stable of hit comedies based upon social issues: Maude was based upon feminism; The Jeffersons was an extension of bigotry, based on All In The Family; Good Times was based on poverty; One Day At A Time was about the aftermath of divorce, etc. But none was better than Lear's first (just as The Odd Couple was Marshall's first).
Here's typical Archie stupidity:
Incidentally, the friend mentioned in the above episode, the character of Roger was played by General Hospital superstar Tony Geary.
While Archie had many foils: Lionel and George Jefferson, his wife Edith ('Dingbat'), and his son-in-law Mike ('Meathead'), he was really a one man wrecking crew, and as played by Carroll O'Connor, a great character. TV Guide once voted Archie Bunker the greatest character in American television history, and that could still hold true today.
But he is great because of his great flaws, and the slow way that, over the years, he recognized a few of them; even if he was not able to change. Compared to Cosby's benign and neutered Cliff Huxtable, Archie Bunker was 'real.'
The show was a rework of a 1960s British sitcom, Till Death Do Us Part, but the series was so true to its time and place that both the show and its main character are quintessentially American.
On the down side, the very essence of the show cannot be extricated from its Vietnam/Watergate heyday, even as some of its themes resonate still. One has to look at the slew of predictable television shows on today- cops and lawyers, medical dramas, fantasies, banal and formulaic sitcoms, dull 'reality' shows, to see that a show that really pushed the envelope, as all the Norman Lear shows did, would likely score well in the ratings. If nothing else, it could help turn the tide against the conventional conservatism of Political Correctness.
In one other way, this show was important, as it was the first of what would be called 'slob comedies'- the likes to be followed by Married....With Children and Roseanne; two shows inferior to the original.
Above is Mike's view of his father-in-law.
All In The Family was NOT the greatest sitcom ever made, although a couple dozen of its episodes are gems. It simply went on too long, and got too diluted. But, in its heyday it showed what the medium of television could do in handling issues like abortion, rape, racism, illegal wars, menopause, and a plethora of others. Its biggest flaw was failing to show that left Wingers were just as dumb, bigoted, and sanctimonious as Right Wingers. But, it was, undoubtedly, flaws and all, a great sitcom.
This middle finger's for you, Mr. Cosby!