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Dealing with social and political issues on a TV sitcom

by LANCE SELFA | July 6, 2001 | Page 11

CARROLL O'CONNOR, the actor best known for his portrayal of bigot Archie Bunker on Norman Lear's 1970s sitcom All in the Family, died last month at the age of 76.

All in the Family--and its spinoffs The Jeffersons and Maude--broke new ground by bringing social and political commentary to the sitcom format.

Archie, a loading dock foreman at the Prendergast Tool & Die Co., was the stereotyped "hardhat"--a conservative, white worker who hated hippies and antiwar protesters and who harbored prejudices against Blacks, Jews and just about anyone else who wasn't white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.

Almost all the action on All in the Family took place in the living room of the Bunkers' row house in a working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York. Archie and his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) shared the bungalow with their daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and Gloria's grad-student husband Michael (a long-haired Rob Reiner).

Week in and week out, Archie locked horns with Mike and Gloria over issues like the Vietnam War, civil rights and premarital sex.

But All in the Family's excellent writing and O'Connor's acting made Archie more than a buffoon. "What we've done and what I've done is make Archie not the head of a lynch mob but a human being who is also a bigot," O'Connor, a political liberal, told an interviewer in 1973.

While the show clearly opposed Archie's views, it showed him trying to cope with a world that was changing around him. The Jeffersons, the Bunkers' Black neighbors, constantly challenged Archie's racist attitudes. Edith, whom Archie often called a "dingbat," became increasingly assertive. The ideas of the women's liberation movement influenced her to stand up to Archie's sexism--and to change her attitudes about marriage, abortion and homosexuality.

For five years between 1971 and 1976, All in the Family was the most popular show on television.

Yet you wouldn't have known why if you listened to the media commentary that followed O'Connor's death--which focused mainly on Archie's frequent use of ethnic and racial slurs.

Appearing on MSNBC's Hardball, conservative numskull Michael Medved claimed that because All in the Family poked fun at Archie and his attitudes, it became "politically incorrect" to give conservative views a hearing on network TV.

Apparently Medved hasn't noticed the Neanderthals on The Man Show--or the obscenely long run of Fox's Married With Children.

Some liberals have criticized All in the Family for taking the sting out of the slurs that Archie used.

But this misses the point. The show's language lent authenticity to its characters. It helped to make the show's presentation of social issues more like the everyday conversations that millions of Americans had in their homes in the early 1970s. That's why All in the Family was so popular.

All in the Family reruns may seem dated today, but they're still worth watching--as a reminder that there was a time when sitcoms tried to grapple with social issues.

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