Created by Norman Lear (based on the British series Till Death Us Do Part, created by Johnny Speight), All in the Family wasn’t only one of the most successful shows of all time, but became one of the most influential series in television history. From the start, All in the Family wasn’t afraid to tackle previously taboo issues such as bigotry, abortion, rape, breast cancer and more.
All in the Family centered on the Bunker family in Queens, New York—Archie (Carroll O’Connor) a loading dock worker and World War II veteran, who thought nothing of referring to people as “Spades,” “Spics,” or “Hebes” (Blacks, Hispanics, and Jews, respectively). In contrast to Archie’s rough demeanor was his caring but flighty wife Edith (Jean Stapleton). Though she often seemed like she was off on another planet and Archie regularly referred to her as “dingbat,” Ethel showed she could defend herself on more than one occasion, coming up with a stinging rebuke to one of Archie’s tirades. Also in the house was the Bunkers’ daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers) who was married to Mike Stivic (Rob Reiner), a long-haired liberal college student. The ultra-conservative Archie couldn’t understand his son-in-law at all and referred to him as “Meathead” (he was dead from the neck up); the two men’s constant jarring was a source of a lot of tension and comedy in the house. Archie could always be counted on to say something bigoted, while the very sensitive Mike would jump right in, spewing his concerns about the socially oppressed. Occasionally, Gloria would take up the fight as well, while Edith sat quietly, looking flustered.
The series premiered on CBS in January of 1971, with little promotion. Few would have guessed that by January of 1972, All in the Family would be the number one show on television, watched by an average of 20 million people per week. It would remain the number one show for the next five seasons. The show also won three consecutive Emmy awards for Outstanding Comedy Series in its first three seasons and remained nominated every subsequent season it spent on the air (winning a fourth in its second to last attempt). In one more bit of history, All in the Family is the first of three sitcoms in which all the lead actors (O’Connor, Stapleton, Struthers and Reiner) won Emmy Awards. The other two are The Golden Girls and Will & Grace.
In the first season’s thirteen episodes, All in the Family set itself apart from all other sitcoms by addressing homosexuality, miscarriages, unemployment, feminism, black families moving into the neighborhood and unmarried couples living together. A lot of these topics weren’t discussed in American homes let alone on television.
Subsequent seasons would bring forth more topics previously thought to be taboo—impotence, atheism, adultery, cross dressing to name a few—but it was the development of the series’ primary cast and the strong supporting characters that gave All in the Family such a sharply tuned edge. The Bunker’s neighbors African American next-door neighbors, the Jeffersons (Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford) and Edith’s visiting cousin, Maude Findlay (Beatrice Arthur), were both wonderful sources of frustration for Archie and would eventually be given their own successful spin-offs, The Jeffersons and Maude.
By the ninth season, All in the Family had lost most of its steam. While still ranked 6th in the Neilsen’s, it now felt like an ordinary sitcom. Mike and Gloria had moved to California at the end of the previous season (Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner had decided to leave the series). Surprisingly, the show turned to the old trick of bringing a kid into the cast, in the form of Stephanie Mills (Danielle Brisebois), the nine-year-old daughter of Edith’s “twice-removed step-cousin-in-law,” Floyd Mills. The Bunker’s take her in and while this new addition to the family does create some laughs, the gruff, angry Archie has been replaced by a rather ordinary softie.
Despite the forgettable ninth season, the lasting impact of All in the Family on American television is difficult to overstate. It truly ushered in a new kind of programming; one that allowed us to expand beyond domestic frivolity to comedy with a message.
Just in time for the holiday season, Shout! Factory has released a 28-Disc set of all nine seasons of the series, including a nice slate of bonus features and booklet. Presented in widescreen, All in the Family was shot on video and never looked that great. Expect some fuzziness and rather dull colors throughout. Overall, video quality will vary from episode to episode, but it can never be called great.
The audio is presented in a Dolby mono 2.0 track and is about what you would expect from material of its age. Dialogue is clear, though you will notice some drops in volume on occasion.
English subtitles are available only on the first two seasons.
The following special features are included:
- An All New Interview with Norman Lear (11:31) The creator/producer/writer discusses the three year battle to get All in the Family on the air, the cast and the sketch at the Emmy’s that really got the show noticed by the public.
- Those Were the Days: The Birth of All in the Family (27:00) In this 2009 documentary, Lear discusses how his relationship with his own father helped to inspire ideas for the series and finding the cast, Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers also discuss their early experiences with the show.
- The Television Revolution Begins: All in the Family is On the Air (30:40) Essentially a continuation of the previous documentary, this one takes a look at public reaction to the show. Norman Lear and the entire main cast are interviewed. Carroll O’Connor gives his thoughts via an archival chat.
- Justice for All (27:41) Shot in 1968, this is an unaired pilot for what would eventually become All in the Family. Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton play Archie and Edith Justice. Their daughter Gloria (Kelly Jean Peters), was married to Richard (Tim McIntire), a young, Irish-American liberal hippie whom Archie despised.
- Those Were the Days (27:31) features O’Connor and Stapleton co-starring with Chip Oliver and Candy Azzara as Mike and Gloria.
- Gloria (24:52) The pilot for this terrible spin-off of ’82. Carroll O’Connor appears as Archie to drop off a recently separated Gloria and her son Joey (Christian Jacobs) off in rural New York to be an assistant to veterinarian Dr. Adams (Burgess Meredith).
- Archie Bunker’s Place (47:35) This two part episode launched the series that would last for four seasons. Archie’s new partner in the bar is a Jewish man (Martin Balsam).
- 704 Hauser (24:35 with a 0:53 Lear introduction) 1994 pilot, A liberal black family lives at the Bunker’s old abode. Gloria and Meathead’s son Joey Stivic (Casey Siemaszko) visits his parents’ old home.
- Booklet: 40 pages offering essays by USC professor Marty Kaplan’s “Archie’s America, and Ours” and “Those Were the Days” by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales. The illustrated booklet also includes a synopsis for every episode in the collection.
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