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Friday, October 5, 2012

'All in the Family' CS: Arguably TV's All-Time Top SItcom

Shout Factory's awesome track record with complete series DVD sets of classic shows continues with its above-average even for Shout collection of every episode from "All in the Family's" nine seasons. 

Aside from the terrific accompanying booklet and special features that are discussed below, the DVD set earns an A+ for including the original broadcast versions of the episodes. 

The syndicated episodes always seemed oddly short and missing something. I also did not understand why I liked the DVD episodes so much better than the TV Land presentations until learning that the syndicated versions cut between four and five minutes from the original broadcasts. Well done Shout!

The set is available for pre-order and will be released on October 30, 2012. It would make the bestest ever Halloween treat for any fan of classic sitcoms and/or political humor.

The premise of "Family" is highly original and has not been repeated since its mid-season 1971 premiere. It centers around the Queens, NY home that blue-collar working stiff Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O'Connor, shares with his textbook adoring and long-suffering wife with a breaking point Edith, played by Jean Stapleton.

The Bunkers' naive but slowly evolving 20-something daughter Gloria, played by Sally Struthers, and her liberal college student husband Mike Stivic, played by later film director/producer Rob Reiner, reside with the 'rents for the first few seasons but stay close-by for a few more years.

Anyone who is familiar with "Family" is aware that father rarely, if ever, knew best in that household and that the post-adolescent kids were hardly the freshly-scrubbed clean-cut Disneyfied Kurt Russell et al college student type of the early 1970s.


Additionally, Edith probably did not own a real pearl necklace and seemed dazed and confused much more frequently than wise and motherly.


This realism extended to the characters bickering and facing serious health and financial difficulties much more often than outwardly expressing their love for each other and planning elaborate surprise parties or fretting over a dinner for the boss going awry.


It is especially noteworthy that "Family" premiered roughly 15 years before Roseanne asserted to all within earshot of her boisterous bellowing that she had created the first show that accurately depicted blue-collar (and American) life. 


With the appropriate degree of  respect to Ms. Arnold, I have had relatives and close family friends deal with the "Family" issues of rape, substance abuse, miscarriages, housing and job discrimination, marital fidelity, homophobia, and many other challenges. 

I have never known of anyone to deal with the "Roseanne" issues of one daughter barking in class, another daughter being humiliated because she broke wind in front of the entire school, or a husband and wife pulling elaborate Halloween pranks on each other. I additionally could never imagine the "Family" cast ever agreeing to perform a parody of a classic sitcom as the "Roseanne" gang did a few times.

"Family's" impact also extended to providing the American viewing public almost as jarring a wake up call as the footage from Vietnam that aired on the evening news during the same era. 


CBS went directly from its rural comedies, such as the "The Beverly Hillbillies/"Hooterville series and "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Gomer Pyle: USMC," and other wacky sitcoms such as "The Doris Day Show" and "Here's Lucy" to the grittier and all around darker (but still hilarious) "Family."

"Family" being the first series to depict a flushing toilet is an oft-cited example of how that show put the mirror on us as much as the depiction of the Louds in the PBS 1973 documentary "An American Life." In fact, the Louds could have been the Bunkers if they belonged to a much lower economic class.


It is further doubtful that CBS would have aired the thinly disguised Vietnam War comedy "M*A*S*H" in September 1972 if "Family" had not succeeded. 


On a lighter note, purely comedic elements of "Family" made it as a memorable as Archie's ignorance-based prejudicial views, the heated Watergate-era political discussions, and the frank depictions of the ups and regular downs following those happy days that most of us experience.


Archie calling Edith "Dingbat" and telling her to stifle as regularly as he called Mike "Meathead" still makes every fan smile.


A personal favorite schtick involves Edith telling a story as long and rambling as this review of the "Family" complete series set. Archie would soon perfectly pantomime setting up an ultimately executed suicide while suffering through Edith's tale. A faux lynching that ended up with Archie's head rolling to the side and his tongue hanging out his mouth was the best of the lot.


Because most of "Family's" more than 200 episodes were excellent, and even some not-so-great ones from later seasons were not so bad, picking a standout one is tough. 


The two-parter in which Gloria gives birth is one of the more memorable ones for being particularly good at combining physical humor in the form of her getting stuck in a telephone booth, social issues in the form of controversy regarding Archie performing in a minstrel show, and one fall on the floor funny sight gag at the hospital that is too good to ruin with advance notice.

The aforementioned booklet, which includes great episode synopses, has essays by "Family" expert Marty Kaplan and legendary veteran TV critic Tom Shales on the history and impact of "Family." The struggle to fine tune the show just right, get a network to air it, and the impact that it had make that topic a very worthy  feature film topic. Perhaps Rob Reiner will produce one.



The best of a wonderful gaggle of DVD extras is a brand-new interview with "Family" creator and producer Norman "TV God" Lear. I had always admired Lear, but this interview earned him a place on my list of people with whom I would like to share a corned beef on rye at a Brooklyn deli.

Lear clearly, eloquently, and candidly spoke of every aspect of creating the show. The insights that he shared included basing Archie on Lear's father and O'Connor basing his depiction of that character on a cab driver that O'Connor knew.


Lear further made my day in verifying my theory that each "Family" episode was produced as a two-act theatrical presentation. Although Lear kept most of the action in the Bunkers' living room, he was a genius at having the world enter that space.

Other "behind-the-scenes" features included segments from the show and clips of prior interviews with cast members. The contrast between a tiny and adorable Sally Struthers from "Family's" early days and her horrible mug shot of shame regarding her recent DUI arrest in Maine was genuinely sad. 


Readers know that I am often the first to mock aging sitcom stars who face public disgrace. In this case, Struthers has shown me great kindness during her summers in Maine. I hope that things work out for her and that the public cuts this genuinely nice lady a break.


The three cherries on the addictive treat that is the "Family" complete series set are the pilot episodes of the "Family" spinoffs "Gloria," "Archie Bunker's Place," and "704 Hauser Street." Of the three, only "Place" achieved any success.


I liked "Gloria" better as a kid than I did the other night. The elderly rural vet, played by Burgess "The Penguin" Meredith, for whom Gloria went to work was the only character who displayed much personality. It was also odd to see a "Family" inspired show be more "Green Acres" than "Meet the Press."


"Archie Bunker's Place" was a decent show that  ran for a few years, and had an episode that is incredibly sad for "Family" fans. The problem was that the show was more "The Ropers" than "Frasier." Like "The Ropers," the main character did not work as well when taken even slightly out of his element. 


As Lear and legions of fans have realized, the "Family" cast understood their characters and those characters' relationships with each other better than virtually any other cast. 

"704 Hauser Street" was a short-lived series in which Lear had a black family live in the Bunkers' former house and have the same type of political discussions. Unfortunately, lightning did not strike twice.

At the same time, the three pilots are interesting nostalgia that are worth watching.


Anyone with thoughts or questions regarding "Family" is encouraged to
email me.