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Gerry Myers Headshot

'All in the Family': The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

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Forty-three years ago, a groundbreaking television show transformed the American viewing audience when All in the Family debuted in 1971. By the end of the first season, 60 million people were watching it. After 212 ground-breaking episodes that depicted most topics affecting the turmoil in our country, the show ended in 1979, spawning numerous spin-offs that lasted several more years. The show's enormous success was based on the writers' aptitude to depict the unrest in the country and the characters' ability to stay true to their strong personal beliefs. Topics like equal rights for both minorities and women, Watergate and Vietnam, dominated the news, as well as the show's plotlines.

All in the Family, a sitcom that dealt with contemporary cultural issues like no other show had dared, was popular because it focused on everyday concerns and their effect on an average middle-class family of that era. The show is primarily from the viewpoint of Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), a hard working family man in Queens, New York who just can't catch a break. Does this scenario sound familiar to you or anyone you know? History repeats itself even when lessons from the past should have been learned.

Archie, a WWII veteran, is an outspoken bigot, prejudiced against everyone who is not a U.S.-born, politically conservative, heterosexual White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) male, and dismisses everyone who doesn't agree with his view of the world. He believes wholeheartedly in his government and is a strong supporter of President Nixon. Ironically, Nixon hated the sitcom.

Archie's household consists of his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), his daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and her radically liberal husband, Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner). Michael, who is often referred to as "meathead" and "Polock," is a constant target for Archie's bigotry.

On the political scene, Michael's views don't sit well with Archie, who believes the American government can do no wrong. Archie, a staunch conservative, and Michael, a liberal, discuss how the Presidential Campaign funds are unequal... "the Republicans have so much more money to run TV ads, than the Democrats do." After the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court opened the flood gates, not much is different today.

Archie, like many of our Republicans, votes against his own best interest. Voting for tax breaks for the wealthy, while decreasing money needed for social and job programs to help the poor, elderly and middle class, didn't make sense then, and still doesn't today.

In one episode, Archie struggled to pay his taxes. Michael, his son-in-law, pointed out that hardworking people's taxes would be lower if large corporations and the rich paid their fair share and Congress would just close the tax loopholes. Nearly 50 years later, tax loopholes and inequitable tax laws that favor large corporations, and the rich, still exist. In addition, they are creating an income inequality in this country that is eliminating the middle class.

When All in the Family tackled the subject of a woman's right to control her own body, and to decide on whether to have an abortion, it was a controversial issue. Surprisingly, it continues to be an issue in 2014. Even though the Supreme Court upheld its legality, many state governors and legislatures are following their own beliefs, deliberately destroying women's health care, and defying the highest court in the land.

While medical issues have made enormous progress in some realms, in others they have taken a step backwards. When Archie needs emergency surgery, the doctor available is female, and his prejudice about a woman's role comes into play. But as Michael cheerfully points out to the cash-strapped Archie, being a woman, I'm sure she makes less than her male counterparts. Sound familiar in 2014?

All in the Family pushed the envelope on other controversial issues as well. When African-American neighbors Louise (Isabel Sanford), George (Sherman Hemsley) and Lionel Jefferson (Mike Evans) move into Archie's previously all-white neighborhood, racial stereotypes and bigotry, become recurring themes.

Throughout the years, All in the Family mocks Archie's blatant racism as he refers to Lionel as "yous people," and other derogatory innuendos. Archie expresses his disdain for affirmative action with "if [they] want to make it in this world, let 'em hustle for it like I done." The show skillfully combined these serious topics with laughable moments. One such moment occurred when Sammy Davis Jr. came to Archie's home. While honored to have such a famous celebrity in his home, he is still bothered by the color of Davis' skin. The crowning moment of the show unfolded when Archie asked Mike to take a picture of them so he can show the guys at work. Just as Mike snaps the picture, Sammy leans in and kisses Archie, capturing a bewildered Archie for all eternity. Today, racism still exists, but there are no comedic moments to offer.

Instead, racism seems like it is on the rise along with gun sales and gun-related deaths. Archie's solution to gun violence, unfortunately, matches our NRA's stance today. Archie feels: "All the airlines have to do to end skyjackings is arm the passengers." And a NRA spokesman recently stated "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

All in the Family dealt with topics that were taboo at that time: divorce, breast cancer, rape, women's liberation, the gay rights movement, and racism.

Nearly 50 years later, we are still tackling many of these same issues. But even Archie's strong support for the government may wane a little if he was faced with today's dysfunctional, do-nothing Congress.