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ALL IN THE FAMILY
The Complete First Season

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers
Creator:  Norman Lear
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  None
Length:  286 Minutes
Release Date:  March 26, 2002

“Don’t start, Daddy.  Remember, Jesus was Jewish, too!”

“Yeah, but only on his mother’s side…”

Shows ****

There has never been a show in the history of television like All in the Family…and sadly, there probably never will be.  It was a show that shunned political correctness in favor of raw, human truth, and dared to shed light on such topics as racism and prejudice, religion, sexual preference, the Vietnam War and others…but with humor.  It made us laugh, but dared to suggest to us that if we could see the human being inside of a bigoted man whose time had passed, that maybe there was hope to be had in spite of the world going crazy around us.

Plus, it was the show that put the sound of a toilet flushing on prime time television for the first time.  That’s episode 12, by the way, for the culturally curious.

All in the Family was that rare phenomenon that came along at just the right point in history, and left its indelible mark because of it.  It couldn’t have been made earlier or later than the 1970s, a decade where flower children were still clinging to their ideals, where the gap between conservatives and liberals was widening, and where political turmoil was always around the corner (and maybe never so big as when Watergate hit).  It was the perfect setting to place a family, and that’s exactly what pioneering producer Norman Lear did.  There would be conflict on the outside, yes…but also, conflict on the inside, where the home was becoming less and less of a castle to a lovable bigot for whom the parade was passing by.

That man was, of course, Archie Bunker, played to comic perfection by Carroll O’Connor.  Archie was a man for whom America meant opportunity and freedom for all, but especially for the white man.  Now middle aged, he can’t believe the changes in the world around him.  “I went to the bathroom at work, and so help me, there was a guy in there with a pony tail!” he complains in the pilot.  “My heart almost turned over on me…I thought I was in the wrong toilet!”

At odds with Archie was his son-in-law, Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner), a liberal who also loved America, but trumpeted change.  He was living embodiment of everything Archie distrusted and feared, and it didn’t help that he was Polish.  He became affectionately known to the television audience as “Meathead”. 

He was married to Archie’s daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), also a voice for the left.  Was two against one a fair fight?  It didn’t matter…Archie’s arguments were often too stupefying for reason!

And of course, there was Archie’s longsuffering wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton).  One of TV’s most beautiful and wonderful characters, she maintained an innocent sensibility of common sense, despite her sometimes lack of understanding leading to her pet name of “Dingbat”.

Norman Lear and his talented cast and creators went for broke with this series…it took three tries to get it on the air, and even when it finally broadcast, nobody seriously believed it would last because of the controversy.  But the controversy helped make it great.  This show was fearless in its willingness to tackle subjects once taboo in prime time.  Some people applauded it, others recoiled…but for the most part, we all watched.  And laughed.

Archie’s observations about everything from race to religion were crude, indeed.  But…and this is crucial…minorities were never the butt of the joke on the show.  Archie always was.  Some were offended by his flippant tongue and barbs about blacks, Jews, Chicanos, homosexuals and more, but most got the gist.  What Archie said about others was never as revealing about them as it was about himself.  Even as a kid watching with my parents, nobody ever had to explain that to me…I simply got that Archie was the buffoon, and not the targets of his insults.  The fact that he was capable of such insensitivity yet remained so endearing was a testament to the genius of Carroll O’Connor.

And that’s largely what made the show so great.  What could have been a single-joke premise instead became a character-driven comedy, where the people and situations were as real to us as our own lives and family.  These were people who could make us laugh, but make us think, as well.

The first thirteen episodes that comprised season one were jewels right out of the box, and many of them rank amongst the all time best shows this program had to offer.  Who could ever forget “Writing the President” where Archie dons his Sunday best just to compose a letter to his beloved Nixon?  Or when “Archie Gives Blood” despite his belief that all blood isn’t created equal (“If all blood is the same, how come they got no Swedes in the Mafia?”)?  And two of the best litmus tests of the show’s racial conscience, “Lionel Moves Into the Neighborhood” and “The First and Last Supper”, which brought Archie face to face with the Jeffersons?

These episodes and more are all here, and COMPLETE, thankfully, for the first time in a long time.  In other words, if you’re only watching the reruns on cable, you aren’t seeing the whole shows.  This three disc set is nicely presented, despite two questionable choices…there is no “play all” option available, and there are no chapter stops within the episodes themselves.  I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, though, because these shows deserve to be watched from start to finish.

All in the Family deserves to be collected on DVD.  It’s more than a television classic…it’s an integral part of America’s modern culture.  It preserved forever a fleeting moment in time where the world’s changes were closing in on one misguided character who could have happily lived forever with things the way they were.  It dared to talk about issues that needed to be addressed despite our fears.

Best of all, it made us laugh loud, hard, and often.  Those were the days, indeed.

This review is dedicated to the memory of the late great Carroll O’Connor.

Video ***

Considering the two strikes against it right out of the box (being 30 years old, and coming from a video tape source), I have to say that All in the Family holds up well on DVD.  It’s not perfect looking, of course, but still surprisingly good after all this time.  Colors are still bright and vibrant, and images show good detail and integrity despite occasional flaws inherent in tape.  Archie, Edith, Mike and Gloria have held up very well…it’s like seeing old friends again.

Audio ***

I was also pleased with the audio presentation…despite being a simple 2 channel mono mix, the shows sound better on disc than you’ll remember from TV.  The episodes were taped before a live audience, and there is a theatrical quality to the sound of both the dialogue and the crowd responses…full and open, with a touch of reverb.  Surprisingly nice.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

The day All in the Family’s first season was announced for DVD release was one of the happiest in my career as a critic.  It’s always been my favorite all time television show, and I don’t think anything could ever replace it.  It was a show that succeeded because of great characters, smart writing, and the courage to laugh at the things that make us all fallible and lovable at the same time.  It’s a cultural landmark, and on this quality DVD offering from Columbia Tri Star, an absolute must-own.