Has any television show pushed the envelope more than Norman Lear's "All in the Family?" Conceived in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s counter-cultural revolution, "All in the Family" was a sitcom about a blue-collar family in Queens, New York. Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) was a less-than-educated gent who genuinely loved his family. He also loved God and Country, and didn't take kindly to those "commie pinkos" who wanted to "take over". Archie often sparred with his liberal son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner), as wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) and daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) struggled to keep the peace.
Archie was a bigot. He hated blacks, Jews, gays, and just about everyone else who wasn't what he considered a patriotic American--his bigotry was at the center of "All in the Family" storylines. Through envelope pushing humor, Lear, his writers and cast poked fun at various kinds of bigotry and exposed prejudice for what it was.
The final stroke of genius was to give Archie a warm and kind heart, which often shined through his gruff exterior and many prejudices. This made the character accessible to mass audiences and allowed Archie to grow over the course of the twelve years during which Carroll O'Connor played him.
“All in the Family” currently airs on two networks: Antenna TV and FamilyNet. Even now the series is often shocking, touching upon subject matter that "simply aren't discussed in polite society." Today's younger "All in the Family" viewers might not realize just how shocking "All in the Family" actually was some forty years ago--and yet audiences at the time loved it. People talked about it--they also talked about the issues it raised.
No subject was taboo on "All in the Family," not even (gasp!) homosexuality.
Here are a few episodes of this courageous series, which may have helped open doors for the visibility and equality laws that we enjoy today.
"Judging Books by Covers"
Season 1, episode 5: aired February 9th, 1971.
Archie is appalled when Mike brings Roger (Anthony Geary) a somewhat effeminate, bookwormish friend home for dinner – after all, isn't Roger gay? Maybe not.
At the local bar, Archie bemoans Roger to drinking buddy Steve (Phil Carey). Burly and masculine, Steve is an ex-football player. As they arm wrestle, Steve asks Archie how long they've been drinking together.
"And in all that time, have you ever heard me talk about a woman?" inquires Steve.
The shocked look on Archie's face is priceless.
Season 8, episode 13: aired October 9, 1977
Edith is the only family member to attend the funeral of her Cousin Liz. There she meets Liz's "roommate" Veronica (K Callan). As they talk, Edith slowly comes to realize why no other relatives are in attendance: Veronica is Liz's "lover" (the vernacular of the period.) Though neither of them ever states the obvious, Edith insists that Veronica keep Liz's beautiful silver tea set, which Edith originally meant to take for herself.
Though she was somewhat scatterbrained (Archie often called her "dingbat"), Edith was "All in the Family's" wisest and most compassionate character.
"Edith's Crisis of Faith"
Season 8, episode 13: aired December 18, 1977
Real life drag performer Lori Shannon made the final of her three "All in the Family" appearances on this bittersweet Christmas episode. Shannon had been seen twice as drag queen Beverly LaSalle, who may have been trans. Beverly didn't always change into male attire after she exited the stage.
Beverly was a friendly nemesis for Archie and a close friend of Edith's. After showing Edith the fabulous gown she's going to wear for her Carnegie Hall debut, Beverly dies in the aftermath of a Christmas Eve gay bashing. A heartbroken Edith decides not to attend Midnight Mass, claiming that going to church does no good. The episode continued the following week as Edith reconciled her crisis of faith.
"All in the Family" may have been a sitcom, but it wasn't always funny. Sometimes it wasn't meant to be. It certainly took guts to put it on the air.