Sony // 1974 // 608 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Pope (Retired) // August 10th, 2005
"That ain't swearing there, Edith. 'GD.' The first word there is God, ain't it? How can that be a swear word? The most popular word in the Bible! The second word there is damn. That's a perfectly good word. You hear that all the time. Like, they dammed the river to keep it from flooding, see? And even in the Bible you read where some guy is damned for cheating or stealing or committing incest in the family. And who damned him? Who else? God! God damned him! Beautiful words right out of the holy book!"
According to the Internet Movie Database, All in the Family had racked up a whopping twelve Emmy wins by its fourth season. That's an impressive take for such an incendiary television show. Many fans consider season four to be the pinnacle of the series' run, and this boxed set gives us a chance to weigh the evidence.
Life gets bumpier in the Bunker household when Frank and Irene Lorenzo (Vincent Gardenia and Betty Garrett) move in next door. A progressive couple (she's the breadwinner, he handles kitchen duties), they provide sharp counterpoint to Archie's (Carroll O'Connor) old-fashioned ideals and an even sharper tongue against his unabashed prejudices. However, taking center stage this season are Mike (Rob Reiner) and Gloria (Sally Struthers) Stivic, as the series plants seeds of discord in their marriage (in the early-'80s spinoff, Gloria, Gloria is a single mother). In one episode, Mike disapproves of Gloria taking the role of sexual aggressor. In another, Gloria is angry when Mike becomes aroused at the sight of her sporting a black wig. By season's end, Gloria fears she may be falling out of love with Mike.
In addition, Edith (Jean Stapleton) befriends a nursing home runaway; Gloria buys a replica of a sculpture that Archie thinks is pornographic; Archie goes back on his promise to Edith and begins placing bets at the racetrack; a computer lists Archie as being deceased; Edith's friendship with Irene's sister, a nun, makes Archie uncomfortable; Archie accidentally locks himself in the cellar; Archie and Edith plan a second honeymoon trip to Atlantic City; a politician's son robs Archie; Frank puts a curse on Archie; Edith finds a lump in her breast during the holidays; fear of age prompts Archie to duck out of his own fiftieth birthday party; Archie thinks his job is in jeopardy when an old friend and former coworker rolls back into town; Gloria makes friends with a mentally-challenged delivery boy; Archie worries that a can of mushrooms he ate is contaminated; and Mike finally graduates from college.
It's no small measure of All in the Family's success that, almost 35 years after the series first appeared on the pop culture landscape, people are still talking about how a show like that would never get put on television today. How true, and how sad. After all, Norman Lear's legendary comedy series was about something. It had a voice. Hot on the heels of such cotton candy shows as The Beverly Hillbillies, I Dream of Jeannie, and Gilligan's Island, a show that tackled race, politics, sexual politics, religion, and homophobia was nothing short of revolutionary.
But even the most groundbreaking comedy is pointless if it doesn't make you laugh, and All in the Family is still as fresh, daring, and jaw-droppingly funny today as it was in the '70s. It seems no subject was taboo, from pornography to breast cancer, from sexual roleplay to aging. All in the Family wasn't afraid to peek into our minds and broadcast what we were thinking at the time. What's so amazing, though, is how the writers took that material and mined so much comedy gold. When Gloria defends a black family's right to move in next door, Archie shoots back, "Everything's terrific with a minor-ority with her. She'd be happy with a Hindu and a goat." We laugh not in agreement, but because we've all known an Archie Bunker or two.
Lear's shrewdest move -- and the reason the show was so strongly embraced -- was the way he humanized Archie by having the character written and portrayed with just a hint of helpless melancholy. Here was a proud, working-class Irish-American, strong in his (terribly misguided) convictions, who was forced to watch as the world evolved without him. Even his daughter had cast aside his antiquated views on gender roles and race relations. Essentially, he became a relic right before his very eyes. O'Connor tapped into that sadness and created a funny, but at times deeply moving, character.
The writers gave Archie Bunker a worthy foil in son-in-law Mike Stivic. A forward-thinking liberal and unemployed intellectual, Mike was often an exasperated sparring partner for blue-collar Archie, whose bluster was matched only by his ignorance (deadpans Archie: "One colored family is a novelty. Two is a ghetto."). An intelligent but oafish freeloader, Mike was a conundrum to Archie, and Reiner brought tremendous authority and a hangdog likeability to the role. Who else could have filled those shoes without being blown off the screen by O'Connor?
O'Connor and Reiner were matched by equally skilled actresses Stapleton and Struthers. Just watch Stapleton's daffy but fiercely devoted Edith in any episode, and her stage-training is on full display. Constantly in character and always reacting, Stapleton never missteps, and she's a delight. Struthers' liberal Gloria isn't as broadly drawn as Edith, which makes her role trickier. But she displays crack comic timing and brings a smart sensibility to the role. After years of watching Struthers weep on behalf of UNICEF, it's easy to forget how talented an actress she was.
Also worth noting is the introduction of the redoubtable Mother Jefferson, played by the late, great Zara Cully. An instant audience favorite, Mother Jefferson was one of the greatest adversaries to ever face down Archie Bunker. She would later turn up regularly on The Jeffersons as the thorn in Louise's side.
Sony has brought All in the Family -- The Complete Fourth Season to DVD with distressingly little fanfare. The transfer is fairly clean, but, as was the case with previous season sets, the colors are washed out. While whites and skin tones were especially inconsistent, the most annoying blemish was a yellow horizontal bar that permeated the first three or four episodes. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is adequate.
I must take Sony to task for once again refusing to provide any supplemental materials with this set. Many of the principal actors are still alive today, and it would have been wonderful hearing them reflect on this groundbreaking series.
A lousy transfer and deplorable lack of extras make it hard to recommend a show that is regularly broadcast on TV Land. However, die-hard fans will want the complete series, even at a list price of around $30.
Norman Lear and the Bunker clan are free to go. Sony, on the other hand, has some serious explaining to do for the lack of respect shown toward this treasure.
Review content copyright © 2005 Bryan Pope; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 608 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Not Rated