Our reviews of All In The Family: The Complete First Season (published April 9th, 2002), All In The Family: The Complete Fourth Season (published August 10th, 2005), All In The Family: The Complete Seventh Season (published October 28th, 2010), All In The Family: The Complete Eighth Season (published January 19th, 2011), All In The Family: The Complete Ninth Season (published June 16th, 2011), and All in the Family: The Complete Series (published October 26th, 2012) are also available.
."…Those were the days…"
For the benefit of the American pop culture illiterate, All in the Family, Norman Lear's groundbreaking sitcom that ran from 1971 to 1979, follows the exploits of the working-class Bunker family. Adapted from the British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, the concept is simple as can be: narrow-minded bigot Archie (Carroll O'Connor), his sweet but dingbat wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), their daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers), and her jobless, college student husband Mike "Meathead" Stivic (Rob Reiner) struggle to live in peace with one another at 704 Hauser Street in New York.
Facts of the Case
This three-disc set contains all 24 episodes of the second season of the show. Here's the run-down:
"Gloria Poses in the Nude"
"The Saga of Cousin Oscar"
"Flashback: Mike Meets Archie"
"Edith Writes a Song"
"Archie in the Lock-Up"
"The Election Story"
"The Insurance Is Canceled"
"Christmas Day at the Bunkers"
"The Man in the Street"
"Cousin Maude's Visit"
"The Elevator Story"
"Archie and the FBI"
"Archie Sees a Mugging"
"Mike's Mysterious Son"
"Archie and Edith Alone"
"Edith Gets a Mink"
"Edith, the Judge"
"Archie Is Jealous"
Like M*A*S*H*, that other behemoth of a sitcom in the 1970s, All in the Family was strong out of the gate, presenting biting satire the likes of which had never before been seen on American television. Within a couple seasons, though, it became aware of its own importance and lost touch with the very things that made it brilliant, becoming increasingly serious and preachy. Feeling the need to editorialize on its own satire for the benefit of the minority of viewers who might be laughing for the wrong reasons, the comedy became hamfisted, less sure-footed, and more of a kind with the other mediocre comedies that littered the airwaves.
The show's second season finds it at its peak, slipping into more natural rhythms than in its first season as cast, crew, and writers are fully confident in their own powers. Nearly thirty years later, the comedy here is often brutal, the bigotry flowing from Archie's mouth cringe-inducing. But satire has to be painful. The show's greatest strength is its nuanced examination of the complex intersections between political philosophy (informed and uniformed) and the realities of day-to-day living. In the heated exchanges between Archie and his son-in-law, we're clearly supposed to identify with Meathead's open-minded, compassionate worldview, but the show deftly avoids oversimplified moralizing by framing Meathead as a kid as often naïve as Archie is ignorant. Much as we disagree with Archie, we feel a level of compassion for him because he's a guy who's lived an entire life paycheck to paycheck, working a job with crappy benefits and unpaid sick leave, the sort of guy who always does what it takes to ensure there's food on the table (much of which Meathead eats) and the bills are paid.
Some of the show's smartest and funniest episodes can be found in this package: Sammy Davis, Jr.'s visit (in which Archie repeatedly urges Edith not to mention Mr. Davis' glass eye, then does so himself), the two episodes featuring Maude (Bea Arthur and Carroll O'Connor are wickedly funny in their sparring), "The Elevator Story" which features a young Hector Elizondo and Archie exchanging witticisms with an affluent African American nearly as prejudiced as himself, and the flashback episode in which we witness Archie and Meathead's first meeting.
That said, one can also see minor chinks in the show's armor, signs of its future degradation. Because it pushes at the boundaries of cultural norms and exposes our ugliest selves, satire requires courage. A satirist must accept the fact that some won't understand the joke. Some will, in the case of a show like All in the Family, read satire of bigotry as bigotry itself. When satire stoops to explain itself, it loses its bite and wit. Some of the episodes here are guilty of just that. "The Insurance is Canceled" is a perfect example of what the show would become in its later, weaker seasons: taking on more than it can handle with parallel plots, each of which informs the other, the show commits the sin of editorializing on its own themes. In the final act, Emanuel, the Puerto Rican worker Archie has chosen to lay off strictly because of his race and despite the fact he's the most diligent of his three workers, explains he feels more sorry for Archie than he does for himself because his own absence isn't going to make the remaining employees work harder, meaning more work and longer hours for Archie. It's a smart point, but one made more effectively in the final moments of the show when we see Archie arriving home from work late and exhausted. There's no need to both show us and tell us. Good satire demonstrates an unflinching belief most of the audience is smart enough to get the point, and an uncompromising resistance to offering overt explanations to the portion that isn't. Despite the occasional misstep, most of the episodes in this complete season package show are courageous and spot-on.
As Rob Reiner intones over the end credits of each episode, "All in the Family was recorded on tape before a live audience." To that, I would add: nearly 30 years ago. It looks and sounds like it. Colors are faded, they sometimes bleed, and are far from consistent—sometimes, for instance, Archie's shirt is white, sometimes light beige. The mono audio is flat at best, and sometimes shrill and distorted. If you've seen the show broadcast in reruns, you'll have a decent idea of what you're going to get here. The good news is, I didn't detect any transfer-related problems: no compression artifacts or pixelation or blocky mosaics. The DVDs present and preserve the show in as good a condition as it's ever likely to be.
The discs provide English and Spanish subtitles. That's it. There are no extras.
Considering All in the Family's reputation as a television series of cultural and sociological significance, I'm a bit surprised by the lack of extras in this set (Norman Lear and the cast weren't available for commentaries?). But the discs succeed in preserving the show, and these complete season packages give one an excellent sense of its evolution.
If you haven't seen All in the Family in a long time, you're liable to be shocked by its frankness. You'll think to yourself, "They'd never put a show like this on the air today." True, but only because All in the Family was instrumental in reshaping the cultural assumptions it satirized.
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