Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Sunday Memory Drawer - Oh, Archie

I was at a wedding yesterday when somebody got a text message that Jean Stapleton had passed away.

One younger person in the mix said, "who?"

Another older person at the next table asked, "is anybody from that show still alive?"

That I could answer myself.  I see Rob Reiner all the time at Dodger Stadium.  And Sally Struthers?  There are probably hundreds of underfed children in Africa who know her every move.

But I was surprised how many folks around me didn't remember Jean Stapleton.

Personally, I will never forget her.  

You can't really find "All in the Family" reruns on television these days.  The quality of the tape reproductions has faded.  The show doesn't look good.  And, frankly, the current events that were the topic of so many episodes makes it all very dated in 2013.  Especially in light of our American history-deprived society.

But, as I wrote when I proclaimed it #7 on my list of My Top 25 Favorite TV Shows of All Time...

There have been a few TV shows in history that have grabbed the nation's attention and held it hostage like "All in the Family."  

Truly appointment-driven television that everybody, and I mean everybody, was watching en masse.  I am sure "I Love Lucy" was like that during the 50s, especially when Lucy Ricardo gave birth to Little Ricky. "Dallas" was like that in the early 80s right after J.R. Ewing took some lead to the abdomen.

For me, the very first time I participated in TV frenzy was during the early years of "All in the Family." And I can easily recall how everybody, and I mean everybody, was tuned in on a Saturday night to hear Archie Bunker's latest rantings and ravings.

Of course, when it first came on the air, the attention wasn't quite there yet. But, for some bizarre reason, the very unsuspecting duo of my grandmother and me tuned in to one very early episode to see what this new sitcom was all about. We had no clue what to expect. It was the show where the Jeffersons first moved next door to the Bunkers. And Archie let us know with this announcement to his wife:

"Edith, the coons are coming!"

Two mouths dropped to the floor in a living room on 15th Avenue in Mount Vernon. And, after about a silence of ten seconds, we laughed out loud.

A lot.

During those first few "AITF" shows, we heard a lot of words we never heard on TV before.





And the always popular Jungle Bunny.

It's not like I hadn't heard the words before. But, usually at my lily-white, European-based family dining table. Never ever on the small screen for all to hear.

And laugh at. 

Because that's what producer/creator Norman Lear did with "AITF." By voicing all the things usually kept inside our homes, we were all treated to realistic glimpses of our own human frailties. And he did so via the best message conveyance known to man. Humor.

It wasn't long before all of America discovered what my grandmother and I caught onto. Everybody, and I mean everybody, was tuning in to see Archie, Edith, the Meathead, and Gloria every Saturday night on CBS, which featured perhaps the best nightly schedule of programming in the history of the medium. 

I can remember my parents got sucked in as well and I rarely remember my mother and father being on the same page with regard to TV viewing. There was one Saturday night where they had some friends over. All conversation, smoking, and drinking stopped at 8PM. There were maybe 20 people crowded into our living room to watch the episode where Edith went through menopause. 

I have forever framed that moment and the laughter in my mental hard drive. That didn't happen very often in my house. It did, though, then. "All in the Family" connected us all in a way that an audience will never be connected again.

Thinking about that Saturday night and the late Jean Stapleton, here's the closing scene of that episode.

The first five seasons of "AITF" are perhaps the best written TV comedy scripts ever. But, as good as the first five years are, the last five are as bad. This is a show that stayed way too long at the fair. As soon as Mike and Gloria moved out of the house, the main driving premise of the show was gone. Plotlines meandered as Archie and Edith adopted a niece, bought a local tavern, etc.. 

Blah, blah, blah. The fun was gone and the show essentially became nothing more than any other crappy sitcom on the air.

Equally disturbing is how much Carroll O'Connor's acting changed over the same time period. They stopped doing the show in front of the usual live studio audience and the lack of energy is really noticeable with Mr. O'Connor. He begins to mug shamelessly. He adds an annoying whine to almost every line. 

Over the life of a TV series, I know from directors I have spoken to that actors get bored and start phoning in their performances. Carroll O'Connor is a classic example of this. By the last year, he is almost embarrassing to watch. 

And, of course, he belabored it all even more by dragging Archie into that stupid spin-off where Edith is dead and he's running a bar. If there is a TV God, mercy needed to be implored here.

But, none of that should diminish at all what "All In the Family" was during its first five years on the air. And keep in mind that, in today's frantic political correctness, the show probably doesn't enjoy the life it did in the 70s. Indeed, I really wish I could see an episode today with Archie commenting on Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, and global warming. Because, in its own way, "All in the Family" did more for our social consciousness than any current leader or journalist could hope to achieve. 

And that, folks at the wedding reception around me, is who Jean Stapleton was. 

Dinner last night:  Had a big lunch so just a small sandwich.


Puck said...

People under 45 or so will never appreciate the reaction that AITF generated in those early years. Yes, the show hasn't held up well (issue and quality-wise) as others, but just the idea that race, religion, menopuase, blockbusting, etc., were being talked about on TV by average-(looking) Americans was incomprehensible.

You are quite correct that the show stayed too long at the fair, And Jean Stapleton's departure killed whatever was left -- Archie Bunker's Place was just the refusal to inter the bones. But for its first few years, it was must-see TV in a way that no show today can emulate.

Anonymous said...

"Come on. Change!"

Great stuff.