Published on March 30th, 2012 | by Mike Nugent2
Society on the Small Screen – Meet the Bunkers
The show itself
All in the Family is perhaps the most famous and enduring sitcom ever to come out of the American television industry. It’s frequently on television historians’ “Top Ten” lists, and Archie Bunker’s chair from which he railed against the injustices of his day sits in the Smithsonian, the same facility which holds the Apollo 11 spacecraft.
All in the Family premiered on January 12th, 1971 with the episode titled Meet the Bunkers. This show revolved around patriarch Archie Bunker, his wife Edith, daughter Gloria and her unemployed uni student husband Mike all living under one roof.
The key theme of this episode is generational conflict. Mike and Archie clash over every imaginable topic, with Mike’s 1970s university liberalism clashing with Archie’s blue collar conservatism. However, unlike recent iterations of this conflict, Archie is clearly written to be the villain. Although as the series progressed, he would be able to win the occasional argument, he begins as a man out of his time. His pining for the days of Herbert Hoover in the opening credits establishes this.
For the modern viewer, many of the jokes and themes still stand up and still elicit a chuckle, as domestic comedies are one to do. But where this show becomes interesting for the modern viewer is in its window into what was acceptable to say on television in 1971:
Mike: “What are you calling [black people] names like black beauties for?”
Archie: “Now that’s where I got you, mister liberal, because there’s a black guy who works down at the building with me, he’s got a bumper sticker on his car that says ‘Black is Beautiful’, huh, so what’s the matter with black beauties?”
Edith: “It’s nicer than when he called them coons.”
Such vocabulary is certainly jarring, and indeed is was meant to be shocking even to the 1971 audience. The disclaimer before the pilot aired declared that this was designed to shock and confront the audience.
So by all means, see this episode, but be ready for a window into an uncomfortable past.
Its place in history
This show was created in, and thus reflects, a tense period in American history. The civil rights struggles of the previous decade continued on, and the ongoing war in Vietnam entered its seventh year with no victory in sight and a peace movement in full swing. The conflict between Mike and Archie was being played out in varying iterations across the country. The Archies of America sought to pull America towards an image of the good old days, and the Mikes sought to push America forward to a better tomorrow.
This all revolves around a key question of the time; who was American? Those who built it, or those who would soon inherit it?