At the risk of a little Blogospheric name dropping, a couple of years ago, at a party in the backyard of Roger L. Simon’s L.A. spread, Rob Long, Bill Whittle and I discussed the two long-running network TV shows that presented Republicans originally as the bad guy, but whom the audience quickly grew to love, simply because they were the only openly GOP characters at the time they could identify with on TV: Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, and Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker on Norman Lear’s All in the Family. As I think Bill noted, how many union loading dock foremen in Queens would actually have been Republicans?
In his new article at Commentary, both a review of Lear’s new autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience, and an explanation of why his career arc as a TV producer was effectively over the minute Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, Terry Teachout squares the circle:
“He was afraid of tomorrow,” he says of Archie in Even This I Get to Experience. “He was afraid of anything new, and that came through in the theme song: ‘Gee, our old LaSalle ran great/Those were the days.’” But he neglects to cite a more telling line from the lyrics to the All in the Family theme song: “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.” The truth was that Archie Bunker would never have spoken nostalgically of Hoover. Rather, he would have been an FDR voter who had come at length to the reluctant conclusion that something had gone wrong with America—in other words, a Reagan Democrat.
Lear had already gotten out of the sitcom business before Ronald Reagan entered the White House. He ceased to function as what is now called the “show runner” of his sitcoms in 1978, and three years later he founded People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, thereafter spending the bulk of his time promoting political causes. But his shows had already lost altitude in the ratings and were headed for the scrapyard: Sanford and Son went off the air in 1977, Maude in 1978, and All in the Family and Good Times in 1979.
It is no coincidence that their decline occurred simultaneously with the emergence of Ronald Reagan as a national political figure. However sympathetically he was portrayed on the air, Archie was still a comic figure whose views were treated by Lear and his writers as benighted at best, dangerous at worst. Not so Reagan: His conservatism was the real thing, not a satirical burlesque, and he made the case for it unapologetically, presenting himself not as a Hoover Republican with a pretty face but as a New Deal Democrat who had changed his mind. Small wonder that blue-collar Democrats lost interest in All in the Family when Reagan came along. Instead of making fun of their inchoate conservatism, he took them seriously—and they responded in kind.
Read the whole thing. While many of the long-running CBS sitcoms of the 1970s, such as M*A*S*H (at least the early Larry Gelbart-produced years), The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and WKRP hold up well as repeat viewing today, I find All in the Family to be almost unwatchable. The crude smeary brightly-lit appearance of the Lear’s trademark 1970s-era videotaped production style and the ultra-topical themes are strikes against it, but unlike the other aforementioned sitcoms, there isn’t an appealing character in the bunch. Even Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden is a far more likable working class Noo Yawwwwk figure than Archie ever was. As James Lileks wrote a few years ago:
If I ever stumble across a rerun of “All in the Family” I watch it with an anthropologist’s eye; it’s like a cave painting, a medieval tapestry. All long ago and far away. There’s Rob Reiner pointing and shouting; Jean Stapleton wincing and cringing. There’s lots of Carroll O’Connor bitching in De Queen’s English: Oh jees dere Edith wit de menapaas and de hoormones and de rest of dat commie plot to make yer jugs dere sag wudja stifle awready — Noted. It was groundbreaking for its time, but the ground having been broken, let’s shovel it back on the coffin lid. The day is past when you could get a studio audience to laugh for seven minutes because the star of the show has reacted with slack-jawed outrage at the sight of a mixed-race couple. Good. The show reeks of stagflation and Times Square porno row and Wadergate dere wit de hippies in de newspaper aw jees. I watched every episode when I was growing up. I’ve done my part.