40 years ago tonight, CBS aired the pilot episode of All in the Family. It was actually the third pilot (or fourth if you count the one for the English series the show was based on), on another network than the one Norman Lear originally sold it to. ABC’s decision to turn down the second pilot — which had the same script as the final version, the same two leads, and even the same theme song — has to rank as one of the great network blunders. Though to be fair, when network executives turn down a show on the belief that they can’t make it a hit, they’re probably right.
Lear’s Till Death Us Do Part project wasn’t really right for ABC, but it was right for CBS because it was a network in the middle of overhauling its entire identity, with many shows either canceled or targeted for cancellation. Fred Silverman correctly identified All in the Family as a show around which the network could build its new identity. Few executives have been better than Silverman at figuring out what a network should concentrate on; he created completely different brands for CBS and ABC in the years he was there, and even his much-criticized tenure at NBC helped to push the network toward the comedies and workplace dramas that would become its bread and butter in the ’80s. And at CBS. he adopted a new comedy strategy that involved not only changing the look and intended audience — dumping rural single-camera shows and replacing them with urban, young-skewing live-audience sitcoms — but the content.
In particular, the early ’70s CBS strategy was to do “ripped from the headlines” comedy, based on broad social trends that viewers might have read about in the papers or seen on the news. When ’60s comedies did episodes about current trends, and they did, it was a lot like the way many of today’s comedies approach topical humour: from the outside, in a cartoonish or caricatured way. (30 Rock‘s topical jokes are often hilarious, but they’re the equivalent of the Beverly Hillbillies meeting up with hippies.) The CBS comedies of the early ’70s tried to take topical issues and approach them from the inside, creating people who weren’t just observing trends, but living them. It’s the difference between just dealing with an issue and looking at how it affects people from day to day, and it’s what sets AITF apart from the “very special episode” type of comedy. A “very special episode” is about an issue that intrudes into people’s lives for that one half-hour. Most All in the Family episodes were about characters who live with these issues every day and will never resolve them, just like in life.
The best writing on the show is in the first five seasons, under Don Nicholl, Bernie West and Mickey Ross (all of whom are dead now, unfortunately), and they really knew how to integrate the political stuff into the regular everyday feel of the show. This argument between Archie and Maude, in her first appearance, is famous because it’s not dated; the things Archie and Maude are arguing about are still being argued about today, in almost the same terms. But Ross and West, who wrote the script, make it more than just a political argument. There’s a dramatic purpose to everything that happens in the scene, because Archie is trying to get Maude out of his beloved chair. He starts the argument to get her out of the chair, and the argument finishes when he gets his chair back. That’s good dramatic writing, creating a physical component for a scene that would otherwise be all talk.
Matt Zoller Seitz has a very fine piece on “Why All in the Family Still Matters.” I have only a couple of quibbles with it. One is factual: the director of the first four seasons was not Paul Bogart but John Rich (The Dick Van Dyke Show) and it was Rich who set the style for the show. Bogart, a director of mostly single-camera television, took over in the sixth season, and steered the show towards a more cinematic look — more extreme close-ups and pre-taped sequences than the early seasons, which looked and felt exactly like a play. Rich, egged on by Lear, didn’t care about the camera angles or if a boom mike was occasionally visible; the point was to capture the performances at their most spontaneous, and to come up with physical business that could define the characters, like Edith’s famous way of running across rooms. In fact, in the fourth season Rich left the camera direction to his assistant and concentrated entirely on shaping the actors’ performances; what with that and the cheap videotape look, the show was demonstrating that the important thing was to get the acting and dialogue and sets right, not the cinematography.
This clip, from the second season premiere, shows the raw look and feel of the show as well as any, and Archie’s line at the 7:30 point is one of my favourite moments in the show — nothing on paper, everything in performance.
The other quibble is with the analysis of Lionel Jefferson as a “handsome, smiling cypher.” Lionel is one of my favourite characters on the show precisely because he wasn’t that at all. The idea of Lionel is that unlike Mike, who responds to Archie by yelling at him and challenging him directly, Lionel uses veiled sarcasm and fake deference, allowing Archie to think he’s “one of the good ones” even as he’s making merciless fun of Archie. And as the series goes on, we see that Lionel really does kind of like Archie, understanding better than Mike does that Archie is essentially a good man whose prejudice comes from ignorance. And all of this pays off in the third-season scene I’ve posted before, when Archie goes too far with his bigotry and Lionel drops the ironic humour for once, telling Archie off and calling him by his first name for the first time in the series. This was in no way a serialized show, but that moment is a great example of how, if the writers bother to remember what’s been going on with these characters, they can create a moment that pays off everything we’ve seen up to now.
One strange thing about All in the Family is that it holds up much better than most Norman Lear shows, to the point that it almost seems like it’s not quite from the same family as all its imitators and spinoffs. Lear liked older comedy writers, which was fine, except that it gave most of his shows an old-fashioned feel in terms of joke telling, like the writers had been liberated in terms of what they could joke about but not what jokes they made. AITF had much more character-oriented comedy writing. Even after the original writing team left and Lear replaced them with veterans, the writing — while not as good as it had been — stayed much stronger than Maude or The Jeffersons at the equivalent point in their runs.