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TV's 'Real' Family

By Daniel Swanson

ALL IN THE FAMILY seems to have found its niche in the media. Since it began last winter, the half-hour situation comedy about Archie Bunker and his humorous bigotry has ranged at or near the top of the Neilsen ratings; the program's producers have been praised as bold explorers in television land; and fan magazines tell us that husbands all over the country are telling their wives to "stifle themselves." Other networks are racing to catch up with CBS's daring venture.

But those of us who grew up on television in the fifties recognize that Archie is nothing new, A whole raft of similar situation comedies rose and fell in that era--Life of Riley had its own working class hero, Dobie Gillis's father ran a small grocery (his mother worked in the store) and the best of them all--The Honeymooners--featured Ralph Kramden the busdriver and Ed Norton the sewer worker. Although alternatives to My Three Sons and Beaver Cleaver were rare, they existed, and Archie breaks no new ground in this direction.

What seems to make Archie so risque is his hitherto taboo bigotry and racism. He rails against coons and Polacks, drunken Irishmen and greedy Jews. (All of which leaves us wondering about his own ethnic background.) He also deals with other burning issues of the day--liberation for the women, and even for the gays. This supposed social relevance is what makes Archie and Edith so popular.

The show presents an easy target for critics, who can point to a simplicity bordering on mindlessness (women's liberation means that Gloria cooks breakfast with her mother), the show's lack of concern for the social and economic issues that surround raw bigotry, and Archie's unbelievability. But such criticisms would be missing the point; such problems are not particular to All in the Family, but are a symptom of TV's general vacuity. All characters, whether bourgeois or proletarian, are stereotyped, and consequently become a kind of substitute reality in the minds of their audiences. Several years ago, when Jerry Mathers, the actor who played Beaver Cleaver, was rumored killed in Vietnam, people seemed almost more saddened than if their next-door neighbor had been a casualty. The cardboard character had become not more real, but more easily identifiable than the kid down the block. And in this attempt to foster respect for a substitute reality, All in the Family is in the mainstream of traditional television attitudes. This substitutereality, this common awe for the unbelievable, is the defining characteristic of national, escapist mass culture.

Such escapism creates many problems of its own: a phony realism is not one of them. All television shows--comedy and tragedy alike--are ridiculous and are perceived as such by their audiences. A show like Bewitched would be the paramount example, but even Beaver Cleaver is as obviously stereotyped as Jackie Gleason-Ralph Kramden. TV forces its audience to pay obeisance to the unreal, but not to believe it.

Because All in the Family tries to depart from this tradition of unrealism, the show has problems. The show purports to be real--comic, to be sure, but its producers seem to seriously view it as humorously prodding the social consciences of its audience. Because they take themselves too seriously, the show sometimes turns sour.

Racism is not always funny and it is not caused by simple ignorance. A myriad of legitimate economic factors go into the making of the racist character. Were Archie to fear a black taking his job or reducing the property values in his heighborhood, his racism would be grounded in a socially understandable reality. Such a treatment need not preclude comedy--but it would have to be a more humane comedy as Archie's legitimate fears are exploded as myth.

Finally, it is unclear that racism or bigotry lies mainly in the province of the lower middle class. A number of recent studies have demonstrated that racism--outside of the South--manifests itself at comparable rates in all classes. So as All in the Family tiptoes into virgin territory, it is dangerous if allowed to stand alone. The show feeds the smug, self-satisfied feelings of middle and upper-class audiences--who are as statistically as racist as Archie--but do not express their bogotry in such raw terms. Perhaps it is all right to have Archie worry about the 'coons' moving into his neighborhood, but let's also have Beaver Cleaver's father express concern about 'that colored doctor' moving in next door to him.

Still, for all its problems, All in the Family represents a tentative step in the right direction, even if it does create as many problems as it attempts to solve. The show, though it falls back into stereotyping of its own, represents an attempt to break through television's monotonous procession of caricatures. What is needed is a firm and real direction to the inchoate desires expressed by the show production: its reception proves that escapism is not the sole desire of the mass audience. Archie Bunker and his family, in short, are a nudge in the right direction. Hopefully the trend they set will be followed and expanded on.

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