TV Article

Family Politics

Having OD’d on election coverage, Ken Tucker seeks real social commentary—in classic sitcoms

The sheer nowness of the Democratic and Republican conventions, combined with the meretricious banality of television news coverage of the political process, has been driving me to take respite in some old TV shows. Given the choice between, say, Dan Rather’s natterings and Archie Bunker’s rantings, I’ll take the latter. Since everything takes on a partisan hue during an election year, it’s struck me that in the polity of family sitcoms, Roseanne, whose reruns I catch in syndication and on Nick at Nite, is a blue state, while All in the Family, currently airing on TV Land, is a red state.

I’ll get to what I mean by that in a minute. First, what I’ve noticed in this time of ''Oh, dear, the sitcom is dead!'' bellyaching is how tremendously funny and impudent these shows were, how distinctive their visions of American life. ''All in the Family'' (1971-79) may have been producer Norman Lear’s American transplantation of a British show, ''’Til Death Do Us Part,'' but the series never felt borrowed. Lear—the very embodiment of Hollywood liberalism—set up the show to have Carroll O’Connor’s Archie inveigh against the progress made by blacks, women, and gays. A lesser actor would have made Archie an easily dismissable fool, but the late O’Connor played Archie with ferocity and insisted that you understand where Bunker was coming from. A working-class denizen who felt disenfranchised by late-’60s social reforms and alienated by the era’s radical politics, Archie conflated tolerance with loose morals. Over the years, the scripts and the success wore down O’Connor, and Archie, through sheer familiarity and exhausted plotlines, succumbed to cutesy lovability. But those first few seasons of rancorous arguments with son-in-law Mike ''Meathead'' (Rob Reiner) and Archie’s appallingly cavalier treatment of his wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton, always the easiest to like and therefore the first to win an Emmy), remain gut-punch comedy.

Is there any doubt that Archie would now be a red-white-and-blue Bushie? With his unwavering patriotism, and his distrust of foreigners, Archie is Bush’s kinda fella. The president appeals to the blue-collar laborers who feel betrayed by the Democrats’ post-JFK pursuit of the upwardly upper middle class; the transplanted Texan speaks Archie’s working stiff’s language—blunt, direct, and vehement.

By contrast, ''Roseanne’s'' 1988-97 sitcom (discount the final season, which wandered into star-gone-wacko surrealism) presented us with exactly the sort of American clan to whom Democratic nominee John Kerry proclaimed, ''Help is on the way!'' If ever a family needed help— financial, emotional, psychological—it was the brood sired by Roseanne and Dan Conner (John Goodman). Working parents often sweating out two jobs at a time, the Conners were equal-opportunity exhausted. The sitcom ''Roseanne,''like the real-life Roseanne (whom the media so often misread during her heyday by labeling her merely coarse and rude) received the message of feminism in her heart, soul, and mind. The huge differences between these two sitcoms began with the fact that the real Roseanne, not a producer, conceived her series, and that the fictional Roseanne, unlike Edith, demanded equal responsibility, love, money, and rest from her husband.

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