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Monday, October 22, 2012

All In The Family: The Complete Series DVD Review

If you were to make a list of the best American sitcoms in the history of television, All In The Family would have to be right at the top. The only show that might give it a fight for the top spot is M.A.S.H. Interestingly, All In The Family was based on a British show called Till Death Us Do Part. It's interesting because All In The Family seems so very American. It feels like it's right in the middle of every social fight of this country at the time.

This show was fearless. It did not ease itself in; it didn't wait to build an audience before tackling important subjects; it hit the ground running. In just the first episode it touched on sex, religion, poverty, race relations, and atheism. And soon it tackled homophobia, pre-marital sex, creationism vs. evolution, women's lib, gun control and impotence. That's all wonderful, but of course what's really important is that the show is seriously funny. I've always been a fan of the show, but I think I'm more impressed by it now than ever before. All In The Family has lost none of its edge. In fact, I don't think a show could get away now with saying some of the things that this program said forty years ago.  What does that say about us now?  I think it says we need this show today as much as ever.  They should rebroadcast these episodes in a prime-time spot in place of some "reality" show.

As I mentioned, the show is incredibly funny. This is due to the great cast as well as to the writing. The four main actors are all excellent - Carroll O'Connor as Archie, Jean Stapleton as Edith, Rob Reiner as Michael and Sally Struthers as Gloria. Jean Stapleton often gets the best punchlines.  And in the second episode it's wonderful to hear her call Nixon "Tricky Dicky."  This is the only show I know of where the four main characters can spend ten entire minutes (nearly half the show) seated around a table, playing Monopoly, and it's completely hilarious and totally engrossing.

The show can also be incredibly touching and moving.  In the sixth episode, Gloria has a miscarriage. And Archie's reaction to the news is enough to bring tears to my eyes.  That's another thing about this show - though Archie is a racist, a homophobe, and a bigot, you can't hate him.  He's a well-rounded character that obviously has great love for his family. And he believes he's doing the right thing, even when he's way off.

This show also has some wonderful guest appearances.  In the miscarriage episode, folksinger Holly Near plays a very pregnant and very hungry character named Mona. M. Emmet Walsh guest stars as Billy in "The Saga Of Cousin Oscar." (That episode also features Isabel Sanford as Mrs. Jefferson, with Archie telling Edith, "We've got people coming. Try and get an apron on her. Maybe they'll think she's the maid.") We also get early appearances by Hector Elizondo and Eileen Brennan in an episode that largely takes place in an elevator. Eileen Brennan is excellent as a complete lunatic named Angelique.  One of my favorite guest appearances is by Sammy Davis Jr. as himself. That is also one of the funniest episodes.

As you probably know, this series led to several spin-offs (and even spin-offs from the spin-offs), including Maude, The Jeffersons, Gloria and 704 Hauser.  It's interesting how quickly the first spin-off happened.  Maude (Beatrice Arthur) appears in only two episodes in the show's second season before getting her own show.

Except for the very end of this series, I saw this show originally in repeats, and often those were trimmed to make room for more commercials. So this box set (which by the way contains 28 discs) gives me a chance to enjoy the show the way it was meant to be seen. It's amazing watching these episodes in order how quickly they tackled a large number of issues. Interestingly, in the episode "Edith Gets A Mink," Archie brings up the subject of the minks being murdered, and Mike and Gloria defend the fur, saying that mink isn't endangered. That episode also features a rip on Ronald Reagan, which I appreciate (I still hate that guy).  The show makes multiple references to Richard Nixon, but also the Black Panthers, the Manson trial, Ralph Nader, Jackie Robinson (Archie says he "changed the whole complexion of the game"), and J. Edgar Hoover, as well as many others.

Though it might seem a bit extreme to call any sitcom "important," All In The Family is truly an important series.  The box set has a lot of great special features, but I do wish there were commentary tracks on the episodes. Also, each episode is only one DVD chapter, which can be annoying.

Bonus Disc

All of the box set's bonus features are on one disc. By the way, on the menu for the bonus disc a different version of the theme song plays.

The first is an eleven-minute interview with Norman Lear, in which he talks about the public reaction and how the show likely wouldn't be allowed to happen now. He also talks about how it was a mid-season replacement, and thus the show ran two weeks later than other shows, which helped it build a fan base, as other shows were in re-runs. He talks about creating a five-minute All In The Family segment that opened the Emmy awards show (which also helped it gain an audience). He originally thought of the show as a one-act play, but it had to be broken up into two acts.

Those Were The Days: The Birth Of All In The Family is a 27-minute documentary on the beginnings of the series, and features segments of an interview with Norman Lear. He talks about how he heard of Till Death Us Do Part, and thought of his father. Norman Lear says, "My father called me the laziest white kid he ever met."  The "stifle" also came directly from his father. And his father called him a "meathead."  He talks about the casting, and about how they shot the pilot three times (Rob Reiner auditioned for one of the earlier pilots, but didn't get the gig then).  There are also bits of interviews with Carrol O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner andd Sally Struthers.

The Television Revolution Begins: "All In The Family" Is On The Air is a 31-minute documentary that basically begins where the other one left off, and includes more segments from those same interviews.  Actually, it begins with this quote from Oscar Wilde: "If you tell people the truth, make them laugh. Otherwise they will kill you."  Perfect, eh?  A disclaimer aired before the first episode, which is interesting. Carrol O'Connor talks about some of the language that hadn't been on television before, and how the character of Archie was a built-in censor who would hush the others when the conversation became too edgy. Norman Lear talks about how Carrol always hated the first draft of an episode.

The first two pilots are also included in the bonus features. The first, shot in 1968, is called Justice For All, and instead of being named Bunker, Archie's last name is Justice, and at the end of the opening credit sequence there is a shot of the door mat with the name "Justice."  There is a different version of the theme song in this pilot.  Carrol O'Connor and Jean Stapleton are the two leads, but the other parts are played by different actors. Tim McIntire plays the Rob Reiner role, but in this version he's named Richard and is Irish rather than Polish. Kelly Jean Peters plays Gloria.  It's interesting, because they're just not nearly as likeable as Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers. Tim McIntire plays Richard as very angry, and Kelly Jean Peters chews gum with her mouth open (a seriously irritating trait). There is also a different actor playing Lionel - a guy named D'Urville Martin. (He stumbles as he exits at the end.)  It's basically the same script, but at 35 minutes is quite a bit longer.  Check out the moment at the end when the boom microphone knocks off Edith's hat (you can spot the microphone a few moments earlier.)

The second pilot is titled Those Were The Days, and was shot in 1969, and features yet another version of the theme song. While this version also has D'Urville Martin in the role of Lionel, there are two new actors as Richard and Gloria - Chip Oliver and Candy Azzara. They have some cute business while Richard tries to convince Gloria to go upstairs, but still aren't nearly as good as Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers.  Again, it's the same script, but there are minor differences. Richard is still Irish, not Polish. And the family name is still Justice, not Bunker. This one is 28 minutes.

The special features also include three other pilot episodes - those for Gloria, Archie Bunker's Place and 704 HauserGloria, which stars Sally Struthers in the title role, also features the excellent Burgess Meredith and Rick Lohman. Carrol O'Connor is a special guest star. Basically, Gloria moves to her new home in the country with her son, and begins working as an assistant to a vet.  Archie Bunker's Place uses the same theme song as All In The Family, but an instrumental version. That show also stars Martin Balsam, Danielle Brisebois and Allan Melvin. The pilot is actually two episodes, both of which are included here.  And 704 Hauser is a show that takes place in the Bunker home, but with a black family now living there. It stars John Amos, Lynnie Godfrey, T.E. Russell and Maura Tierney (Tierney plays the Jewish girlfriend of the son). Interestingly, this pilot has the parents returning from church, just as the All In The Family pilot did. There is also an appearance by Casey Siemaszko as Joey Stivic.

All In The Family: The Complete Series is scheduled to be released on October 30, 2012 through Shout! Factory.

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