Commentary Magazine


Watching the Sit-Coms

Amos n’ Andy are long gone, but changing tastes, increased sophistication, and the jading plenitude that television has provided over the years seem in no way to have altered the capacity of American audiences to be held in thrall, week after week, by “shows.” The shows Americans have liked the most recently have been staples of CBS television, the Saturday-night “situation comedies,” as irrelevant a term for these programs as can have been invented. For it is not for anything as bland as the name implies that the Saturday night sit-coms have consistently drawn the highest Nielsen ratings. Comprising four half-hour segments, All in the Family, The Jeffersons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob New-hart Show, the Saturday night sitcoms have more often than not supplied fare of a kind quite remarkable in the annals of commercial television. The departure this season of All in the Family, the most popular of them all, from Saturday night to Monday night offers as good an occasion as any for reflecting on the world of the sit-coms and their audience.

One begins by taking All in the Family (a Lear-Yorkin Production) for what it is, a weekly repository of our most fashionable pieties. The series is set in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, its backdrop a lace-curtained, depressed, but impeccable two-story house of the kind one might find in working-class sections of Queens or Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The head of the household, as everyone knows, is Archie Bunker, a bigot, an enemy of progress and of progressive thinkers of every stripe; a hardhat in short and in fact, Archie’s employment being, vaguely, in the construction line. Ostensibly a member of the Wasp majority, albeit of its lower classes, Archie is hostile to blacks, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Catholics, atheists, homosexuals, and women’s liberationists. Not that his crude assaults on these targets go unopposed, for his household is illuminated by the presence of a militantly progressive daughter and son-in-law (the latter, to be sure, something of a sponger and a hothead), both of whom spring smartly into action whenever Archie opens his mouth.

An extraordinary number of words have been written about, and objections entered to, the “bigotry” of All in the Family. Civil-rights leaders have charged that the show disseminates racially and religiously biased attitudes, despite its clearly stated hostility to Archie’s prejudices. Women’s groups complain about the part of Edith, Archie’s wife, a goodhearted but muddle-headed woman whom her husband refers to regularly as “the dingbat,” and who accepts the role of loving servant to her husband. Nothing if not aware of these objections, the producers, writers, and directors of All in the Family have gone to great lengths to establish all of Archie’s contentions as bigotry, up to and including his notion that black criminals might be a threat to one’s life. Indeed, there is but one figure on whom the show’s satire ranges entirely free and unselfconscious, and that figure is Archie himself and, by extension, the hardhat type in general, a target of satire that has inspired more than one progressive sensibility since the days when construction workers fought student radicals in the street, and aligned themselves on the side of the President.

The first aim of this satire, it would appear, is to explode the myth of hardhat virility. Did you think that those strong, inarticulate louts were comfortable with their animal natures? You couldn’t be more wrong. Archie’s sexual life is limited by inhibition and narrowness, as witness his discomfort when his wife proposes they return to their honeymoon hotel for a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Archie is, furthermore, a blusterer and an ignoramus, who can get out no idiom but that it is mangled, no proverb but that it is turned upside down, no word of more than two syllables but that it is mispronounced. (Many of these manglings and mispronunciations are reminiscent indeed of the black-face violence perpetrated on the King’s English by Amos n’ Andy, back in that unenlightened past which is now to the enlightened an embarrassment to recall: “Wait a minute heah Andy! Whut is you doin? Is you mulsiflyin or revidin?”) Archie is also a World War II veteran, a factor integral to his status as a reactionary. He has only to narrow his small blue eyes at his peace-marching son-in-law and deliver a prideful reference to “double-yew double-yew two” in order to induce laughter from a studio audience that knows how the failures of our past, of our elders, of everything we have become are inextricably linked with the proto-fascist type of the veteran.

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Archie is not the only reactionary visible on All in the Family. Before their promotion to a series of their own, Archie’s black neighbors, the Jeffersons, included in their long-suffering family circle a bigot almost as impossible as Archie, but one whose hatreds were directed against whites. This effort at balance aside, All in the Family’s portrayal of blacks has reflected with some precision what the outer limits of comment are thought to be on that subject. The theme of black crime is particularly pertinent. In one episode, Archie confronts two black robbers, as verbal, elegant, and full of graceful effrontery as Archie is gauche and inarticulate. In addition to being cleverer than he (Archie has foolishly put his faith in a gun, while they rely on those typical weapons of the urban criminal, wit and cerebration), they are models of sensitivity—they indulge Edith’s off-key singing, force Archie to be nice to her, and generally comport themselves like ambassadors to the Court of St. James. Elsewhere, Norman Lear, the “developer” of All in the Family, has developed other avenues for the treatment of this issue, notably in his black-family “spin-offs,” whole series created around characters first established in other shows. In the immensely successful Good Times, shown on Tuesday evenings, a ghetto family comes to grips with black crime on several occasions, once in an episode during which the lovable teen-ager J.J. is forced to take part in a gang war against his will, and again when a black—and blind—salesman is presented as a bunko artist, an unscrupulous robber of poor ghetto dwellers and, the young militant of the family gives us to understand, of his own people.

“His own people” is the reassuring factor here. Lear’s programs endorse the liberal answer to the high rate of black crime, the proposition that blacks are its chief victims. In addition, in all three of Lear’s black-family programs—The Jeffer-sons, Good Times, and Sanford and Son—blacks alone pass judgment on black problems and on black attitudes in general. This enables a modest spirit of self-criticism to seem to prevail on these shows. On The Jeffersons, an upwardly-mobile anti-white George Jefferson is balanced off against his wife, Louise, who is sanity and moderation itself. In one episode, George Jefferson and his son Lionel shower contempt upon Louise’s elderly uncle, a retired butler whom they berate for having spent his life as an Uncle Tom in a white household and for being, clearly, an activist of the NAACP variety. “Listen, you!” the dignified older man finally roars at Lionel, “I used to spit out six like you before breakfast!” “I worked for many years to get from nigger to Negro, so you’ll have to forgive me if it takes me a while to get used to calling myself a black now,” the uncle concludes, with hauteur, to shrieks of applause from the audience for this defiance of the new by the old.

For airing sentiments like these, the producer of All in the Family has made a not inconsiderable name for himself as an entrepreneur of the controversial. On All in the Family alone, such subjects as menopause, miscarriage, and menstruation have all been dealt with, if with the somewhat reverent air that inevitably seems to accompany the principle that all things having to do with our bodies are sacred. Next season, it is promised that All in the Family will venture a program on euthanasia. The decision to treat that theme was made, according to a New York Times piece, at what was presumably a typical conference between Lear and his story editor. “Can we find a way to do it without copping out?” Lear asks. “Maybe we can have the relatives agree to it and let the audience know they’re not sure they made the right decision.” It would appear that among “controversial” and pioneering types in the media, of whom Lear is so egregious an example, “no copping out” means that within the format of a show dealing with a morally questionable course of action, the principals decide for the action and carry it through; taking the negative side would be equivalent to “copping out.” One of the possibilities that Lear and his fellow controversialists seem not ready to contemplate is the notion that moral courage might be more greatly manifested in a decision to defy, or even to ignore, some piece or other of the conventional wisdom.

Yet “controversial” themes have little, it anything, to do with the wide success of All in the Family. Its appeal is rooted not in the show’s endorsement of liberal values, but, on the contrary, in its vivid, visual demonstration of the abiding attractiveness of the familiar as opposed to the strange, the old virtues as opposed to the new nonsense. The writers who write the show, the actors who act in it, not to say the developer who develops and produces it, are all aware of the rule for success that politicians of every kind, including those in the entertainment business, understand very well—that it is easier to win by reassuring people than by trying to convert them. No matter how much “controversial” material All in the Family purveys, or how many progressive positions it endorses—no matter how many women get jobs in the construction firm Archie works for. or how many fine, manly homosexuals are trotted out for Archie’s education—it is the fate of all of them to be rendered meaningless by reason of the show’s main dramatic energies, which are bent precisely on establishing the irrelevance of the new and the progressive to the life and style of the lovable Bunkers: a life and style, we are given to understand. that are full of decency and worth.

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Lear is not the first politician of his age to have read correctly the prevailing winds of the culture and to have perceived the wisdom in following all of them though he may well be the first to have packaged that perception successfully for television. Nor is the package a small achievement, for there have been scenes on All in the Family equal to the best that commercial television has had to offer, most of them due to the skill of Carroll O’Connor, who plays Archie with a fidelity that has been the making of the show since its inception in 1971. To see Carroll O’Connor act this part is to have the pleasure of watching knowledge delivered. With his mastery of every inflection, every lift of the eyebrow, of a certain lower-middle-class type, O’Connor succeeds, in the face of all that rings false in Archie’s lines, in making that which he knows so well and which we, watching, know that he knows so well—namely, details—prevail over stereotype and caricature.

In one program, to cite but a single instance, Archie learns from his rich, despised and much envied cousin Russell that Russell, a swinger, betrays his wife regularly. An appalled Archie sits in a bar and listens to Russell’s cold-blooded talk about how uninteresting wives are sexually. At home, in a tearful scene, Archie’s wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) is hearing the same sort of information concerning Russell from Russell’s wife, a woman whose marriage the goodhearted Edith has always admired for its surface glamor. But when the cousins have gone home and Archie and Edith are alone, they cannot bring themselves to talk about what they have found out about the other couple. The camera zeroes in on the mute Archie and Edith, drawn close, suddenly, by an inexplicable current of feeling risen between them: on, particularly, the face of Archie, capably feigning indifference.

It is one of television’s better moments, not only because the audience recognizes the truth of this silence—its legitimate observation of the way in which, except perhaps among the sophisticated, each sex still tends to reserve to itself what, for its own good reasons, it is judged the other need not know—or because the observation itself is an appealing one, but also because, in a medium whose chief terror has traditionally been any assay into the subtle, a highly condensed piece of shorthand has been permitted to stand without explication. Audiences have rightly perceived at such moments that in the “new breed” of situation comedy, they are indeed given something not accorded them on traditional programs. In the new programs writers and performers are not so much required to sustain a plot line—as is the case in more traditional shows—as to render social types, to satirize rather than to tell a story. It is required of the audience, in turn, that it know enough to recognize the types, that it follow the actors’ shorthand, and that it become, in some measure, their partner and ally—for it is true of any successful satire that it makes its audience a satirist by extension.

Thus, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, by far the most sophisticated of the sit-coms, requires that its audience recognize the puffery that goes into television news programs, enough at least to understand the character of Ted Baxter. The character of the silvery-haired Baxter is based on a type supposedly to be found in every newsroom in America: the newscaster hired entirely for the sake of his telegenic face, a vain, empty-headed show-business type with no comprehension whatsoever of the news he reads in so portentous and convincing a tone. Ted knows that the only real news of consequence is his popularity ratings; even his honest and irascible producer, Lou Grant, in some degree shares this naively cynical attitude.

But if this sounds as if The Mary Tyler Moore Show is devoted to making “political” observations about life, the heart of the show is in fact elsewhere, try though its writers will, almost always unsuccessfully, to deal with such important “issues” as bigotry or women’s rights. In one segment, the station-manager’s wife decides, in the interest, vaguely, of “finding herself,” to leave her husband and begin a new life alone, despite the fact that her marriage is an excellent one, and that she loves her husband deeply. This decision is a puzzle to her husband, and, it would seem, to the writers of the show as well, whose tortured efforts to make sense of it introduce a challenge greater than they are up to. The segment crawls to an end, finally, with the spectacle of the wife going out to hunt herself up, with none of the characters, least of all the departing wife, given a line that might impart a moment’s conviction to the scene. The writers have, in their way here, made a discovery of the kind George Orwell recommended in “Politics and the English Language”: in order to translate its meaning into activity they had to strip a politicized statement of its rhetoric, and they found themselves left with nothing.

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Dedicated at its best, then, to satire and portraiture rather than to debate, The Mary Tyler Moore Show concentrates its energies on rendering urban types, all of whom have their share of neurotic tendencies. The targets of their satire are the postures and compulsions of the workaday consciousness. Lou Grant (Edward Asner), the producer, in broad outline a tough, straightforward newsroom type, speaks, within that “straight” portraiture, to the complicated, the inward, the quirky, the psychological. Mary Richards, the heroine, wages a continual war on her inhibitions, and a very contemporary war it is. A nice girl to the bone, gracious, well-bred, fair, and unwilling to offend, she has nevertheless absorbed the intelligence of an age which calls all her values into doubt, which instructs her to cast inhibition aside, and learn to be, among other things, aggressive, or be guilty of that worst of contemporary sins, the failure of self-fulfillment.

In sum, one of the reasons for the great appeal of The Mary Tyler Moore Show lies in its use of material that is as true a mirror of the preoccupations of our private lives as All in the Family’s progressive issues are a false one. That material is primarily “relationships”—the very matter of the show, the action itself. When Mary’s Jewish girl friend, Rhoda, left the series, having been given a spin-off of her own, there was a considerable drop for a time in its pace and content, so much did the relationship between them carry the show. In addition to relationships, and in contrast to the sentimental All in the Family, which, in the oldest tradition of radio and television, illustrates the superiority of home and hearth over adventure, of the simple life over the grand, The Mary Tyler Moore Show also deals with the delights of success, the energy of ambition, the pleasures of competition. And ambition is a ruling passion as well on The Bob Newhart Show (another Mary Tyler Moore Production), a program in which psychologists, urologists, dentists, and teachers all race about, testaments to the joy of professional life and to success.

Not surprisingly, there is comfort as well as fun in these comedies, which acknowledge that, in the service of ambition, in the operation of their most intimate relationships, all kinds of fine people are full of neurotic hungers, lying impulses, and shoddy vanities. Not only are the people in them successful, thereby proving that neurotic hunger and pretense might in fact function in a good cause, but they are appealing and whole-some as well. Rarely in popular entertainment, in fact, have the negative aspects of character played so heroic a role as in the sit-coms, All in the Family included. No wonder that we welcome them, that we are sorry when they end, for besides entertaining us, the sit-coms tell us what we had hoped all along was true: that it is for our faults we are loved, really, not in spite of them.

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