Archie Bunker died. That’s what people said. “Archie Bunker died.” It didn’t matter that the man’s real name was Carroll O’Connor, that he was a trained actor, a veteran of Broadway and the European stage. To most Americans, he was, and always will be, the lovable bigot from Queens.
Archie Bunker died. But to be honest, while O’Connor passed away Thursday from a heart attack at age 76, character-wise, Archie died some time ago. Not just his show. His concept.
Think about TV back in 1971, when “All in the Family” debuted. Until then, lead roles in TV sitcoms were reserved for fatherly types or lovable sad sacks. Danny Thomas. Gomer Pyle. Gilligan. The leading man was never mean.
Archie Bunker changed that. From the pilot episode, where he sits in his easy chair, beer in hand, and attacks African-Americans, Jews, Hispanics — and moans: “I’m white, I’m male. I’m Protestant. Where’s there a law to protect me?” — Archie was mean. Or at least he had a mean streak.
Of course, he also had Edith, his sweet, ditsy wife, to soften his hard edges. And his daughter, Gloria, to show undying love. You somehow felt that if these two good-hearted women could find something positive in Archie, then deep down, he must not be so bad. Deep down, he had a heart.
The meanest links
That’s the difference between the mean that Archie Bunker brought to the screen and the mean that we see in today’s TV. Bunker was a fool. But he was satire. He was meant to show how ridiculous bigotry and stupidity could be.
Today — in reality shows like “Survivor” or “Fear Factor” or in sniping creations such as “Just Shoot Me” — meanness is there only to entertain. What Archie Bunker began has been warped and inflated. Today being mean gets you on the air. Or is the sentence “You are the weakest link” now a term of endearment?
This is sad. Because in many ways — all of them unintentional — “All in the Family” opened the doors to this. It didn’t just bring mean out of the closet. It also unlocked the vault to a multitude of topics never before dealt with in sitcom TV. Sex. Race. Urban flight. Draft dodging.
But less for shock value than for enlightenment. When I watched “All in the Family” as a kid, I laughed at the nasty things Archie said. But I always knew, at the end of the 30 minutes, that he was wrong, that Edith or Gloria or Meathead were right.
Remember the famous episode in which Sammy Davis Jr. visits Archie and as they take a picture together, Sammy kisses racist Archie on the cheek?
The look on Archie’s face, frozen in confusion, ended the show. The audience howled. I can still see that face now. It resonates with a simple lesson: Bigotry is often hypocritical.
Those were the days
You don’t have instructive moments like that in today’s TV. Mean is mean. Greed is good. Even “Seinfeld,” a show as big as “All in the Family,” was about four self-absorbed people with little kindness.
Our worst traits are not skewered; they are celebrated. Backstab someone to win a million bucks. Vote someone off a program. Somewhere along the line, satire fell away. Oh, there are exceptions. “The Simpsons” on occasion, or
“Everybody Loves Raymond.” But for the most part, in today’s TV sitcoms, the sex is for titillation, the homophobia is for laughs, the stupidity makes you comfortable.
Few sitcoms make you think.
It occurs to me, as I write this, that I have, in a small way, become Archie Bunker myself, sitting in a chair lamenting the state of today’s world. But what I lament is not the passing of the character Carroll O’Connor brought to life, but the daring it took to try to show the best of us through the worst of us. As the old man sang at the start of the show, those were the days.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m. And hear “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.