Return to groundbreaking 1970s TV show allows ironic escape

January 19, 2017

I received in the mail Wednesday an eBay item I ordered and was excited to obtain: the complete DVD set of the 1970s TV sitcom ‘All in the Family.’ I have seen almost every episode of the series, which aired from January 1971 until April 1979—starting two years before I was born and ending its run the same year I started kindergarten in the fall. As a child, I watched it regularly, nestled on the couch with my father, originally in primetime and later in syndication. I was elated in the late 1990s when TV Land picked up the rights to run the series, and I was able to revisit it. Inspired by a British sitcom called ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ and produced by visionary Norman Lear, it was a well-written, well-acted, groundbreaking show. The actors—including Carroll O’Connor as the bigoted conformist Archie Bunker, Jean Stapleton as his submissive wife Edith, Sally Struthers as his generally kind college-aged daughter Gloria, and Rob Reiner as his iconoclastic son-in-law Michael—created a dynamic quartet with astounding verisimilitude. The show dealt with sensitive issues in both satirical and enlightening ways, including racism, homosexuality, religion, rape, feminism, abortion, war, cancer, and menopause, among others. It combined the comedy of a sitcom with the drama of a theater production, which is not surprising, considering that both O’Connor and Stapleton had previous stage experience. Thus, I got my introduction to satire beginning around the formative age of four years old. I knew then that the show was humorous—when really, I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be laughing at some of the comedy. As I grew older and re-watched the series, I understood more clearly its intent. The fact that such innovative art was a regular item on the TV schedule for so many years, combined with my being part of the first generation to transcend public school segregation, I felt as if I were part of a world on the cusp of progress. Much has changed since January 1971 and January 2017, some changes transformative and some not so much. I have learned in those intervening decades that the progress I once naively envisioned may not be as well-wrought as I thought. In comparing with present times the attitudes ‘All in the Family’ conveyed and lampooned, I conjectured that currently the most divisive issue might be the presidential inauguration this week. Difference of political opinion has polarized a great segment of the American public. However, one of the most contentious moments I had of late occurred Monday. I began my day off from teaching in my classroom, the federal Martin Luther King holiday, by listening to the speeches of Dr. King and accompanying commentary on Mississippi Public Radio. Later, I enjoyed reading quotes from King on social media and seeing how people were celebrating his legacy. Then I came across a Facebook post from a friend’s friend arguing that King was not deserving of his stature in society or of the holiday. I politely disagreed, after which the respondent posted a link to an article that “debunked” King’s prominence as a hero, questioning his character, intent, ideologies, and essential nature. As a teacher of rhetoric and composition—especially in the “fake news” cycle of late—I decided to check the source of the information on the website. After a quick WHOIS domain search for martinlutherking.org, I discovered that the creator of the site, established in 1999, is David Black. I also learned that Black is the front man for a group called Stormfront, a white nationalist, white supremacist, neo-Nazi Internet forum, noted by at least four scholarly sources, including the ‘Dictionary of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture,’ as the “Web’s first major racial hate site.” I informed the respondent that the website did not look like a credible, professional source. I gave him the link to Don Black’s Wikipedia page. He responded, “Doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” I replied, “Just because it’s published on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true. I’m sorry, but I refuse to take seriously self-avowed Nazis/white supremacists without scholarly credentials.” He said he refused to take seriously “history revisionists” and challenged me to “prove it wrong.” The irony: the next day when school resumed, I had planned to teach my high school seniors about credible Internet resources. I have not been so happy in a while in anticipation of returning to my students. Therefore, it was also momentous during the middle of this week when I got my ‘All in the Family’ DVDs. Now when social media “grapes on my nerves,” a phrase I’ll borrow from Archie Bunker, I can retreat, ironically, to TV to immerse myself in the satire of bigotry and ignorance, both of which are still too real in the real world. (Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and has served on the board of directors at Corinth Theatre-Arts. She enjoys being a downtown Corinth resident.)