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How Archie Bunker Forever Changed the American Sitcom

The series Roseanne will return to ABC on March 27, with the same actors reprising their roles in the Conner family. The show was considered groundbreaking in its depiction of a working class family in 1988, but it wasn't the first. Let's jump back a couple decades to 1971 and All in the Family. Before then, almost all sitcoms featured successful middle-class families with a single wage earner in a beautiful home. Archie Bunker and his family were different, and more relatable to Americans who lived the same way. Producer Norman Lear adapted the British show Till Death Do Us Part to highlight the generation gap between Archie and his wife Edith and their more progressive daughter and son-in-law.

The dilapidated aesthetic mirrored Archie’s character traits; he was retrograde, incapable of dealing with the modern world, a simpleton left behind by the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, a pathetically displaced “historical loser.” Lear used him as a device to make racism and sexism look foolish and unhip, but liberals protested that as a “loveable bigot,” Archie actually made intolerance acceptable. Lear had intended to create a satirical and exaggerated figure, what one TV critic called “hardhat hyperbole,” but not everyone got the joke.

Archie was relatable to audience members who felt stuck in dead end jobs with little hope of upward mobility, and who were similarly bewildered by the new rules of political correctness. To these white conservative viewers, he represented something of a folk hero. They purchased “Archie for President” memorabilia unironically and sympathized with his longing for the good old days. Archie was both the emotional center of “All in the Family” and the clear target of its ridicule.

But the real legacy of All in the Family was its effect on television comedy as a whole. It opened the doors for so many culturally significant shows that came after, including Roseanne. Read about how All in the Family changed TV at Smithsonian.


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