When I was a kid, my father’s favorite show was “Archie Bunker.” That’s what he called it, “Archie Bunker.” It would take some time before I learned the show was actually called All in the Family. He watched it because Archie was a voice, albeit an occasionally unbalanced voice, of reason, railing against the unstoppable cultural wave of the early 1970s. He also watched it because it was funny.
Norman Lear was* no conservative, pining along with Archie for the good ole’ days. Archie is obviously intended to be the antagonist – the butt of the jokes. The show is intended to criticize and contradict the “moral majority” as uniformed, simplistic, or just plain stupid. Archie was all these things and, yet, he was also more.
It is a tell of the genius of this show that it was so popular with, not just the sophisticated urbanites who tuned in to laugh at Archie’s neanderthal ways, but also with the rural working-class, who enjoyed Archie’s crass stabs at “truth to power.” In other words, folks who actually saw themselves as Archie Bunker -like. It was the quality of the writing (along with, I have to imagine, a less-contentious political environment) that made it funny rather than cruel – something that applied equally to Archie’s verbal assaults as well as the shows lampoons of its main character.
Of course, Norman Lear knew who it was that was watching his show. Having based Archie Bunker, in some part, on his own father, his feelings may have always been mixed. However, as the show’s popularity swelled, he (and the team behind the show) knew who it was that was watching and was paying the tab. Archie Bunker may have been a bit slow-witted and unsophisticated, as well as an obvious bigot, but he also had a good heart. The show allowed the complexity of his character to shine forth. For all his anti-black racism, he proved to be a loyal friend and neighbor to the Jeffersons. For all his outright misogyny, nobody would doubt he loved his wife. If there was a two-dimensional character on the show, it was Rob Reiner’s “Meathead.” For all his self-righteousness (and even rightness, at least as far as Lear and the media of the time was concerned), son-in-law Michael was often shown up by Archie.
Even politically speaking, this is a measure of the shows genius. As it became an American cultural icon, it was obviously intended to preach. Instead of preaching solely to the choir, it could also preach to those “Archie Bunker” fans by using their loyalty to their man. While Archie would rarely admit he was wrong, he would generally “come around” on the specifics, even if he stuck to his big-picture guns. Perhaps unwittingly, Lear was also showing his liberal audience the gap between the caricature of conservatism that they likely assumed was true and a humanity and goodness within those people who might hold opposing views.
Do we, today, remember the impact this show had in its time? It’s first season did take hold until the summer reruns**, after which it became the number one show on TV for five years in a row. It was the first major TV production to be “taped before a live studio audience.” It’s success made that style, rather than canned laugh tracks, something of a standard through the 70s. It spun-off successful series such as The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, and not-so-successful Gloria, plus a few outright flops. In 2016, TIME magazine put it at spot #19 in the top TV shows of all-time.
I ponder all this now because of the similarities between Archie Bunker and Ron Swanson. Before I go there, though, let me first back up a bit.
In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, Ron Swanson is a featured character in the now-defunct TV series Parks and Recreation. Parks and Recreation was created to be a spinoff of the successful comedy The Office, itself a rework of the British series of the same name (itself, available on Amazon Prime).
It was eleven years ago when the series debuted but I am reminded now of that Office connection. This was the reason I never watched Parks and Recreation; I couldn’t support yet another Office. I had watched The Office a few times and it made me feel cheap. I laughed, yes, but I couldn’t feel good about it. A pale imitation of that experience was not for me.
As the years went by, I began seeing something of a phenomenon relative to this show and a certain, shall we say, libertarian audience. Meat-loving, government-hating Ron Swanson has become the Archie Bunker of the day. At some point, the proliferation of pictures and video clips inspired me to add Parks to my to-watch list but, as usual, it was Netflix’s removal of the show that streaming that actually got me to watch.
Like Archie Bunker, Swanson was obviously intended to be the foible of jokes, not the hero. He’s a government employee who is anti-government (ha ha, those anti-government conservatives don’t even know their own self interest). We know the writers are mocking him and the actor who portrays him, Nick Offerman, has subtly distanced himself from Offerman’s libertarianism (Offerman supports progressive politics, himself). For all of this, Ron Swanson has made an even more effective hero to those he was created to mock than he has been as an object of mockery.
The show premiered as a short, six-episode season in the Spring of 2009. Although the pilot received the most viewers of any of the show’s airings, the initial season has had the lowest reception from critics. Viewership steadily declined starting with the 3rd season although praise for the show seemed to be at its strongest in the 3rd and 4th seasons. One wonders whether flipping the show back and forth between different air times actually hurt its popularity. It may be another example of the industry seeming to kill its product in an effort to optimize some back-office earnings algorithm.
Having started with less than 30 days to make it through the show’s entire run, I’ve little chance of getting all the way through. Still, I’ll give it a try. With less than half of September remaining to me, I’ve still not made it through Season 2. Nevertheless, I’ll share with you my thoughts on the show, as I’ve experienced it so far.
Season 1 featured the dopey, physical comedy that, I am ashamed to say, I enjoy. Apparently, test audiences found it all to be too similar to The Office and, between seasons, the show was reworked to give star Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope a more favorable treatment. For me, the show also became less laugh-out-loud funny and more uneven.
Like All in the Family, Parks tries to go after a combination of culturally-important issues and boundary-pushing sexual humor. Unlike the mid-1970s, however, this is no longer groundbreaking territory for a television sit-com. Even the basic premise is an obvious miss, albeit one I more than willing to overlook when the material is funny. The concept is the ridicule of small town government and the self-important, self-contradicting figures are found there. The problem is, of course, that Hollywood writers may never have spent time in a small town, much less had any experience with small town government.
Instead, the writers based the episodes (at least in part) by observing City of Los Angeles proceedings. This definitely shows through; the small town in Indiana has a government that would be right at home in a major city, but for its obvious (relative) insignificance – something we are encouraged to laugh at. Now, as it happens, the fictional Pawnee, Indiana, isn’t really supposed to be a small town. Suggestions of a population in the 60-80,000 range would put in the top 10 largest cities in Indiana. It’s probably a mistake to read much of anything into it all, but the show seems to be making fun, not of the urban governmental bureaucracies that the show uses as its models, but the silly Nowheresvilles that like to pretend they are one of the big players. Is there a low-level supervisor somewhere in the Midwest that sees her job as a stepping stone to the U.S. Presidency? I guess I wouldn’t be surprised if there were, but I feel like the show tries to convince me that this is the norm rather than an exception.
Let’s just hope I don’t dedicate a whole month to watching this only to discover that I’d already seen the good stuff via memes. Might my time be better spent watching The Office in its original British? The originator of this whole line I’ve also always meant to see, but never have.
*I suppose it should be “is.” Norman Lear is still alive and, one hopes, well at age 98. In the end, I left it in the past tense because I am trying to write about his mindset while creating and shepherding the show. The Norman Lear of the 60s and 70s.
**How old do you have to be to remember that shows were run on TV twice. Once on release and then repeated again during the off-season.