Longtime collaborators Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin made a pair of unsuccessful attempts with ABC to bring the controversial British sitcom Till Death Do Us Part to the United States at the close of the 1960s. Though the network passed on both pilots, the submission of a third to CBS met with better luck, and the first of thirteen episodes debuted in January 1971. CBS found the series notoriously difficult to promote, and these early episodes were dumped on the viewing public with comparatively little fanfare. Few could've realistically guessed that in a year's time, All In The Family would be the number one show on television, watched with a near-religious fervor by fifty million people a week and considered by many to be among the most critically acclaimed series of all time.
All In The Family, for those who aren't aware, starred Carroll O'Connor as bigoted loudmouth Archie Bunker, who lives in the suburbia of New York with his wife Edith (affectionately nicknamed Dingbat; Jean Stapleton), "little goil" Gloria (Sally Struthers), and liberal Polish son-in-law Mike Stivic (also known as Meathead; Rob Reiner). Though the ultra-conservative Archie was quick to refer to other races as 'spics', 'coons', and 'spades' -- words considered unusable on television and still powerful today -- his ignorance was so all-encompassing that he truly had no idea that he was a racist. Norman Lear, according to a 1972 article in Time, felt that "bigotry was most common and most insidious when it occurred in otherwise lovable people." Archie, despite being a bigot and seemingly unable to win a single argument, somehow managed to endear himself to much of American and become an overnight pop-culture icon.
All In The Family's influence on television is considerable. It was recorded in front of a live audience, which had not been done for a sitcom since I Love Lucy went off the air in 1957. All In The Family was shot on tape, also unheard of for a sitcom. One would never know that characters on television went to the bathroom before All In The Family, and references to sex up to that point were invariably vaguely implied. The series handled topics that often went undiscussed in many American homes, let alone on the white-bread world of network television -- rape, impotency, homosexuality, race relations, and atheism, to name a few offhand. Yet, All In The Family avoided becoming excessively preachy or seeming as if viewers were watching a dry lecture of some sort. Its success led to a number of spin-offs, the most of any series other than Happy Days progenitor Love, American Style. Its offspring include Maude (1972-1978), Good Times (1974-1979), The Jefferson (1975-1985), Archie Bunker's Place (1979-1983), Checking In (1981), Gloria (1982-1983), and 704 Hauser (1994). Between All in The Family and the number of series it inspired, at least one All In The Family-related series was in production every season without interruption from 1971 to 1985, an astonishing feat by any standard.
On March 26th, Columbia Tristar Home Video will release the first season of this groundbreaking series to DVD. The thirteen episodes in this three disc set are:
Video: As the narration goes, "All In The Family was recorded on tape before a live audience," much in the same way that all of Norman Lear's sitcoms were shot on video. Tape degrades over the years, and though All In The Family has been fortunate enough to benefit from regular maintenance, this is not a series that will ever look that great. I'd go so far as to say that this set offers what may be the least attractive visual presentation of any of the 500 DVDs I've watched over the past couple of years. That's not really the point, though. The $64,000 question (or insert your monetary value of choice) is -- how do these DVDs stack up to what's being broadcast on Nick at Nite? I was considering providing A/B screen captures from DVD and cable. Unfortunately, my current provider doesn't offer TV Land, and the episodes that are currently airing on Nick At Nite at the wee hours of the morning are from the series' sixth season. A gap of five years, especially considering All In The Family's runaway success in the interim, doesn't make for much of a fair comparison.
- Meet The Bunkers: Gloria and Mike prepare a brunch to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of Archie and Edith's marriage, though the meal rapidly devolves into a heated discussion over whether or not Archie is a bigot.
- Writing The President: Mike writes a letter to President Nixon to voice his concerns over the state of America, and an incensed Archie puts on his Sunday best and counters with a letter of his own.
- Oh, My Aching Back: After learning of the success the Jeffersons had with a lawsuit against a rear-ender, Archie seeks out the most Jewish-sounding firm in the phone book to represent him after a minor fender bender.
- Judging Books By Covers: Archie is convinced that Mike and Gloria's visiting friend is gay, though a discussion with a former pro football player shows that he shouldn't...well, the title says it all.
- Archie Gives Blood: Archie is reluctant to donate blood, unsure if it may benefit the wrong element. Mike's prodding pays off, though Archie isn't quite as tough as he lets on.
- Gloria's Pregnancy: Gloria excitedly reveals that she's pregnant, turning the Bunker household upside down.
- Mike's Hippie Friends Come To Visit: Archie refuses to let the titular unmarried couple spend the night in his home.
- Lionel Moves Into The Neighborhood: Archie is less than enthusiastic to learn that a black family is moving down the road. He enlists Lionel's help in ousting them, blissfully unaware that it's Lionel's family that's moving into his neighborhood.
- Edith Has Jury Duty: Edith's dissenting vote in a significant murder trial keeps her sequestered away from her family, much to the chagrin over the unnecessarily overdependent Archie.
- Archie Is Worried About His Job: The news of impending 20% layoffs at Archie's job has him seriously stressed, and as he waits for news of who all is getting the axe, his family stays up with him and fends off numerous phone calls from a drunken pervert.
- Gloria Discovers Women's Lib: Gloria moves out following a clash with Mike over the equality of the sexes.
- Success Story: An army buddy who found his fortune after the war visits New York and assembles a reunion at Archie's place, hiding the fact that what he wants most is not something money can buy.
- The First And Last Supper: Edith accepts a dinner invitation with the Jeffersons without telling Archie, who does his damndest to weasel out of the meal.
The 4x3 image is rather soft, and a variety of flaws associated with older shot-on-video material are present. Colors are perhaps the most problematic. Frames from the same shot and vieed just a second or so apart from one another can look vastly different. Some portions have a reddish, almost purple, tint, while an image all of a second or two away will look relatively normal. Slight fluctuations in color are common, though rarely as dramatic as this particular case. Fleshtones are also all over the map, as can be seen in the following pair of images. Archie's skin ranges from gray in some scenes to a near-orange in the title sequences. Some of this may be attributed to different lighting techniques used in various episodes, but it's still unusual.
Video noise is a frequent but mild annoyance, and old blips and lines appear at seemingly random intervals. Since they only flicker on screen for a fraction of a second, capturing examples for this review is rather difficult. Though most of the episodes seem to have a faint green or yellow tint to them, there are instances where it is more noticeable in part of the image than others.
Another frequently occurring problem is discoloration in the corners of the image. This will be most noticeable on sets with low overscan, but their outer glow can be spotted in a number of shots even on unadjusted televisions. The example provided isn't as extreme as other instances in the series. I watched these episodes on two different televisions (the 36" VVega I generally use for reviews and the rather uninteresting RCA 27" in my bedroom) and on my PC, and on all three, haloing around certain areas of objects was often noticeable.
All In The Family looks none too impressive on my 36" VVega, and I'd imagine my setup pales in comparison to those of many of the folks reading this review. Thirty years ago, the idea that anyone would watch television on sets as large as mine was laughable, especially on a format that offers the level of resolution of DVD. Though a couple of years have passed since I've watched any of this early episodes of All In The Family on television, the difference here did not strike me as being of the 'night and day' variety. Though I am unable to do a direct comparison, I'm confident that this set is representative of how the series appears on cable. It would not seem to offer a marked improvement in quality, and even episodes on VHS may teeter as being indistinguishable from what's presented here.
Audio: Considering that All In The Family debuted on television over thirty years ago, I would hope that its monaural origins would not shock most readers to the core. The audio quality is nothing stunning, but reflective of the way I'd expect that the series originally sounded. The 1.0 audio doesn't sound particularly muffled, though the range of the material is obviously not going to be extraordinarily expansive. Its limitations are most noticeable during Archie's louder tirades, Gloria and Mike's spats, and moments when the audience is really in stitches. These portions sound clipped in comparison to the rest.
The most glaring error occurs around the 23:11 mark on "Gloria's Pregnancy". There's a pretty terrible audio stutter, sounding as if someone had bumped into an old jukebox and caused a record to skip, though it is not accompanied by a similar jump in the video. I watched all thirteen episodes in their entirety and didn't notice anything that comes remotely close to this in terms of severity.
I've watched several mono DVDs in the past week, and All In The Family, even in comparison to them, seemed low in volume. I had to bump it up a few notches to sound passable, and maintaining that volume after switching discs turns out to be a headache with the now-overinflated burst of the trademark Columbia/Tristar DVD theme. The overall quality is nothing spectacular, but should suffice.
Supplements: Absolutely nothing, which is a severe disappointment. None of the numerous retrospectives that have been produced over the years are present, nor are there any interviews, television spots, vintage reviews from critics, footage from the unaired pilots, footage from its British television inspiration...nothing. The episodes aren't even divided up into individual chapters, and the always appreciated "Play All" feature, as was the case with Columbia/Tristar's The Larry Sanders Show, is sorely absent.
Conclusion: That All In The Family is among the most influential and important television series in the history of the medium is inarguable, and the $30 or so that this 3-disc collection seems to go for at most e-tailers is comparable to other sets of similar length. The only things separating this DVD of the first season of All In The Family from the easily accessible versions on cable are the increased length of episodes (nothing to scoff at, obviously) and storage on such a robust format. Whether or not those warrant that sort of expenditure is up to individual viewers, but I would more enthusiastically recommend this set to established fans of the series and collectors who have more of an archival mindset. All In The Family deserves more than it's receiving here, but this 3-disc set is still very much recommended.
BFS Entertainment is, for those interested in a marathon of some sort, releasing a three hour set of the previously mentioned Till Death Do Us Part. It shares All In The Family's $40 list price and street date.