Despite the fact I'm under 30 years of age, I often wish I grew up during television's yesteryear - When there weren't literally hundreds of channels of garbage to choose from, and programs actually had to meet a certain level of excellence if they hoped to survive. When the airing of your favorite show was an event, because missing the latest episode meant it was highly likely you'd never have another opportunity to see it again. When new series were paving the way for the future of all programming by continually pushing the envelope, and exploring real topics that were once considered taboo for television. Such programming may have been before my time, but it doesn't take much imagination for me to fully understand that those were the days... But, thankfully for me, Nick at Night ran reruns of such classics, as did numerous other networks during the day. As a result I became a fan of I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, The Honeymooners, Get Smart, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and countless others. Nowadays, thanks to TV-on-DVD being such a success, I've been given the opportunity to enjoy my favorite shows all over again, and even relive my childhood a bit. All of the above mentioned shows have been released in full however, which means the excitement of collecting said favorites is gradually coming to an end. The latest series to see completion in my DVD collection is All in the Family, with the release of its 9th and final season.
That's right - Let's all take a collective sigh of relief, because most of us thought this day would never come. After the 6th season was released in February of 2007, news regarding future releases of All in the Family were missing in action. Many fans, including myself, took this as a sign that the show simply wasn't selling well enough on DVD, and that Sony had completely given up on the classic that influenced the world of sitcoms ever since. Thankfully, Shout! Factory had acquired the DVD rights to All in the Family in mid-2010, and after more than three and a half years of waiting, the 7th season of the show was finally released on October 5th that very same year. Now, a mere seven months after the fact, the final season of All in the Family is here, and any worries about sales affecting future seasons can be put to rest. It's too bad that more companies don't follow in Shout! Factory's footsteps, or at the very least, suck up their losses and finish what they started. I know that money is ultimately the bottom line, but I have to admire what Shout! has done here - Instead of starting from season 1 and trying to cash in on the previous seasons themselves, they picked up where Sony left off and gave the fans what they had waited oh so patiently for. But of course, I'm sure you're not here for a history lesson, and much more interested in how the final season compares to the rest of the series.
Although I'm a huge fan of the show, I have to be honest here - This is probably my least favorite season of the series overall. The show was founded (and gained a larger audience year after year based on said foundation) on the dynamic of four individuals that were living under the same roof - The Bunkers plus one meathead. Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) is the somewhat ignorant, hard-shelled yet not without heart, head of the household. His 'dingbat' wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) is sort of his guiding light and moral compass most of the time, and together they've raised a daughter they can truly be proud of, Gloria (Sally Struthers). Archie is especially proud of his 'little goil', although he wishes she had better taste in men. You see, Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner) is Gloria's live-in boyfriend, or as Archie might call him, her 'commie-pinko meathead' of a boyfriend, and Michael never saw things in the same light as his future father-in-law did. This lead to many topical debates throughout most of the series, and no subject was seemingly left off the table - Crooked politicians, the economy, war, racism, sexism, infidelity, death, sex crimes, and that's only the tip of the iceberg. Over the years, Archie and Michael formed a bond, and eventually his little girl got married to the meathead, had a son, and moved out to California. With all the growing all the characters had done over the years and Gloria and Michael finally flying the coop for good, All in the Family should have taken a graceful bow. Of course, money does all the talking in Hollywood, and the show's return was inevitable. Unfortunately, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers didn't renew their contracts, so the show had to reinvent itself, somehow.
Just so I'm clear, let me call this reinvention exactly what it is - Jumping the shark. With Mike and Gloria's absence, a new guest had to become a staple in the Bunker household. So, we're introduced to little Stephanie Mills, distant relative on Edith's side of the family, abandoned by her no-good drunk of a father. Of course, with the Bunkers quickly approaching their golden years, Archie isn't too thrilled with the idea of having to raise another little girl. Over the course of time however, his heart is saddened by her situation and warmed by her innocence, and decides he'd like to do whatever he can to give her a good life. Sure, the plot point is quite the stretch, and most All in the Family fans try to forget this season even existed as a result. However, I don't have the same problem with this story's validity as many others do. It may be poor form in my review to get this personal, but my grandparents were the ones that raised me. My mother and father had their share of problems, and they were quite incapable of raising me. Somebody had to take care of me if I wasn't to be lost in 'the system', and thankfully, my grandparents stepped up to the plate. I have a great amount of appreciation for what they did, because much like the Bunkers, they had already raised a child. The most rewarding years of their lives were ahead of them and they sacrificed that in order to take care of me. Was it something they ever thought they would do in a million years? Probably not, but they did it anyway, and I'm fortunate in so many ways thanks to their love and support. The bottom line here is, I can tell you from personal experience that situations like this do happen in real life, so I'm not going to tell you what many other reviewers might and say that the writers were grasping at straws with this concept.
However, just because the idea was feasible enough on paper, doesn't mean that its implementation was going to work. Keeping All in the Family alive was going to be risky business, and I'm sure everyone involved knew that. Hell, it was borderline stupid. I mean, the end of the previous season would have worked as the perfect ending for the series as a whole, as everything was brought full circle in a way that was bittersweet - Gloria was finally ready to fly the coop for good, while Mike and Archie finally admitted that they had a great amount of respect for each other before moving on with their lives. The season ended as the series should have - With Archie and Edith alone with each other, with one chapter of their life at a close and a new one about to begin. That new chapter should have been one we were left to ponder for the rest of time, but instead a new and unnecessary beginning was shoehorned into existence by the writers. Despite the complaints from numerous fans that saddling the Bunkers with another child was an eye-roller at best (which again, I feel was an undeserved criticism), I felt it was a great idea to keep the show afloat. Again though, implementation is everything and the creative minds behind the scenes really dropped the ball in that respect. Only a handful of episodes actually focused on the budding relationship between Archie and Stephanie, whereas the rest dealt with rehashed ideas that we've already seen done to death in previous seasons. If All in the Family hoped to remain a quality production with some sort of relevance, it needed great writing and a strong supporting cast in order to get the job done. Instead, we get recycled storylines and there's not a single supporting role that even came close to providing the electric atmosphere that Mike and Gloria did. As a result, the 9th season, although still delivering amazing performances by O'Connor, Stapleton, and Danielle Brisebois as the naturally sweet Stephanie, felt predictably stale and somewhat tiresome.
It's tragic to see a beloved classic fizzle out instead of going out with the bang it deserves. Most fans who feel the 9th season was as completely unnecessary as I do might recommend forgetting it even exists, but for me, it's not quite that simple. There are still plenty of redeemable qualities throughout the course of this season, and I'm not willing to turn a blind eye to them. Despite the fact the show was no longer breaking new ground, it's still funny more often than not. The episodes that feature the Archie and Stephanie storyline is a highly rewarding experience, as we get to see a different side of the old man that we've only heard about throughout the course of the series. There's a real charm watching Archie as a father to a little girl, and Carroll O'Connor is effectively able to convey with his tone and even his body language, just how much being a parent meant to Archie. However, the most unforgettable episode of this season is the hour-long California, Here We Are, where the Bunkers head out west to visit the Stivics. The return of Mike and Gloria is a welcome one, and momentarily makes us forget the 9th season has been so radically different. This is one of the weightier episodes of the season however, as things aren't going so well for Gloria. She's facing one of the biggest crisis's of her life, and Archie feels helpless. Not because there's nothing he can do to help, but it's the first time in his life that he's ever been this sorely disappointed in his little girl. These moments in the 9th season are too strong to miss, and anyone who's a fan owes it to themselves to see this dramatic reunion of the central cast. Just make sure you keep your expectations in check before beginning this new and unnecessary chapter of the Bunkers lives, because make no mistake about it - Even though this season has both laughter and heart, this is not the All in the Family we fell in love with.
All in the Family isn't a looker on DVD by any means, but that's not the fault of Shout! Factory's encode. The 1.33:1 image is a faithful representation of how the show has always looked - Skin tones can look a little hot, whites have a tendency to look blown out, and colors are inconsistent with their vibrancy. The production value of this show was never really impressive, but for a show that spent a majority of its time being recorded in front of a live studio audience, I wouldn't expect much more from a show that's, what, 40 years old now? The technical presentation of this DVD release is fine, and gives us the same looking All in the Family we've experienced over the years. Nothing more, and nothing less. Fans of the show should find this release to be quite satisfactory.
There's really not that much to say about the mono track on this release, except to echo what I've already said in regards to the video presentation - Although not quite up to par with the sitcoms of today (which is expected), this DVD set replicates the source with perfection. All the dialogue is easy to hear from the first minute of the season to the last, but you'll still hear that audible 'airy' noise that you would often hear on older soundtracks. Shout! Factory did a great job at preserving the source, and again, fans of the show should be satisfied.
The only supplement offered in this set, if you can even call it supplemental material, is the 200th episode hosted by Norman Lear at the Mark Taper Forum (at the Music Center is Los Angeles). It's basically a clip show that celebrates the long run the series had, but it's not your typical clip show. A bunch of average-Joe couples were actually able to attend a viewing of the clip show, and were then able to mingle with the unsuspecting cast while enjoying a little food and dancing. A majority of the episode is obviously dedicated to the best moments of All in the Family's history, but we do get some ramblings for Norman Lear himself, as well as some footage from the surprise 'fans meet the cast' party held after the fact. My only real complaint about this celebratory clip-show, is that we don't get to partake in the party as the audience at home. Considering how obviously unprepared the cast was for this event, a huge opportunity was wasted in not letting a cameraman catch some footage on the fly. There are undoubtedly some priceless moments that could have been captured - Moments of laughter, heart-warming appreciation, and even perhaps some uncomfortable silence here and there between cast and fan. It would have been a real treat to see some of these interactions, even as a supplemental extra that would have been exclusive to this set.
*The extras rating received zero stars regardless of the inclusion of this episode. It's nice that it was included, but this is technically not a supplement.
Thanks to Shout! Factory, all of our fears of never finishing our All in the Family DVD collections can be put to rest. In less than a year's time, they were able to acquire the distribution rights for this classic sitcom, and release the three seasons that Sony left blowing in the wind. It's just too bad that the final release that most of us have been looking forward to has to be a season that never should have been, and although that doesn't sound like any kind of endorsement, let me be clear - The 9th season isn't bad by any means, but that 'spark' that the majority of the series had is, without question, gone. Mike and Gloria's presence is sorely missed, but they ironically provide the best episode this season has to offer. All in all I'd still give a pretty strong recommended rating for this season, and those of you who have been collecting the series on DVD thus far have undoubtedly already decided this belongs in your collection. If you're not as much of a completist as the rest of us however, you may want to do what many of the naysayers out there would suggest, and cap your All in the Family off with the second to last season.