It is impossible for any artist to predict how their work will be received. For Norman Lear, the runaway success of his sitcom All in the Family, and the rise of the show’s central character Archie Bunker as the most recognizable face on television, was a pleasant surprise.
The show was unprecedentedly bold for its time, weaving social and political controversy into its comedy. It traded in real antagonisms but also left room for forgiveness, leaving the show’s humanity unsmothered by polemics. The sitcom (and Lear) have been periodically charged with humanizing racists to the point of exonerating them. Bunker’s unlikely popularity among Republicans, who saw him not as a stooge but as a kind of underdog hero, lends some credence to the criticism. Nevertheless, Norman Lear built his career on the notion that Americans were smarter than their censor nannies, and the popularity of his creations still stands as confirmation of his faith.
Emily Nussbaum, television critic for The New Yorker, recently published a thoughtful retrospective on the show, its sometimes murky politics, and Lear‘s continuing influence on television. It is a fascinating read.