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'Gloria Sings the Blues' (season 4 episode 22, 2 March 1974)

Gloria: I was upstairs, it was the middle of the night and I woke up and I looked over at Michael. Well, there he was asleep, grinding his teeth like he always does. But, just like it happened to you, Ma, all of a sudden I didn’t recognise him. It was like I was sleeping with a stranger.

All in the Family‘s ‘Gloria Sings the Blues’ is the interpersonal angst of an Ingmar Bergman movie saved by a sitcom ending and a live studio audience.

Where a thousand stone-faced social dramas have despaired over the decay of interpersonal relations and marital unity, where a thousand postgraduate careers in the humanities have blossomed from fixations on the innavigable rift between souls and ‘the impossibility of communication’ delivered with all the aplomb of a humourless undergraduate reading of Samuel Beckett (there’s a free college tip for you, kids!), the ‘70s sitcom All in the Family breezes through its existential dilemma with a light touch and a refreshingly solid sense of proportion.

cover art

All in the Family: The Complete Fourth Season

(CBS; US DVD: 12 Apr 2009)

An indisputable TV classic (and therefore, by definition, underrated), All in the Family is perhaps best remembered for its inclusion of taboo (or just generally sidestepped) political and social content— bigotry, homosexuality, miscarriages, impotence, racial blockbusting, general political squabbling and (apparently a first for TV) flushing toilets.

The contemporary focus and references to whatever Watergate wackiness Richard Nixon might have been up to in the early ‘70s may suggest dated content, but it’s also a stark reminder of how little of our specific history is directly addressed in much of our current mainstream television, and especially sitcom, content. The sadly departed Arrested Development may have gotten plenty of goofy mileage out of George W.‘s flimsily-justified war, and it’s already fun (and odd) looking back on 30 Rock‘s references to the 2008 presidential candidates, but these tend to just get swept up in the endless stream of pop culture references rather than touching on any tangible political issues.

What never dates, of course, is honesty, and this is where All in the Family really makes its mark is in its reflective but gentle treatment of its core characters. Archie Bunker’s steady transition over the course of the series to a ‘loveable bigot’ may seem to be a dilution of the show’s initial political and confrontational appeal, but it also firmly places the show’s focus on insightful character nuance. Rather than seeming like a sitcom composed entirely of self-important ‘very special episodes’, All in the Family feels more like a funny, drawn-out family drama.

The result is a counter-intuitive nostalgic aura, despite the show being laced with contemporary references: the dull and colourless sets, enclosed spaces and limited characters force our focus upon the small interactions between characters and the details of fundamental family relationships and generational change. The funniest moments are usually unrepeatable—minor nuances of annoyance or frustration that are more familiar than objectively hilarious. The extremely successful use of a live studio audience adds to this feeling immensely, responding warmly to the characters rather than simply the words and, at times, halting anticipatory chuckles when the characters without warning simply deliver a straight piece of dialogue.

In fact with confounding infrequency, the dialogue may turn serious without signaling its intentions, returning to its friendly jocularity just as quickly. Viewers aren’t bombarded with character history, but details emerge in single and unrepeated moments throughout the series. A hint of Archie’s childhood may emerge in one episode or another, and in one flashback episode (‘Flashback: Mike Meets Archie’, 16 October 1971) where Gloria tells Archie that she’s not his ‘little girl’ anymore, there’s an unexpected and surprisingly strong, almost aggressive, reaction from Archie, adding dimension to his present-day nickname for his daughter without ever labouring the point.

Indeed, the show rewards long-term viewing and sprinkles character moments through the series rather than serving up a neat package or suggesting we see them merely as points on a political spectrum.

For all its controversial reputation, All in the Family has less in common with the overtly bombastic sitcoms of today, which are desperately trying to out-dysfunction each other, than with a live-era show like Mama (1949-1957)—a sweet and nostalgic portrayal of a Norwegian family in America in the 1910s. Writer Max Wilk’s description of the writing approach to Mama certainly resonates with the appeal of All in the Family:

I learned to get plots out of the characters. We were not just doing stories. We were doing character stories. It’s a big difference… Also, it was done live. With a live show, your actors bring a validity to it they don’t bring to film” (from Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961)

So, in fourth season episode ‘Gloria Sings the Blues’ (2 March 1974), when Gloria appears in a depressed mood, it’s just as likely to be some small character moment behind it and deserving of our attention as it is to be some major social upheaval of the day. Certainly, the episode fails if viewed purely from the usual perspective of concise social commentary—Gloria’s bad mood is hardly a successful representation of serious depression.

Instead, we’re given a small and simple moment, almost intangible as a narrative. All of a sudden, Gloria ‘doesn’t recognise’ her husband, looking over at Mike and seeing only ‘a stranger’. The simplicity of the moment, discussed by a mother and daughter in dressing gowns over the kitchen table, shouldn’t distract us from the rather large existential problem the show calmly steps into.

Today’s mundane artistic self-importance may have made us expect climactic explosions of shock or angst that throw our narratives into chaos or reduce everyday life to a hollow sham (a la Festen (1998), Crash (2004), Jindabyne (2006), Eyes Wide Shut (1999), etc.), but most of us have to face our turmoil and dilemmas in a somewhat more straightforward way, much like the completely mundane emergence of husband-wife distance at the end of James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’ (as well as John Huston’s wonderful 1987 film adaptation). After four seasons of marriage, Gloria simply looks over one day and wonders who her husband is.

More importantly, rather than responding with confusion or token wisdom, Edith, Archie’s long-suffering ‘dingbat’ wife, responds with instant recognition—the kind that belongs in some angst-ridden play or a Raymond Carver story—expressing a similar moment of distance, if not disgust, emerging out of ‘nothing’, for the man she has so clearly ‘loved’ all these years. It’s unsettling, to say the least, to see the dopely warm Edith’s face grimace and turn three shades of mean as she disgustedly mimics one of Archie’s ‘loveable’ mannerisms (licking his fingers as he turns the pages of his newspaper):

I looked at him [she mimics Archie turning the pages], all of a sudden he was a stranger. I didn’t know him. And what’s worse, I didn’t want to know him.

And, as quickly as All in the Family draws out this blatant moment of authentic disgust and confusion at the heart of its ongoing relationships, it resolves the issue simply through this shared moment of recognition and what amounts to a narrative shrugging of the shoulders—Edith ‘got over it’, and Gloria will, too.

It seems a ridiculously simple resolution, an evasive sitcom dodge, and yet its refusal to determine some definitive cause or specific social malaise sees it linger as another of those scattered moments that inform our understanding of the ongoing relationships and linger at the heart of the ultimately warm nature of the show. Similarly, its very simplicity suggests the mundanity of this supposedly profound angst itself—far from being a destructive and disruptive revelation, this personal isolation and irreconcilable gap between people is simply one more part of the generic day-to-day mix.

The episode also complements, and perhaps stems from, an earlier ‘scattered nuance’ in ‘Archie in the Lock-Up’ (2 October 1971) also directed by John Rich and written by Michael Ross and Bernard West. Here, Edith cheers up a worried Gloria by telling her of a minor dream-infidelity (being kissed by another man) that she’d hidden from Archie. What would no doubt have threatened, infuriated and distanced Archie (even though Edith’s dreamtime Romeo smelled like vinegar), and probably Mike by extension, is a private and recuperative bonding moment for Edith and Gloria—more resonances with the cores of Eyes Wide Shut, its source Dream Story (1926) by Arthur Schnitzler, and with Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.

One of the odd effects of this simple clarity, and a sign of the care with which the show treads through its various personal and social dilemmas, is the constant sense that there never need be any rewriting or change of tone if one of the episodes was suddenly to end in tragedy or family breakdown. At any point Edith could open her eyes and realise that she deserves more from her marriage, Archie could find himself alone and bitter in a changing world, and liberal Mike and Gloria could have their ideals trounced and fade away into a hum-drum middle-class existence.

A spin-off series, Gloria (1982), did feature Gloria as a single mother separated from Mike, although it can hardly be seen as an authentic extension of the same show and spirit. And yet the characters in All in the Family endure in their recognisable ruts, and the repetitive circular sitcom structure, unchanging but endlessly nuanced, seems for once oddly profound.

In the end, we’re left with a show that provokes controversy and yet remains gentle and internalised. While many a serious drama desperately fixates, All in the Family refuses to sensationalise the human spirit, following that old-fashioned advice of Mr. Chips and maintaining that all-too-rare ‘sense of humour and sense of proportion’.

Kit MacFarlane has a PhD in English Literature, Film and Popular Culture, and teaches film and media as a freelance academic. He writes cultural criticism, commentary and relentless tirades, and has published regular cultural and higher education commentary in Australian media. He writes monthly-ish column Retro Remote at PopMatters. A full list of his writing can be found on his very ugly webpage. Why not follow him on Twitter? Off-the-clock, he shouts at the TV incessantly.

Tagged as: all in the family | mama
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