In the case of All in the Family and Sanford and Son, 'groundbreaking' is not an overstatement.
All in the FamilyCast: Carroll O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: Columbia TriStar
Creator: Bud Yorkin
First date: 1971
US Release Date: 2003-02-04
SANFORD AND SON: SECOND SEASON
Executive Producer: Bud Yorkin
Cast: Redd Foxx, Demond Wilson
(Columbia TriStar, 1972)
DVD release date: 4 February 2003
All in the Family: Second Season
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"Groundbreaking" is one of those overused adjectives television critics like to toss around whenever a new series has something fresh, different, or provocative to offer viewers. In the case of All in the Family and Sanford and Son, the most popular situation comedies of the early 1970s, "groundbreaking" is not an overstatement.
When Family debuted in December of 1971, it was an immediate critical and ratings success. During its second season (1971-72), the series topped the Nielsen ratings, and continued to do so for the next five years. At the 1972 Emmy Awards ceremony, Family garnered 7 statuettes, including Best Comedy, Directing, Writing, and Sound Mixing as well as honors for stars Carroll O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, and Sally Struthers.
In the middle of the 1971-72 season, producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin unveiled their second in a long line of hit situation comedies. Sanford and Son debuted in January of 1972 and by the end of its sophomore year, it finished right behind Family as the second highest rated show of the season. Although not as popular with the critics as Family, Sanford enjoyed a healthy five-season run, due to the popularity of its star, Redd Foxx.
Taking a look at the second season of both sitcoms, which were recently released on DVD by Columbia-TriStar Home Video, one can understand why they were considered groundbreaking by audiences when they first debuted. Based on the British sitcoms 'Til Death Do Us Part (Family) and Steptoe and Son (Sanford), both shows focused on working class families. The Bunkers -- Archie (Carroll O'Connor), his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers), and her husband Mike (Rob Reiner) -- reside in the Corona section of Queens, New York. The Sanfords -- widower Fred (Foxx) and son Lamont (Demond Wilson) -- are owners of a junkyard in South Central Los Angeles.
There's nothing extraordinary about either family. They represent a segment of society who, up to that time, was underrepresented by sitcoms, which focused on squeaky-clean suburban families like the Nelsons, the Cleavers, and the Bradys. More importantly, Family and Sanford were adult-oriented, addressing current political issues that would have been unsuitable discussion topics for the Brady dinner table.
While they live 3,000 miles apart, Archie Bunker and Fred Sanford essentially have the same temperament. They are habitual name-callers: Archie refers to his wife Edith and son-in-law Mike as "Dingbat" and "Meathead," while Fred calls Lamont a "dummy." Archie and Fred are also cut from the same cloth when it comes to their intolerance toward anyone different. Archie's world is divided into white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants and everyone else. Fred thumbs his nose at anyone who is not black, such as his new Puerto Rican neighbor, Julio (Gregory Sierra), whom Fred tries (and fails) to get evicted.
One major difference between the sitcoms lies in their approaches to racial and political themes. In Family, the conflict introduced in each episode (a local election, gun control legislation) serves as a catalyst for an ideological debate between Archie and someone who is politically left of center, such as his son-in-law or Edith's cousin Maude (Bea Arthur), who is featured in two second season episodes. The better of the two Maude episodes concerns her arrival at the Bunkers, to help Edith take care of her flu-stricken family. Maude and Archie know exactly how to push each other's buttons. She criticizes the Nixon Administration and he gets under her skin by attacking her favorite president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Their exchange is hilarious, thanks to the impeccable timing of O'Connor and Arthur. You can understand why CBS insisted Lear immediately develop a spin-off for Arthur.
But the season's most memorable altercation occurs between Archie and guest star Sammy Davis, Jr., playing himself and visiting the Bunkers to retrieve the briefcase he left in the back of Archie's cab. Davis sits in disbelief as Archie attempts to justify segregation using the Bible, and then matter-of-factly asks the entertainer, "You had no choice being colored, but why did you turn Jew?" The fun really begins when Davis starts to play along, concluding with one of the most memorable TV moments of the 1970s: when Archie insists on having his picture taken with the entertainer, Davis plants a kiss on a shocked Archie's cheek.
Two of the most provocative episodes deal with topics once considered too taboo for primetime comedy: impotence and menopause. Nervous about his final exams, a frustrated Mike is having trouble in the bedroom. Gloria seeks help from her mother, who explains what's going on to Archie, who, in turn, suggests jogging as a cure. Archie also has little patience in dealing with a menopausal Edith, who, overpowered by hot flashes and mood swings, keeps running around the Bunker house at lightening speed. The episode, for which Stapleton won an Emmy, showcases her versatility, as a brilliant comic and dramatic actor.
While Stapleton and her co-stars are stage and film actors, Sanford star Redd Foxx is a seasoned stand-up performer who recorded over 50 comedy albums before landing the series. Fred is a widowed junk dealer who lives with his son in a house so messy, it seems like an extension of their junkyard. Like Archie and Mike, Fred and Lamont view the world very differently. Fred is horrified when Lamont decides to go on a date with Julio's sister, so he follows them to the restaurant to make sure nothing develops (Julio's mother does the same; she and Fred end up having dinner together).
The second season also includes an appearance by Lena Horne, who, in a funny episode is tricked by Fred into visiting his house so she can meet his poor, disabled son. When she discovers he has lied to her to win a bet, he has no choice but to donate the money to her favorite charity.
For the most part, the second season episodes rely on such conventional sitcom devices (mistaken identities, get-rich-quick schemes go bad, etc.). Sanford is at its best when Foxx tries to manipulate his good-hearted son (he attempts, but fails, to elicit his sympathy by faking a heart attack) or swaps insults with his Bible-thumping sister-in-law, Esther, played by LaWanda Page. Their exchanges get downright nasty. A childhood friend of Foxx, Page (like Whitman Mayo and Slappy White) was one of the many talent African American performers who appeared on Sanford (one up-and-coming comedian named Richard Pryor was one of the series' writers).
Although reruns of Family and Sanford are not difficult to find now, Columbia TriStar deserves credit for preserving (and organizing) such an important part of our television history on DVD. Let's hope that season three is soon available.