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Opinion: Norman Lear’s Archie Bunker was brilliant — and dangerous

Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on X @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

Norman Lear, who died Tuesday at 101 years young, leaves behind a rich and complicated legacy.

On the one hand, he was the right person for the right time. As the 1960s morphed into the 1970s and social change transpired at a pace too fast for some, maybe most Americans to absorb, Lear sifted those transformations through the family situation-comedy format America knew and loved.

Issues deemed untouchable, even radioactive by commercial television, whether it was racism, menopause, religious intolerance, even workplace injustice, were delivered in the middle of America’s living rooms and America had to like it or lump it.

Fortunately for Lear, America liked it. A lot.

Beginning in 1971, when “All in the Family” premiered on CBS, Norman Lear’s reputation as a hit-making TV producer and socio-cultural provocateur cut a thundering, all-but-unstoppable path through the rest of the decade.

You wouldn’t think adapting a scruffy hit British sitcom (“Till Death Do Us Part”) whose main character was a working-class Cockney reactionary could ignite a show-business empire. But Lear took everything he’d learned about timing and rhythm from writing sketch comedy for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the 1950s and, almost 20 years later, established a paradigm for success that would have been unthinkable in the years when if you were talking about an “out there” situation comedy, you meant “Bewitched” or “My Favorite Martian.”

On a base level, Archie Bunker’s working-class Noo Yawk bluster on “All in the Family” was familiar to those who fondly remembered Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden on “The Honeymooners.” But the ethnic insults – all of which stopped just short of corrosive epithets like the “n-word” or “k-word” – added something unruly and provocative to the mix.

Suddenly we had this muleheaded, bumbling patriarch whose type we’d come to know and, most of the time, love. And now here he was seething with reactionary resentment against what he saw as intrusion on his God-given autonomy by lily-livered liberals, lazy hippies, overbearing feminists, and any progressive entity you could name.

But he had…endearing qualities, too. He loved his wife and daughter, believed in an honest buck, and (Lord knows!) he loved his country. Lear made sure we saw these attributes pop up – along with the foibles and defects associated by generations to the Bumbling Dads of a couple dozen other sitcoms—to take the edge off his disquieting prejudices.

The phrase “lovable bigot” was often used in media and casual conversation to characterize and even explain Archie Bunker’s appeal to millions over 12 years and two programs, “Archie Bunker’s Place,” running from 1979 to 1983 being the second.

“Lovable bigot.” Hmmm…We’ll get back to that later.

Depending on your age and love of television history, know the rest of Lear’s history: “All in the Family” begat “The Jeffersons” and “Maude,” which begat “Good Times,” while elsewhere in the long-past era of Just Three Networks there was “Sanford and Son,” “One Day at a Time” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” which begat “Fernwood 2 Night.”

These and other series delivered knockabout humor that was at times unapologetically coarse, ribald, and always wildly topical enough to provoke conversation in real family living rooms after the shows were over. Lear’s shows had such a distinctive tone and rhythm that many other producers tried to replicate it, with varying success, in other series from “Soap” to “Family Ties.”

With Lear’s product, however, there was somehow a more unflinching attitude towards putting out front notions and behavior that stress-tested commercial television’s capacity to tolerate or embrace debate. He carried this impulse into establishing People for the American Way in 1981 as a non-profit advocacy organization devoted to democratic ideals. He carried on his work in this field well into his ninth decade.

All of which makes me happy I lived in the same world as Lear did.

And yet… I keep thinking back to Archie Bunker, who for all his arcane, rough-hewn charms and what in retrospect constitutes a remarkable performance over the years by the late Carroll O’Connor, remains a nagging itch in the socio-political consciousness. Gayle King once asked Lear in an interview about Bunker as a “lovable bigot,” noting that she herself hated the term. Lear’s reply: “The intention was to show there’s humor in everything. And I never thought of him as a hater” so much as a man fearful of progress.

The problem being: Is there really such a thing as a “lovable bigot”?

More to the point, should there be?

It’s an issue that’s been in the air from the time “All in the Family” went on the air. The late television critic John Leonard (a friend) was one of the few in his profession who eviscerated the program when it debuted 52 years ago.

In a review written for the March 19, 1971, issue of Life magazine, Leonard called it a “wretched program” in which “bigotry becomes a form of dirty joke” and working men are depicted as “mindless buffoons.” In Leonard’s opinion, the epithets, which as noted earlier were never as hard-core as the more corrosive insults “are only approximations of feelings which are in no way defused or defanged by making a sly joke out of them.”

Because Leonard himself was a staunch and dedicated liberal, his opinion took aback many viewers who were at least tickled by the show’s cheeky provocations. Over time, I’ve gone back and forth with Leonard’s initial outrage and, occasionally, I could understand what he meant while still finding the show funny and, yes, illuminating.

But what finally made me believe Leonard was on to something happened decades later during Donald Trump’s first administration when Steve Bannon, one of his chief enablers, would say of the 45th president’s more outrageous outbursts, “Dude, he’s Archie Bunker!” And as you can imagine, this wasn’t said as criticism. This was said in amusement, even admiration.

Given Lear’s unshakeable belief in democratic values and his own liberalism-without-apology, it is, saying the least, unlikely that he ever wanted, or even imagined a president like Archie Bunker. Nor could he have imagined, even in the face of impending indictments and accusations of provoking a coup against the US government, that this “Archie Bunker” surrogate is leading polls to be re-elected next year.

And still I wonder if Lear wondered, not long before the end, whether there was more he could have done to prevent an Archie Bunker presidency.

As I said, it’s complicated.

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