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It’s the dog days of summer in a year that will go down as one of the stressful in modern American history. Between the pandemic, crippled economy, soaring crime rates and a media and politicians that seem more intent on fanning racial and cultural divides than healing the, it’s a good time to take a break. For me, that means reflecting on and enjoying some clips from classic broadcast network TV shows that actually promote human understanding and kindness along with some great characterizations and solid storytelling. These are shows to relax with, perhaps with your family, after a long hard day. They offer an alternative to the argumentative, division-promoting talking heads squawking heads occupying space on the cable news channels and the too-often pretentious and self-consciously edgy series being sold to us by the streamers.

So, here is the start of my list of the 25 most inspiring, feel-good and free (!) series in the history of television. They are presented alphabetically because trying to choose which very good show is better than another very good show is tedious – though I do have a favorite and I’ll let you know which one that is when I get to it.  To qualify for this list, the show has to have aired for free (the way TV should be), feature ongoing characters, have a positive theme and, especially, be liked by me. So, without further ado, here goes.

1. All in the Family (CBS/9 seasons: 1971-79)
Wikipedia Premise: All in the Family is about a working-class white family living in Queens, New York. Its patriarch is Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), an outspoken, narrow-minded man, seemingly prejudiced against everyone who is not like him or his idea of how people should be. Archie’s wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) is sweet and understanding, though somewhat naïve and uneducated; her husband sometimes disparagingly calls her “dingbat”. Their one child, Gloria (Sally Struthers), is generally kind and good-natured like her mother, but displays traces of her father’s stubbornness and temper; unlike them, she’s a feminist. Gloria is married to graduate student Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner) – referred to as “Meathead” by Archie – whose values are likewise influenced and shaped by the counterculture of the 1960s. The two couples represent the real-life clash of values between the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers. For much of the series, the Stivics live in the Bunkers’ home to save money, providing abundant opportunity for them to irritate each other.

Show History: Developed by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin (off the successful British sitcom Till Death to Us Part) who brought the show to ABC which liked the show enough to produce two pilots (both with O’Connor and Stapleton but sans Reiner and Struthers) but was squeamish enough about its content to reject them both. After all, sitcoms of the late 1960s were mostly known for avoiding just the sort of serious social issues All in the Family was intent on tackling.  After two strikes at ABC, CBS agreed to shoot a third pilot and ended up with a TV landscape changing home run. The show would run nine season, plus four more under the banner of Archie Bunker’s Place (in which O’Connor was the only original cast member). 
Positive Theme:
Redemption. Over 13 years, we see Archie Bunker grow from being a stuck-in-his-beliefs bigot to a more tolerant small business owner (with a Jewish partner) and widower who ended up adopting the young Jewish daughter of Edith’s step-cousin. Archie also stayed essentially faithful to and in love with Edith until her death (dealt with off-camera in the second season opener of Archie Bunker’s Place). Ironically, his idealistic and, sometimes, self-righteous, son-in-law Mike ended up divorcing Gloria and abandoning their son to run off with a co-ed to live on a commune.
Why I like it: It is laugh-out-loud funny and compassionate and was genuinely groundbreaking. While definitely revealing the absurdity of  many of Archie’s  prejudices and immorality of some of his actions, the arc of his story revealed that he was neither deplorable nor irredeemable. While excellent, All in the Family is actually not the best sitcom on this list but it did open the door for all the others to deal realistically with real-life issues. It’s a true classic that changed television for the better.
Nitpicking: While doing so would have lost the irony of Archie ending up being more conscientious than Mike, the show really should have ended with the end of Season 8 when Mike, Gloria and their son Joey move away to California. The show was never as funny or captivating after they left.
Best Episode: Archie and the KKK (Season 8)
Archie joins what an ultra-conservative unaware that it is actually a covert Klan-like organization that is planning to burn crosses on Mike’s lawn because of an opinion he expressed in the newspaper. In the climactic scene (shown below), Archie is forced to stand up to them while also touchingly defending the true meaning of Christianity. It’s not the funniest episode of the series but it is, to me, the most emotionally resonant.

 

 

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