“All in the Family” debuted 40 years ago today. Over at Salon.com, Matt Zoller Seitz writes about why the show still matters:
TV today is inhospitable to series like “All in the Family.” This is only partly due to TV’s splintering from a handful of channels into hundreds. An equal or larger part of the blame can be laid at the feet of broadcast network executives and their marketers, who figured out (sometime in the late ‘80s) that they could make more ad money by junking the “Big Tent” model and appealing to white college graduates with loads of disposable income – a description that rules out anyone who looks or sounds like a character from “All in the Family” (even Mike or Gloria). Except for certain corners of cable – specifically channels that thrive on shows about violent crime and/or revolve around working-class or poor characters – you don’t hear people talking about race, class, religion or politics unless the dialogue is jocular and sarcastic and “just kidding” (like the banter on “Glee” and “Community”) or the earnest centerpiece of a Very Special Episode. And can you remember the last time a broadcast network built a sitcom around fiftysomething, pear-shaped, working-class married people — of any color? Pretty much every modern sitcom lead is under 40 (or trying hard to look it) and fashionably thin or buff.
Since the early ’80s, the networks have done their best to gentrify prime time, banishing demographically déclassé characters and subjects while retaining elements that marketers call “sexy” (code for “flashily empty”). Little remains of Lear’s legacy but cursing, innuendo, and the sound of flushing toilets. The template for most modern network sitcoms is “Friends” — which, contrary to the “Seinfeld” mantra, truly was a Show about Nothing. Modern network sitcoms are mostly about dating, parenthood and office politics; they deal with hot-button issues in a glancing, glib way if they address them at all. Some are lame. Some are amusing. A few are brilliant. None is the equal of “All in the Family.” Those were the days.