Norman Lear, who died on Dec. 5, 2023, at 101, created television shows that did just that.
“All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son” and his other biggest hits began to air in the 1970s, a time when the U.S. desperately needed to bridge divides.
‘All in the Family’
In the late 1960s, the U.S. was in the throes of the Vietnam War and the country was divided on many issues. Many young people were beginning to vehemently protest – and not just against the war. They sought greater equity for people of color and an end to what they perceived as unjust military operations on the other side of the world.
Yet TV, the dominant media of the time, largely portrayed a sanitized version of society, with visions of domestic bliss, a world where few were poor and racial tensions seemed nonexistent.
The situation comedy, which aired from 1971-79, revolved around Archie Bunker, a working-class conservative unafraid to blurt out his bigotry. It emphasized interactions with his family, particularly Archie’s modern-minded, liberal son-in-law Michael Stivic, portrayed by future director Rob Reiner. The show tackled issues such as racism, sexism and social change, often using humor to address these complex and sensitive topics.
The show’s theme song, sung at the beginning of each episode, was an earworm aptly titled “Those were the Days.” Its lyrics parodied Archie’s stuck-in-the-past mindset: “And you knew who you were then. Girls were girls and men were men.”
“All in the Family” unveiled the hidden conflicts simmering within numerous American families and throughout American society. More than just a sitcom, the show was a reflection of its time and a catalyst for hard conversations about everything from civil rights to menopause.
CBS executives initially worried that the audience wasn’t ready for this kind of truth telling. But viewers enthusiastically embraced the show.