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A Christmas Episode of 'All in the Family' That Explored the Horror of Hate
December 23, 2020  | By Ed Martin  | 2 comments
 

The '70s sitcom All in the Family is often dismissed today as "that show about the bigot" by Millennials and members of Gen Z who have never watched it. That's a shame because more than any other television program in the history of the medium, this controversial classic forced families across the country to think about, talk about, argue about, and form opinions about a host of issues that remain central to our society today, especially racism, sexism, and homophobia in their many forms.

Decades later, I can say without hesitation that I enjoy and process episodes of All in the Family very differently as an adult than I did as a kid. Indeed, those of us who watched it during its legendary first run (1971-78) remember many of its most powerful episodes, in part because they were written, acted, and directed with first-rate professionalism that remains uncommon even when compared to the finest shows on broadcast, cable, and streaming today, and also because we had, at the time, never seen such subject matter incorporated into broadcast television comedies, which had been, in a word, "gentle" up until then. (Father Knows Best is a perfect example of that.)

The Christmas show from Season 8, originally an hour-long episode, certainly supports that statement. Titled Edith's Crisis of Faith, it revolves around the character of Edith Bunker, the loving "dingbat" wife of "the bigot," Archie Bunker. It is a showcase for Jean Stapleton, the actress who played Edith, and it tells a story that is no less funny or disturbing than it was over 40 years ago. It also reminds us how far we have and have not come as a society since that turbulent time, revolving as it does about inclusion, equality, gender identity, and the brutality suffered to this day by many members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The episode opens with Edith's dear friend, Beverly LaSalle, a female impersonator, paying a visit to the Bunkers just before Christmas. Beverly (played by Lori Shannon) had appeared on the show twice before. The first time, in the Season 6 episode titled Archie the Hero, Archie is mortified when he discovers that an unconscious woman on whom he performed life-saving CPR was a man. In the Season 7 episode Beverly Rides Again, Archie attempts revenge against a practical joker by setting the guy up on a date with Beverly without telling him who she really is.

Back then, for the top-rated series on television to have a female impersonator as a recurring character, one that most of the characters on the show adored and admired, was certainly an advance. But in her first two episodes, Beverly's stories were largely played for laughs (at the expense of Archie, of course). Edith's Crisis of Faith – Beverly's final episode – was another matter altogether.

Beverly is back in New York City to make her debut at Carnegie Hall two days after Christmas. She has a lovely reunion with Edith and with the Bunkers' daughter Gloria (underrated Sally Struthers), and her surprise interaction with Archie (played, as always, to unparalleled perfection by Carroll O'Connor) is predictably priceless. The acceptance Beverly felt from the Bunker family and her comfort around them was so powerful (and so unusual) that home viewers couldn't help but be moved (and maybe want someone like Beverly in their own circles of friends).

Edith invited Beverly to Christmas dinner, and all seemed right in the world for everyone except Archie, who did his level best to convince Beverly that if he dressed in men's clothes more often, he could "turn himself around." But then everything went dark.

Gloria's husband, Mike (Rob Reiner), walked Beverly (in men's clothes) to a street where he could catch a cab, and they were brutally attacked (off camera). Mike was not injured, but their assailants beat Beverly to death.

Everyone was deeply upset, including Archie, who, in his typical clumsy way of trying to say the right thing, admits to liking Beverly, telling Gloria, "No matter how much she may have wanted to, she never laid a hand on me."

But it is Edith who, not surprisingly, takes Beverly's murder the hardest. She stops going to church and declares that God doesn't care about people because we are all supposed to be His creatures, and yet He let Beverly be murdered because of what she was.

Edith eventually regained her composure after Mike helped her realize that her family and friends needed her to be the person she had always been. Even so, the senseless murder of Beverly LaSalle by random homophobes on the street hung over the family and, I would argue, the millions of people who watched the show at home for some time thereafter.

These were huge, powerful themes for people to process from a broadcast television sitcom, and they were typical of All in the Family (and certain other comedies of the period from legendary executive producer Norman Lear). But because they were handled so well, and without the overt preaching that has compromised so much TV content in this millennium, they opened doors to discussions that hadn't been had, points of view that hadn't been shared and (we thought at the time) the beginning of diversity and inclusion on television.

Sadly, due to the hyper-sensitivities of our times, some of the stories and dialogue in All in the Family (and other Lear programs) likely would not be allowed on broadcast television today (and might even be shied away from on cable networks and streaming services). Equally disturbing is the reality that the need to explore such content would not be understood by much of the audience.

Our country is a mess, in very much the same way as it was in the '60s, which surely set the stage for All in the Family to come along and get people with different viewpoints talking to each other way back in 1971. Where is the reboot of All in the Family that we need right now?

This column was originally published at MediaVillage.      

 
 
 
 
 
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2 Comments
 
 
R. Dunn
Amazing...today's liberals & progressives are obnoxious claiming to be so "open minded", yet if you let them watch some of the classic Archie Bunker they show their true fascist-Maoist colors and scream censorship = Offensive! Not politically correct!
Dec 24, 2020   |  Reply
 
Zeke
I think a good start would be not to talk about "them"---we all need to participate for
this to progress.
Pointing fingers only makes it worse.
Dec 24, 2020
 
 
 
Larry Makovina
Thank you very much for bringing back that memory. I had forgotten how powerful and affecting that Christmas presentation was. Especially for a 26 year old man freshly out of the army and the closet.
Dec 24, 2020   |  Reply
 
 
 
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