By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 2010; E07
In a strange way, the new sitcom "$#*! My Dad Says," which premieres Thursday night on CBS, makes you realize how badly we need an Archie Bunker now. But this dad isn't the one.
The show is occasionally funny and its star, William Shatner, can work wonders with just the slightest gesture. The Twitter-based source material that sparked "$#*! My Dad Says" indeed tells us something about our culture now, but the "$#*!" written here for Shatner to blurt out with such gusto -- in his role as the cranky dad, Ed Goodson -- seems like a missed opportunity. What this dad winds up saying doesn't live up (or down) to the show's provocative title. (Which, of course, has already been condemned by parental watchdog groups who view the typographically coy "$#*!" as a further lapse in standards. In commercials for the show, CBS has chosen to pronounce the word as "bleep.")
If Shatner's Ed is expected to say some $#*!, then I wish the $#*! would be more relevant or provocative -- more like the kind of person that America needs Ed Goodson to be.
Or if not Ed, someone Ed-like: retired, with fixed income and fixed ideas and prone to reach for the nearest instrument of his Second Amendment rights when he hears something outside of his San Diego ranch-style house. The intruder Ed confronts outside turns out to be his son Henry (Jonathan Sadowski), newly laid off from his job and looking for a place to crash.
What Ed says is sometimes laugh-worthy ("Son, sit down. The house is clean enough," he says while Henry straightens up. "We didn't accidentally kill a hooker, we had brunch!"), but it lacks most of the inanity of the Twitter feed that summoned this sitcom into existence.
It has been massaged and reshaped into the comforting blandness of the modern sitcom, when what it needed was more controversial $#*!. Which it will never have, since "$#*! My Dad Says" comes from the same play-it-safe producers who gave us those successful and pleasantly neutered culture warriors "Will & Grace."
That's too bad. No character on any prime-time TV show represents the simmering resentment and anger that defines our social and political temperature in 2010 -- especially the kind of civic unrest seen in our older, fed-up-with-taxes citizenry.
Archie Bunker, that easy-chair misanthrope from Norman Lear's "All in the Family," would possibly be that person. I yearn to see a show about modern-day Archie dragging his wife -- long-suffering Edith -- to town-hall forums on Obamacare or to Glenn Beck book signings, if for no other reason than to send his progressive son-in-law, Mike the Meathead, into paroxysms of counter-indignation.
But that was 40 -- yes, 40 -- TV seasons ago. The Archie who was invented by Lear and his writers (and brought to immortal life by Carroll O'Connor) was born of zeitgeist necessity: Through Archie's frustrating intolerance toward the cultural changes around him, a simple sitcom managed to also become a therapeutic device. We learned to love Archie, despite and because of his opinions. "All in the Family" was many things, not the least of which was a steam valve.
On "$#*! My Dad Says," 72-year-old Ed's days transpire in a rather Bunkeresque fashion: He is usually found in his favorite chair in front of a television (watching Wolf Blitzer, whom he chides) or listening to old standards on vinyl LPs while eating bowls of Grape Nuts. Henry is the new Gloria, living at home in an economic downturn. (There is no Edith; Ed is thrice-divorced.) Here, in a style vaguely reminiscent of Archie, Ed holds forth on modern life and everything wrong with it.
"I hate downtown. It smells of motor oil and hummus."
A line like that almost gets at what sort of show this might have been. But "$#*! My Dad Says" prefers its codger to be more inappropriate than political.
Henry: "When I got my hair cut, you said I looked like a lesbian in the Navy."
Ed: "A lesbian in the Navy saved my life!"
* * *
To be fair, the source material is himself no Archie Bunker.
By now, most of us know the story behind the "$#*! My Dad Says" phenomenon: It started on Twitter in 2009, when an under-employed 28-year-old writer named Justin Halpern opened an account to occasionally tweet verbatim the brusque, foul-mouthed, random observations and insults uttered by Sam, his real-life septuagenarian father.
Such as: "Do people your age know how to comb their [bleeping] hair? It looks like two squirrels crawled on their head and started [copulating]."
Or: "Son, no one gives a [bleep] about all the things your cellphone does. You didn't invent it, you just bought it. Anybody can do that."
Or: "Out of your league? Son, let women figure out why they won't [have sex with] you; don't do it for them."
Halpern's Twitter account attracted hundreds, thousands, then tens of thousands of people who followed his tweets. There are now 1.7 million followers. Halpern's father, a ceaseless source of material, remained characteristically unimpressed with this turn of events -- even after a book deal came. Halpern's quickly assembled memoir, published by HarperCollins, has been at the top of the bestseller lists all summer. Meanwhile, presto, a sitcom deal -- all of this in just barely a year.
Meeting with reporters and critics in Beverly Hills earlier this summer, Halpern, Shatner and the executive producers (Max Mutchnick and David Kohan) all seemed more in awe of these newfangled processes -- how a Twitter account becomes a TV show -- than with extending their discovery into a show with both context and subtext. Now it's just text, of the 140 character-limit variety, and so the show fits snugly and safely in with other CBS comedies: It is certainly saucier than "Two and a Half Men" but less meaningful than "The Big Bang Theory."
Ultimately, Ed is here to simply say outre things. In that way, he has more in common with our fixation on Betty White, as in, did grandma really just say that? (Oh, grandma.) Old people are the new kids in our culture: They say the darndest things.
* * *
Troubled by the show's stab at mediocrity, I went back to TV Land, to make sure I wasn't longing for the wrong thing.
Lear's "All in the Family" premiered on CBS in January 1971. Though O'Connor was playing Archie Bunker a little bit older, the fact remains that O'Connor was -- get this -- all of 46 years old when the show debuted. Lear and company were asking us to perceive Archie, with his backward politics and racial insensitivity, at an ill-tempered and irreparably close-minded age of 50. (Jean Stapleton, as Edith Bunker, was all of 47 when the show started.) Against the backdrop of the American youth revolution, the message was plain: The Bunkers were outdated and old.
Sitting at the piano and singing the show's theme song, Archie and Edith reminisce about Glenn Miller and the Hit Parade -- touchstones that dominated popular culture 25 years earlier. "Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again," the Bunkers sang, but if you do the math, that would mean they felt sentimental for a president they would have been too young to actually vote for.
Didn't need no welfare state
Everybody pulled his weight
Gee, our old LaSalle ran great
Those were the days.
Their daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), was 22 when the series began, and her progressive husband, Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner), was almost 24 at the time -- making them both Baby Boomers in the most classic demographic definition.
I pinpoint all these dates and ages on a timeline to illuminate a profound shift -- reflected on TV shows -- about what an old person really is in the 21st century, and the degree to which we presently purport to be younger than we are. Justin Halpern's father was 44 when Halpern was born. William Shatner is 79, playing down to 72. Sitting at that piano, Archie and Edith Bunker were closer to the Hoover administration than we in 2010 are to them.
I don't need "$#*! My Dad Says" to be "All in the Family" (and neither, I suspect, does CBS), but wouldn't it be great? Can't there be a show for our times that features a husband and wife in their early 50s (i.e., people born in the 1960s), who yearn for a bygone era -- the Reagan years -- to such a degree that the wife is one of Sarah Palin's "mama grizzly bears" and the husband is antagonized by the changes he sees in the Obama presidency, the cost of health care, the collapse of American free-market dominance, gay marriage? ("I want my country back" and all that.) Wouldn't a sitcom be a more satisfying experience than watching Jon Stewart lampoon Fox News for the benefit of his like-minded audience? Didn't we learn more from Archie because we loathed him and ultimately felt for him?
Though he was mostly a collection of endearing malapropisms (Archie didn't approve of "noodle frontity" at the movies), he also represented a paranoid worldview that is, in many ways, still with us.
Brace yourself. Here is just a taste of some the $#*! Gloria Bunker Stivic's dad said:
"Let me tell you one thing about Richard E. Nixon. He knows [how to] keep his wife, Pat, home. Roosevelt could never do that with Eleanor. She was always out on the loose. Runnin' around with the coloreds. She was the one that discovered the coloreds in this country, we never knew they was there."
And this: "Your Spanish PRs from the Carri-boyn, your Japs, your Chinamen, your Krauts and your Heebs. . . . All of 'em come in here and they're all free to live in their own separate sections where they feel safe. And they'll bust your head if you go in there. That's what makes America great, buddy."
Or this, when Michael says: "Arch, you think that just because a guy wears glasses that he's a queer."
And Archie says: "No, a guy who wears glasses is a four-eyes. A guy who's a fag is a queer."
Yes, friends, this was actually on television. It was difficult, abhorrent $#*! that served a greater good. Those really were the days. Just a dose of Archie Bunker throws "$#*! My Dad Says" into sharp relief, making Ed Goodson seem innocuous and frustratingly blank.
$#*! My Dad Says: (30 minutes) premieres at 8:30 p.m. Thursday on CBS.
All in the Family: (30 minutes) in repeats, weeknights at 6 p.m. (and other times) on TV Land. Check listings.