CBS kicks off its so-called "Classic Weekend" with a touching and hilarious tribute to the very tributable "All in the Family" tonight, then continues the festivities tomorrow with a salute to "The Ed Sullivan Show" that is a travesty and an abomination -- but which has several golden moments just the same.
The three-day nostalgiathon concludes Monday night with hugs and kisses to and from the cast and creators of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Why is all this happening? CBS, the third-place network that was the first-place network when these great shows originally aired, has developed a sudden fit of institutional memory as part of a desperate attempt to win the February sweeps.
What becomes clear from the assembled clips and reminiscences in "All in the Family: 20th Anniversary Special," at 8 tonight on Channel 9, is that the show that reigned through most of the '70s as the best comedy series on television was the best dramatic series too.
There had never been a sitcom character with the depth and complexity of Archie Bunker, the notorious yet pitiable blue-collar hothead whose weekly misadventures illustrated the axiom that the first victim of bigotry is the bigot himself. Yet there was more to Archie than his Neanderthal attitudes, and like it or not, we grew to love him, just as his rebellious son-in-law, the Meathead, reluctantly did.
Alex McNeil, author of the invaluable guidebook "Total Television," says that "All in the Family" was "perhaps the single most influential program in the history of broadcasting." Producer Norman Lear, who with former partner Bud Yorkin adapted the show from a British sitcom, changed forever the range of subjects that could be addressed in a prime-time entertainment series and the language used to address them.
The difference between "All in the Family" and other sitcoms was approximately the difference between "Hamlet" and other ghost stories.
Lear invested considerable amounts of his own heart and soul in this classic -- he has said there were elements of his own father in Archie -- and that's another reason the series stood out from its contemporaries and stands out to this day. It was made with passion, and so people reacted passionately to it. Lear heated up the cool medium as no one had quite done before.
"Family," of course, turned out to be the cornerstone of an empire that was to include "Maude," "The Jeffersons," "Good Times" and other socially conscious shows. These were to be the Lear Years.
That the program had its detractors as well as its millions of fans is conceded in the format of the special. In addition to remarks from Lear, and from series stars Carroll O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner, the clips are punctuated with filmed comments from some of the thousands of viewers who wrote Lear admiring or angry letters back when "Family" was still in first-run on the network.
A comment from one woman seems the pithiest analysis on the special. She says the characters in "All in the Family" were so vivid and real that eventually "they didn't belong to the writers. The writers belonged to them."
The scenes recalled in excerpts are as good now as they were then -- brave, smart, beautifully written, and acted by an incomparable ensemble. The performances of O'Connor and Stapleton, as Archie and Edith, were especially remarkable because so much of their acting was done in intense closeup, a riveting style that few sitcoms have attempted to emulate in the two decades since "Family" premiered.
Like the series it celebrates, the special begins with a warning, the on-screen advisory posted by CBS on the first six episodes in 1971; it vaguely cautioned viewers about the blunt language and racial epithets they would hear. Massive protests were feared, and extra operators were posted at CBS and its affiliates. At first, the program was ignored, but by summer, it was America's No. 1 show and Topic A for discussion as well.
"We figured it wouldn't last very long," notes Reiner, who played son-in-law Mike Stivic. One of the most memorably poignant episodes, recalled tonight, found Archie and Mike locked in a basement and forced into mutual revelations. It was perhaps O'Connor's finest moment, but there are dozens and dozens of other contenders, not all of them replayed tonight by a long shot.
From 1971 until 1979 (when the title was changed to "Archie Bunker's Place" and the series lost momentum), "All in the Family" compiled an enviable record of bull's-eyes, zingers, moments of truth and unpulled punches, many of them brought back for encores on the special.
Once more Edith discovers a lump in her breast and faces the prospect of mastectomy; once more Sammy Davis Jr. visits the Bunker household and gives Archie the smooch heard 'round the world; once more, Gloria miscarries, and Archie comforts her with a tenderness that might have seemed beyond him; and once more the Jeffersons, a middle-class black family who would soon have their own series, buy the house next door.
Although it trafficked in current events of its day, including the Vietnam War and Watergate, "All in the Family" also dealt with personal, universal themes -- war and peace on the domestic front, meaning the Bunker living room. The most wrenching trauma in the lives of the four characters came at the end of the 1977-78 season, when Gloria and Mike left the Bunker home in Queens to move to California.
Partings are a common ritual in a country known for its mobility, upward and otherwise, and this one seemed to represent them all.
The series continued on in one form or another after Mike and Gloria moved out, but this was effectively the end of an era. It had been loud, rancorous, funny and powerful. It had also been, as Lear says in the special, a "celebration of life."
Those were the days. About that at least, Archie was right.
'Ed Sullivan Show'
"The Very Best of Ed Sullivan" isn't just a misleading title, it's a fraud. The two-hour CBS special, tomorrow at 9 p.m. on Channel 9, supposedly recalls the "best" of Sullivan's wide-ranging video vaudeville series but concentrates so heavily on rock acts that you'd think this was a tribute to Dick Clark or Don Cornelius.
Producer Andrew Solt, who has acquired the enormous and invaluable Sullivan library of tapes and kinescopes, may not be old enough to remember there was more to Sullivan's 16-year reign over America's Sunday nights than Elvis and the Beatles, epochal though their appearances may have been.
Obviously Solt fashioned the show more to pander to baby boomer demographics than to accurately reflect the Sullivanian ethos. To cite just one glaring omission, the idea of doing a Sullivan tribute without including an appearance by the Soviets' Moiseyev Dance Company, every bit the cultural event that Elvis was, is preposterous.
At every turn there is a goofy decision. A segment on stand-up comedians includes a lengthy excerpt from Joan Rivers, anything but a rare commodity on TV nowadays, but only a still photograph of an early appearance by Woody Allen. Of course, the reason for Allen's absence may be that the churlish little gnome routinely refuses permission for any of his early TV work to be shown on the air.
A CBS spokesman explained defensively this week that getting clearances for material was "enormously complicated." But that can't explain all the conspicuous absences, like for instance Broadway composers Irving Berlin, Lerner and Loewe and Rodgers and Hammerstein, all of whom appeared on the Sullivan show during their and its heydays.
Many of the clips are indeed radiant and resonant, but even the way they're organized is off-putting. Excerpts from largely worthless interviews with such Sullivan show alumni as Jackie Mason, Carol Lawrence and of all people Michelle Phillips interrupt the flow.
Only Alan King is very anecdotal, and even so, he's just taking up valuable time.
Sullivan played host to greats of ballet, opera and the musical stage, but these areas are only minimally represented, if at all, so that still more pop and rock stars can be jammed in. There isn't even a montage of celebrities who stood up in the audience, for heaven's sake, and that was part of the show's shmaltzy charm.
Carol Burnett does a dreary job as host, dragging herself around a dull set. Much of the tired prattle from her and the others centers on what it meant to an entertainer to be on Sullivan's program. Who cares what it meant to the entertainers? It's what it meant to us that counts.
What's made painfully evident is that Ed Sullivan has fallen into the wrong hands. This guy Solt is not to be trusted. Neither, apparently, is CBS.
It's too bad ABC's "World of Discovery" specials air in the death-knell time slot opposite "60 Minutes," because these nature shows have been, by and large, the equal of the outstanding National Geographic Society specials on PBS.
That figures, since honcho Dennis Kane produced the Geographic specials during their most honored years. Tomorrow he and producer-writer Nicolas Noxon offer a lyrical and fascinating hour about killer whales called "Beautiful Killers," at 7 on Channel 7.
One sees the whales in the wild, spouting and swooping through the seas off the Pacific Northwest, and in captivity, where they are demeaningly required to perform silly tricks, and kiss people on the face, yet still appear to be happy. Some of the best footage is of whales being studied by a biologist in British Columbia; his office is underground and a whale peeks right in the window, seeming to be reading from pages of an open book.
Actually, he's only looking at the pictures. But still.
Whales are intensely familial -- they try never to leave their mothers -- and gentle with humans. The "killer" moniker refers to their feeding habits, and we see a seal trembling at the sight of them, but the name still seems unjust. They don't appear to be capable of ferociousness.
Richard Crenna does a fine job of narrating, but Kane and Noxon forgot something very important; they forgot to give the viewer a few safe havens from narration, a few minutes when it's just us and the whales and the water and the pretty music, and no talk. Otherwise, "Beautiful Killers" is wonderful stuff.