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Remembering Jean Stapleton and ‘All In The Family’

Saturday’s news that Jean Stapleton, the actress best known as Edith Bunker on the CBS sitcom “All In The Family,” has died at the age 90, is the latest reminder of what an important show it was, and of a television era that is fading further away from us every day.

I wrote a story and sidebar on “All In The Family” last November, shortly after Shout! Factory released a deluxe, 28-disc DVD box set of the entire series. As I explained, the show still works on three brilliant levels: as an uproarious comedy in the classic sitcom tradition, as a blistering social satire and as a first-rate character study.

“All In the Family’s three levels of brilliance”

The 10 best ‘All In The Family’ episodes”

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With so much of the innovative energy of the show going into the characters of Archie Bunker and Mike Stivic, the main protagonists, it must have been difficult to work in some nuance for Edith. The easiest thing was to have her character engage in a sort of Gracie Allen patter with Archie, or run to the kitchen to get his beer while he and Mike went toe-to-toe on some issue of politics, race or culture.

However, “All In The Family’s” writers managed to do much more with Edith. She is, from the beginning, the only person who can readily see the goodness in Archie, which only emerges gradually over the long run of the series. And she is usually the only one who can prevail upon that part of her husband’s nature when he has crossed the line.

My favorite Edith episodes are those in which she stands up to Archie and admonishes him. In “Archie The Gambler,” from Season 4, Archie bets on the horses, even though gambling is the one sin that almost forced Edith to walk out on him years before when Gloria was a child. Jean Stapleton is riveting in the scenes when she finds out about it and slaps Archie. All is well in the end, of course, but not before Archie apologizes (and Edith apologizes for hitting him).

From Season 8, there is the one-hour season premiere “Archie Gets The Business,”  in which he forges Edith’s signature to get the loan he needs to buy Kelcy’s Bar. In that case, not only does Edith shame Archie into an apology and an acknowledgement that she is part-owner of the bar, but she brings up his misdeed in subsequent episodes. Edith was no doormat, and Jean Stapleton’s performance assured that the character would not be one-dimensional.

“All In The Family” ratings history

The show is one of television’s great success stories, finishing No. 1 for five straight seasons. It began as a midseason replacement in January 1971, getting off to a slow start but catching fire during the summer, when people caught up with it in reruns.

In this table, I’ve included, in the last column, the network that had the highest overall ratings that year.

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— David B. Wilkerson

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