I do love “Seinfeld,” perhaps more than I ought to, given the fact that it’s about a small group of petty, selfish narcissists with no scruples, no compassion, and, alas, no dogs. If you accused me of being swayed in favor of the sitcom by the presence of the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus, I would have to plead guilty.
But despite my affection for “Seinfeld” and its impish comedy of manners, I am relieved that “All in the Family” beat it (with 53.1 percent of the vote) in the final round of our bracket competition for best series of the past 50 years. Globe readers got it right.
“All in the Family” is a show about America and family that took on a list of hard social, cultural, racial, sexual, and political issues that had never been featured on scripted TV before. In the process of reflecting the country and its ills, so embedded in the home lives of its citizens, it changed TV into something more honest and ambitious than it had ever been before. It elevated the conversation around TV, too, making it more pertinent and personal.
Really, I think the influence of “All in the Family” can’t be overstated. It introduced ideas that are still playing out on TV more than 50 years after its premiere, and any topical comedy out now owes it a huge debt. You could even argue that Tony Soprano, a highly dramatic figure, was rooted in Archie Bunker.
And it’s not a dinosaur in any way. The dominant themes of “All in the Family,” not least of all bigotry, remain acutely relevant in 2022, painfully so.
During the 1960s, as the country underwent all kinds of profound shifts and conflicts, TV shows were primarily giving us banal, feel-good nonsense like “Petticoat Junction,” or shows that fought against their potential for relevance such as “Hogan’s Heroes.” When provocative issues were afoot on TV shows of the time — the sexism on “Bewitched,” or the class issues on “The Beverly Hillbillies” — they were cloaked in silliness. It was an oddly oppressive and unhealthy approach by a mass medium, to ignore all the discord and strife that were tearing individuals and families apart.
And then came Norman Lear, and then came “All in the Family,” which gleefully exposed all the profound friction between generations, between spouses, between neighbors, between friends. Lear knew that nothing can change until it has been ushered into the daylight.
I really did expect “The Sopranos” to win this contest — which began with a group of 64 shows — or if not that then perhaps another one of the great cable-era dramas such as “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire.” But there’s something special about having turned the spotlight to an equally intelligent and just as culturally leading-edge series that usually winds up lower on the best-of lists. “All in the Family,” those were the days.
Read more from our Best TV Show project:
- Semifinals: In our Best TV bracket, a deserving final four — and a couple of agonizing choices ahead
- Round 4: Our Best TV bracket is down to eight, and older series are getting some love
- Round 3: 7 surprises from Round 2 of our Best TV Show bracket
- Round 2: In Round 2 of our Best TV bracket, this was the toughest call of all
- Round 1: In Round 1 of our Best TV bracket, the results that surprised our critic
- Methodology: What’s the best TV show of the last 50 years? You decide.