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Analysis of All in The Family Television Show

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Progressive Aesthetics and a Return to Passivity

One of the most common television show formats, the half-hour long situational comedy (sitcom), demonstrates some of the greatest aesthetic variation among its programs. While sitcoms have evolved visually from the simple theater-like style of All in the Family to the more striking documentary style of shows like Parks and Recreation, their content has shifted from more controversial material concerning public issues to almost exclusively relationship-centered subjects. On the whole, modern sitcoms have stopped focusing on their potential as social commentators, a power that was utilized by older sitcoms such as Chico and the Man, Sanford and Son, and All in the Family. The similarities and differences in camera work, visual style, comedic form, and narrative structure between an episode from the modern sitcom Parks and Recreation, “Pawnee Rangers,” and one from the older show All in the Family, “Judging Books by Covers,” suggests that while sitcoms have progressed stylistically over the years, they have relapsed into a genre focused only on amusement.

The creation of television was heavily influenced by live theatre, and one of the most prominent correlations between the two media is the use of the proscenium set. This stage design is characterized by elongated, shallow, three-walled sets that allow for characters to move freely from side-to-side. All in the Family uses the proscenium style, which affects not only the production design of the show but how it was shot and written. The sitcom was shot with a three-camera system which limited the variety of camera angles and visual creativity of All in the Family, forcing it to rely more heavily on its characters and narrative. All of the sets were brightly and uniformly lit and were relatively plain in their design, leaving little to be appreciated aesthetically. In addition, since the show was recorded in front of a live studio audience, it could not change location very frequently – it usually took place only in Archie Bunker’s (Carroll O’Connor) home or in his friend’s bar. Parks and Recreation, however, uses a very different visual approach by deviating from the conventional proscenium-style stage. In order to recreate a documentary style, Parks and Recreation uses much more realistic camera work than All in the Family – it is shot with only one handheld camera and includes a good deal of movement, most notably quick pans and small zooms. With only one camera, Parks and Recreation is allowed more creative freedom in the composition of its shots and so can have a more engaging visual style. Also, the liberty of the camera allows the show to move more easily between multiple locations within one episode. For example, “Pawnee Rangers” includes four locations – the Pawnee City Hall, a campground, the Pawnee mall, and Andy’s (Chris Pratt) and April’s (Aubrey Plaza) home. While All in the Family’s set design is not nearly as complex or impressive as Parks and Recreations’, the episode “Judging Books by Covers” makes a remarkably liberal social statement concerning the stereotypes of homosexuals and the immorality of total patriarchy. The “Pawnee Rangers” episode of Parks and Recreation touches on sexism, but ultimately concentrates more on its aesthetic and the development of the friendship between Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman).

All in the Family focuses on Archie Bunker, an outrageous bigot who invariably engages in a situation that contradicts his stiffly right-winged beliefs. As the axial character, every episode’s central question and each subplot revolves around him. However, All in the Family never includes a character arc concerning Archie because of it abides by a series format in which each episode is a self-contained narrative with no correlations to the previous episode (Butler 329-30). This narrative style also makes the message of the story, or the moral take-away, the focus rather than centering on the development of the relationships between characters. Parks and Recreation, on the other hand, primarily revolves around Leslie Knope and her shenanigans; however, there are subplots that exist without Leslie, prohibiting her from being a true axial character. For example, in the episode “Pawnee Rangers,” there is the main conflict between Leslie and Ron Swanson concerning who has the better club, the subplot exploring Tom (Aziz Ansari), Donna (Retta), and Ben’s (Adam Scott) “Treat Yourself Day,” and another subplot showing the developing relationship between Chris (Rob Lowe) and Jerry’s daughter, which does not concern Leslie at all. However, Parks and Recreation does share the series program format with All in the Family, for at the end of each episode, the sitcom appears to reach some sort of final closure, indicating that the situations in each episode are self-contained. Yet, the show also uses a serial format in that the relationships between people on the show shift and so require a consequential storyline that progresses from week to week (30). This type of narrative structure links each episode with the promise to develop characters’ relationships with one another, making the take-away something that appeals to romantic sensibilities rather than a social statement. This trend of modern sitcoms suggests that television has become more conservative in its content over the years, despite it irrefutably containing more violent and sexual situations. Counter-hegemonic notions of the society’s status quo are not seen as often, making television a medium that can be passively viewed without much interpretation.

While both Parks and Recreation and All in the Family are sitcoms, each has a markedly different approach to comedy; the former draws its humor from spontaneity, awkward situations, and clever dialogue whereas the latter finds humor in Archie’s outrageous bigotry and ignorance in an effort to comment on the social climate of the time. For example, in “Judging Books by Covers” almost all of the jokes are related to homosexuality and patriarchy, the themes of the episode. Parks and Recreation, conversely, is not primarily concerned with providing social commentary and so has more room for experimentation in its humor. For example, “Pawnee Rangers” includes several different amusing situations, each with distinct types of humor – the competition between Leslie and Ron, the tomfooleries of the “Treat Yourself Day,” and the awkward yet slightly sentimental situation in which Chris falls for Jerry’s daughter. The humor directed toward sexism in this episode is minimal if any, and ultimately this episode of Parks and Recreation has a happy ending in which Leslie decides to form a coed club; however, no real commentary on sexism is ever made. In contrast, All in the Family uses abrasive, frank, and sometimes offensive humor to comment on social issues, as is evident when Archie claims in “Judging Books by Covers” that “I never said a guy who wears glasses is a queer. A guy who wears glasses is a four-eyes. A guy who is a fag is a queer.” Jim Collins claims that “television programming since the fifties has depended on the recycling . . . of past prime-time programs,” but this recycling has led to a dilution of thoughtfulness and space for audience interpretation in modern shows (334). By using silly, politically correct comedy rather than harsh humor to comment on social trends that need reform or consideration, Parks and Recreation illustrates how shy the American public has become in relation to the current social status and the extent to which it can be challenged.

The sitcom has shifted from being a malleable and highly interpretive text with the potential to have what Butler describes as “a multiplicity of meanings” to a genre that has reverted back to mere soap opera, focused only on entertaining through promises of romance and conflict (7). This form of entertainment can still offer a bit of interpretive opportunity for audiences, but not nearly to the extent that the abrupt racial and sexist comments of Archie Bunker could prompt reflection of social trends and personal prejudices. While there is merit in having programs meant only for comedic entertainment and enjoyment, the utter lack of socially progressive television suggests that the hegemonic notions embedded in American society that were thought to have been eradicated in past decades have resurfaced in a more discreet fashion. Modern television has become a tool by which hegemony can manifest itself more effectively and naturally in society – it has become another avenue through which people subject themselves to distraction and control.

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Analysis of All in the Family Television Show. (2019, September 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from
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