Thu, 02/01/2018

The Most Influential Television Episodes by Decades - 1970s

Carroll O'Connor

John Dalton continues with his picks for the most influential television episodes of each decade. Today we focus on his selection from the 1970s.

All in the Family - “Judging Books by Covers” Airdate February 9, 1971 (Rerun May 11, 1971)

As Norman Lear told us in his interview, All in the Family didn’t make much of an impact when it first appeared as a mid-season replacement in the dead of winter, 1971. I believe this slow start worked to the show’s advantage. It was able to cover controversial topics and use language never before heard on television while there were so few watching that there weren’t many complaints. By the time large numbers of people were tuning in, the show had garnered sufficient critical praise and Emmy nominations that it could better weather content concerns.

In its initial 13 episodes, All in the Family covered several controversial topics, but really only one that was taboo on television. There hadn’t been an openly homosexual character on any American television show, ever. Outside of news broadcasts, the topic wasn’t discussed. Gay people were invisible. That changed on February 9, 1971 with the episode “Judging Books by Covers.” 

Archie suspects that Mike and Gloria’s friend Roger (played by Anthony Geary, who later played Luke on General Hospital) is gay, and makes his discomfort at having him in the house known. Archie escapes to the neighborhood bar, where he watches the fights with the guys, including his vital, strapping blue-collar buddy Steve. In the heat of an argument over Roger, Mike later lets it be known to Archie that, while Roger may or may not be gay, his buddy Steve most definitely is. Archie returns to Kelsey’s Bar, and during an arm wrestling match, Steve confirms his sexuality, much to Archie’s shock and confusion. It is a perfect, half-hour episode of television that pulls no punches. Archie talks about gay men the way a blue-collar man in 1971 would. I doubt the episode could air as is on CBS today. 

I mentioned the rerun date in the first sentence above because that was the evening that a very important person tuned in, and felt compelled to chat about it with his closest advisors. The Watergate tapes of May 13, 1971 (two days after the episode aired for the second time) have Richard M. Nixon claiming to have stumbled upon a “movie” on CBS. According to the then-President, this “movie” featured a “magnificent, handsome guy”, and a “stupid old fellow” who “looks like Jackie Gleason” and has a “hippie son-in-law” married to a “screwball daughter.”

Nixon’s account of the episode is detailed, until finally he says, “I turned the goddamned thing off. I couldn’t listen anymore!” The implication that he’d shut it off in disgust is strange because he seems to know what happened right up until minute 29. He opines that watching this “movie” could damage children, and that they’d “cleverly” cast a “magnificent, virile guy” to play a homosexual to make it seem acceptable. President Nixon’s comments, and the kind of language he used to express them, could easily have come from Archie Bunker himself.

Norman Lear wouldn’t be privy to Nixon’s musings until 31 years after the episode first aired. Upon hearing the tape, Lear had what I consider to be a pretty astute take on it. Because the May 1971 rerun of “Judging Books by Covers” aired at time when All in the Family was on its way to being the number one show in America, because it finally opened the door for gay characters on television, and because it caught the attention of President Nixon and prompted a ten-minute lecture from him, I chose it as the most influential television episode of the 1970s. About a year later, the made-for-television movie That Certain Summer, about a man coming out to this family, aired on ABC to critical acclaim and good ratings. In 1974, Richard M. Nixon would leave office in disgrace. Archie Bunker remained on the air until the fall of 1983. Point: Norman Lear.

- John Dalton