Roush Review: How Sitcoms Changed With the Times

All in the Family
CBS via Getty Images
'All in the Family'

Does anyone really believe that Rob and Laura Petrie, the frisky suburban couple played to perfection by Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore on the 1960s classic The Dick Van Dyke Show, slept in separate beds? I thought not.

Times change. So, eventually, do the TV comedies that over the years have served as an escape, a source of comfort and joy, and on occasion a mirror of an ever-evolving society. CNN’s eight-part series History of the Sitcom, a dizzyingly brisk survey of the genre’s origins and growing pains, is at its best when it takes a breath to dwell on those pivotal moments when sitcoms got real, changing the medium forever.

From the producers of the terrific The Story of Late Night docuseries, Sitcom adopts a themed approach in its broad overview: “Outsiders,” “Just Friends,” “Working for Laughs,” “Race and Diversity.” The series opens with back-to-back episodes, starting with “A Family Matter,” which explores the family sitcom’s traditional roots, when father knew best and even wacky moms like Lucille Ball were kept or put in their place.

All of that changed with Norman Lear’s All in the Family in 1971, which bucked decades of sanitized family behavior by introducing Carroll O’Connor’s bigoted, fuming Archie Bunker. We’re shown clips from two pilots rejected by ABC—with two sets of young unknowns as Mike and Gloria preceding Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers—before CBS had the guts to give a third shot to Lear. The rest is TV history.

The second episode, “Sex and the Sitcom,” enlists an array of critics, authors, producers and performers to comment on the emergence of the independent woman—from That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show to the uninhibited heroines of HBO’s Sex and the City and Insecure—and the slow coming out of LGBTQ characters on TV. Once only good for a punchline, proudly queer and well-rounded characters took center stage in groundbreaking series, courting controversy on Ellen before reaching mainstream acceptance in Will & Grace, Modern Family and Schitt’s Creek.

As Modern Family cocreator Steven Levitan concludes on what humor can accomplish: “It can open up people’s minds and people’s hearts.” And, when the stars align, make us laugh.

History of the Sitcom, Series Premiere, Sunday, July 11, 9/8c, CNN