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Those Were the Days : CBS Reaches Back to Showcase Three Grand TV Classics

It’s a couch potato’s fantasy, a trivia buff’s dream--and just terrific television.

Starting tonight, retrospectives of three grand TV institutions--"All in the Family,” “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show"--will be presented by CBS on consecutive evenings.

Such fun. And considering the oppressive atmosphere of the Gulf War, such a liberating TV experience--the ultimate escapism. Unless, of course, breaking war news comes along and blots out the CBS package.

Tonight’s entry, “All in the Family 20th Anniversary Special,” packs the most wallop of the three retrospectives, amazingly retaining much of the impact the show had as the most important sitcom in history--one that broke countless television taboos in subject matter.

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Most important, “All in the Family” was touched with genius on every level. The results show in the unforgettable interaction of bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) and his family--Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers.

The format of the “All in the Family” special, hosted by producer Norman Lear, is unique and provides a real backbone for the show: Viewers who loved and hated Archie, and had strong opinions about the series, are intercut with great scenes that epitomized the program.

Probably the best comment of the show comes from a viewer who notes that the characters took on such a life of their own that “after a while, they didn’t belong to the writers. The writers belonged to them.”

That’s about the best thing you can say about a show. It is stunning to see anew how two dignified performers like O’Connor and Stapleton, as Archie’s wife Edith, immersed themselves in characters totally unlike themselves and delivered perhaps the two greatest running performances ever seen in a TV series.

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Everyone loved innocent, loyal Edith Bunker. As O’Connor says, “I think when (Archie) hurt Edith’s feelings, he looked in the mirror and saw a rat.”

The show was so loaded with Archie’s bigotry that it was the longest of long shots to survive. “We figured it wouldn’t last so long,” says Reiner.

Examples of Archie’s convoluted logic, prejudiced mind, mangled words and manipulation of the Bible explode through the screen tonight in all their priceless senselessness.

“You gotta use force--that’s the Christian way,” he says. Defending then-President Richard M. Nixon, he says: “Lemme tell you about Richard E. Nixon. He knows how to keep his wife Pat home. Roosevelt could never do that with Eleanor.”

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Some of the wonderful segments involving Edith concern breast cancer, her moodiness during menopause (Archie tells her he’ll give her 30 seconds to get through her change of life) and her escape from a would-be rapist.

Even now, in an era when TV subject matter knows almost no bounds, “All in the Family” remains strong stuff--because, above all, it is so well done, so enormously entertaining and so excruciatingly funny.

Sunday night, meanwhile, CBS offers “The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show,” a two-hour special hosted by Carol Burnett that recalls the amazing 23-year run (1948-1971) of the variety series and the stone-faced, awkward Broadway columnist who became its unlikely emcee.

“Ed Sullivan was America’s taste,” Joan Rivers says in the best summation of his peculiar genius as a showman. An appearance on his powerful series was just about the best booking possible.

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The ultimate square, Sullivan nonetheless became an enormously important outlet for pop-rock artists because he sensed their appeal. Those who appear in Sunday’s special include the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, the Jackson 5 (with young Michael) and the late Janis Joplin, whose performance is utterly thrilling.

Who else was on Sullivan? Well, Sunday’s lineup includes Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jimmy Durante, Red Skelton, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie Gleason, Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson, Alan King, Kermit the Frog, Pearl Bailey, Fidel Castro, Bobby Darin, Jerry Lewis, Julie Andrews and Phil Silvers--not to mention jugglers and an opera star. You get the idea.

To its credit, the special also deals with CBS censorship of several rock stars and Sullivan’s blow-up with Jackie Mason, who recounts with wit and graciousness the incident that damaged the comedian’s career for nearly two decades.

On Monday, finally, CBS presents “Mary Tyler Moore: The 20th Anniversary Show” (actually, the series debuted in 1970, but that’s show biz).

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A 90-minute special hosted by Moore, it’s a bit cutesy as the old cast members gather on a couch to comment on the footage and kid each other. But barbed sentiment was, after all, a key ingredient to the series, so it’s not long before we’re lured enchantingly into memories of one of TV’s great ensemble comedies.

Moore’s series dealt with her life as a single career woman over 30--new TV terrain at the time--and focused best on her job in the newsroom of a Minneapolis television station.

And, yes--with the sad exception of the late Ted Knight (the superbly idiotic anchor Ted Baxter)--the gang’s all there from WJM-TV. And so, too, are Mary’s non-newsroom friends.

There’s the incomparable Ed Asner (news director Lou Grant), Gavin MacLeod (writer Murray Slaughter), Betty White (the man-crazy Sue Ann Nivens), Valerie Harper (Mary’s best friend Rhoda Morgenstern), Cloris Leachman (landlady Phyllis Lindstrom) and Georgia Engel (Ted’s naive wife Georgette).

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As we said, such fun. And there are also illuminating reminders--like the fact that Asner and Moore were as good a comedy team as appeared on TV. We see, for instance, that wonderful scene where Lou tells Mary: “You know what? You’ve got spunk. . . . I hate spunk.”

And then there is Mary’s unforgettable, unsuccessful attempt to suppress her giggles at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown in the series’ most famous episode--a lovely lesson about laughter as a release from tragedy.

In the preview tape we saw, it was surprising and dismaying not to hear the name of Grant Tinker, Moore’s ex-husband and a major force at MTM Enterprises, mentioned with others credited with the series’ success.

The writing on the series was, of course, marvelous. Rhoda on food: “Cottage cheese solves nothing. Chocolate can do it all.” Ted to guest star Walter Cronkite: “What words do you have trouble pronouncing?”

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With series like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” clearly still enjoyable, you have to wonder why one of the Big Three networks doesn’t wise up and create a special showcase to present classic old TV programs in prime time. That possibility has already been mentioned in regard to “All in the Family.” Well, why not? This is, after all, the era of the television generation.


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