Those were the days: RIP Jean Stapleton

Jean Stapleton is dead at 90.

She was most famous for her portrayal of the longsuffering Edith Bunker in All in the Family, one of the most important shows in television history. As the tragically underappreciated wife of arch-conservative, verbally abusive, racist blowhard Archie Bunker, Edith may well have been be the most patient woman in the history of TV. The show itself aged so poorly because of how intimately it captured the controversies, the conflicts and the essential identity of the most turbulent period in recent American history as it played out in living rooms across the country. Archie’s battles against a rapidly shifting society, embodied by his “meathead” son-in-law Michael, were epic, but they only succeeded because of Edith, the foundation upon which the family and the show were built.

Stapleton brought an unusual range and depth to the role, though, and did so during an era when television was more known for flat, stock clichés than fully realized characters. Today we’re not especially shocked when we encounter a sitcom that’s topical, controversial, edgy, even dangerous, but we were in 1971. The medium was never the same again, and Stapleton is a big part of the reason why.

Good night, Edith. You’ll be missed.

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