LET'S say Archie Bunker was a cable-TV talk show host living and working in these politically correct days. And let's say he was smarter, wittier, and more self-aware than the reactionary blue-collar character in the landmark 1970s series ``All in the Family'' - but still a reactionary. How would he act?
Maybe something like this: On his talk show, he would draw quote marks in the air with his fingers while introducing ``my African-American'' producer. He would berate United States customs officials for admitting members of ``some weirdo cult'' who call America ``the great Satan,'' while ``my own wife probably couldn't bring in a pineapple.'' He might unroll a picture of a donkey for a game of ``pin the lie on the Democrat.''
At home, he would lean on that same busy wife to make dinner, arguing ``But you're the woman!'' Then he'd catch himself with mock horror - this, after all, being 1994 - and say ``You heard it here. Call Hillary.''
These and other ideological offenses are all committed by the title character of ``Monty,'' a new series on Fox that premiered Tuesday. Monty is played by Henry Winkler, and his role is a far cry from the Fonz, the lovable high-school hood who became a pop-culture icon in ``Happy Days,'' the hugely popular ABC series that ran from 1974 to 1984 and lived on in syndication. Monty's wife and the older of their two sons are liberal foils for Monty's conservatism. They make an ideal sounding board for the right-wing wisecracks from Monty on which so much of this sitcom depends.
It's enough to make you think that prime-time TV has come up with another ``All in the Family'' - right down to Geena, who is a kind of female ``Meathead.'' That was Archie's name for his son-in-law whose liberal challenges were good for dozens of laughs on the older program. On ``Monty,'' Geena performs that function. The older son brought her home with him and later announced he wanted to marry her. ``She has a ring in her nose,'' noted Monty, turning to her and asking, ``are you married to a Pygmy?''
Yet Monty isn't truly an outspoken stereotype in the Archie Bunker mode - not because today's TV producers aren't capable of creating another one, but because the medium can no longer accept one. Television has undergone a sea change since then and no longer lets producers and writers put offensive sentiments in the mouths of likable characters, even to ridicule them. Monty can make pointed remarks about people, but he can't talk about blacks and Polish people the way Archie used to. He can't look in the phone book for a Jewish lawyer, as Archie did, thinking he'll have a legal barracuda on his side.
Most of all, Monty can't really mean what he says. The new show is certainly lampooning Monty's type, as ``All in the Family'' lampooned Archie. But it isn't holding the mirror up to the nature of prejudice as ``All in the Family'' did.
``Monty'' is a kind of cartoon, an atmosphere that sweetens Monty's jibes. His lines get instant laughs, which defuse the ideological tension. Archie got laughs, too, but not always. He was allowed to build his character. ``Monty'' offers gags for gags' sake. ``All in the Family'' offered them for truth's sake, and if the dialogue stopped being funny on the way to a socially penetrating point, you didn't mind, because something of substance had momentarily replaced the laughs.
Fortunately for ``Monty,'' the star is one of the best actors on TV. His Fonz was as fully realized as that captivating caricature allowed, a recognizable type made unique by Winkler. That bragaddocio and egotism have now been transferred to a kind of jaunty, middle-aged Fonz who is still mock-bullying people, but wearing a coat and tie rather than a leather jacket, and with right-wing buzz-words instead of hints of mayhem. It's good to have Winkler back in a role that allows his zest and skill to assert themselves, however contrived and awkward some of his sitcom is. He and the new show's cast are capable of believably serious moments. One of them came when the son walked out of the home after an impasse over his marriage plans.
But afterward, the show's tone suggested nothing had really happened - because it hadn't. The show simply couldn't handle a telling moment, because then it would have to decide how it actually related to the right-wing character at its heart, and it hasn't figured that out yet. But it should do so very soon, perhaps by this coming Tuesday's episode. I'll be tuning in to see if it does.