Norman Lear’s Sitcoms Remind Us What’s So Wrong With Today’s Political Comedy

Norman Lear’s Sitcoms Remind Us What’s So Wrong With Today’s Political Comedy

Revisiting 'All In The Family' and 'The Jeffersons' provided a great opportunity for nostalgia—a sentiment that was perhaps ABC's greatest success.
Clayton J. Hester
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When I heard there was an effort to recreate “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” it was a head-scratching moment. Sure, that’s something you think about every once in a while, and maybe talk about doing. But it’s not something you actually do.

It was reassuring to some extent knowing the original creator of the shows, Norman Lear, was involved. But how high could expectations be given Jimmy Kimmel’s involvement? When the broadcast aired Wednesday night, it was at least satisfying that ABC just “recreated,” or at least recasted, two original episodes of both shows, rather than trying to reboot anything, lest it fall prey to Kimmel-style preachiness.

And the cast ended up being okay at best. Wanda Sykes was a superb choice for Louise. Unfortunately, Woody Harrelson didn’t add 40 pounds to fill in for Carol O’Connor. The chemistry of the old shows is hard to recreate, but the cast of the “All in the Family” episode was sufficiently noxious and irritating.

Resist Reboot Fever

On the other side of things, Jaimie Foxx’s imitation of the classic Sherman Hemsley walk was nearly cartoonish. Rob Reiner would have made a much better Archie Bunker than Woody Harrelson. The return of the original Florence, Marla Gibbs, was by far the best part of the entire evening, especially hearing again her line, “How come we overcame and nobody told me?

Remaking “Henry’s Farewell” was a good choice for “All in the Family,” given its importance in first introducing the character of George Jefferson, while covering a slew of timely issues the producers were most interested in addressing.

The Jeffersons” is harder to recreate because it was a funnier show than “All in the Family.” Given his capitalist success story, George Jefferson made for an interesting contrast since the existence of the live performance suggested virtue signaling. The episode in question did, however, tackle George’s classism following his financial success. The shows defied expectations in that way, achieving Lear’s signature use of comedy to discuss sociopolitical dynamics.

Gone are the days of Lear’s sitcoms, which broke the mold and brought politics to prime-time comedies. Still, as much as modern writers have abused that precedent, one wonders whether it’s all been worth it. What made those shows so great?  

Remembering Archie Bunker

On Wednesday’s broadcast, Lear began by telling the audience his father had given him the epithet “Meathead,” just like the character Michael Stivic. That helped connect potentially unfamiliar viewers with the curmudgeonly character Harrelson would be playing, all while helping to couch Archie’s role.

The character of Archie Bunker did start out as a lampoonable caricature, and that’s unfortunately become his legacy. Even still, he evolved and grew as a human being over time. The character was largely just a dusty, blue-collar worker who felt outdated in the modern world. Although he has become an archetype for the barking curmudgeon, the classic Carroll O’Connor role has a forgotten complexity.

Lear set out to make Archie detestable, a near straw man, but what he got was a beloved fool, one that wouldn’t stay in his current case for long. Throughout AITF’s run, the narrow-minded man had to engage people of various backgrounds. One of the most memorable such moments came in the final season when the family began taking care of Stephanie, a nine-year-old Jewish relative of Edith’s who becomes the Bunkers’s adopted daughter.

Following Edith’s death, Archie even dated a Puerto Rican woman in the spin-off “Archie Bunker’s Place,” although he was still deeply ignorant, and it showed in his efforts to get along with her family. Archie also befriends and partners with a Jewish man in running the titular bar of the series. Throughout the series, he is forced out of his comfort zone as his home life is so drastically changed, without Edith around to wait on him constantly, or Gloria and Michael with whom to bicker.

Archie arguably experienced more character growth in that series than he did in all nine seasons of the original. To discount the rough, Nixon-defending conservative as a memetic relic, used to describe outgoing spokesmen for uneducated beliefs, is to lose a conversion story. He changes as a human being, becoming more generous and easygoing.

All of these things might seem trivial in today’s light, but for Archie, they show that a character can overcome his straw-man roots. Archie went from just being beloved to actually being lovable. His story is one of growth and confidence, that we shouldn’t believe bigots are hopeless in their bigotry.

Ironically, in a 2016 Hollywood Reporter interview, Lear said he disapproved of the new series, spearheaded by O’Connor, because he didn’t believe the actor had a good grasp of the character, leaving us to wonder if Lear disapproved of the convention-breaking that happened in the series.

The real problem with reducing Archie to a simple, hardline fool is the same mistake too many people in political conversations make today. The choice to depict the series anew was a clear response to the Trump presidency, although I’m not sure we are willing to laugh as much in 2019 about the terrible things Archie says as we may have when the episodes were first broadcast.

A Short Message on Pushing the Envelope

I will admit, with the likes of Anthony Anderson and Amber Stevens West, the recreation had quite a line-up of stars who have held similar roles. West starred in “The Carmichael Show,” which marked a modern failure of Lear-style emulations. The show had comical components, but often dwindled down to a dramatized and scripted “View”-like talk show.

The show also went out of its way to be risqué, perhaps because its writers wanted to be remembered as trailblazers. The sitcom formula was set up with clear parallels to those envelope-pushing shows Lear created. One episode put West’s character in a position where she felt a dilemma about stripping at the club, and though she decided she couldn’t find herself morally comfortable with doing so, the episode concludes with her saying she did it anyway. The show spent too much time compromising the integrity of their characters, which hurt its own grounding.

Conservatives, too, have found inspiration in Lear’s framework: Tim Allen has said his Mike Baxter character on “Last Man Standing” is supposed to represent an educated Archie. Allen’s show has seen better days and fresher material. In general, though, it does still suffer on occasion from unnatural introductions of hot topics.

Too often, the issues are forced, not arriving easily, or with tongue-in-cheek deliveries. So, how does a TV show follow the trail blazed by Lear? It’s a good question, and it isn’t one a show has ostensibly answered given the high mortality rates of Lear-wannabe shows. I suspect it comes down to moving past preachiness and onto the realism of normal conversation.

In an interview with Deadline, Lear suggested it might be possible to reboot “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” which was what I originally feared they might do this time around. But isn’t the moral of this story that the old episodes are still just the best? The Learverse is quite expansive, and would be best left to its original work.

The heavy-handiness of today’s political comedy is a clear signal of how many Americans get the conversation all wrong, or at least make false dialogues about how these conversations play out. In any case, revisiting the original episodes and characters provided a great opportunity for nostalgia—a sentiment that was perhaps the live performance’s greatest success.

Clayton J. Hester is a news reporter and broadcast journalist with KRCU in Missouri. He attends Southeast Missouri State University, where he writes for the Southeast Arrow and studies creative writing and religion in addition to journalism. He’s also a novelist, podcaster, attempted screenwriter, and amateur apologist. Follow him on Twitter at @claytonjhester and email him at [email protected]

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