All in the Family

“All in the Family,” a Norman Lear creation, was the nation’s most-watched TV series for five consecutive years in the 1970s. CBS Television Network/AP file

Northeast Oklahoma didn’t get the chance to see the live studio audience broadcast of two Norman Lear classic television shows on ABC last week due to severe storm coverage.

Take time now to find it on Hulu or other streaming services.

The revival of an episode from “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” introduces a novel concept that works: Take an old television show — one with relevance — and restage with current actors.

TV shows are mini-plays packed with an economy of language and action, whether in tragedies or comedies.

Some television episodes stand out for delivering philosophy and social commentary in a transcendent way to other forms of media. Think of how the “West Wing” or “VEEP” takes on national politics. No one sent up local government better than “Parks and Rec.”

This reboot approach is taken all the time, such as bringing back Broadway shows or musicians covering well-known tunes. When art resonates, it lives on.

It has been a couple of generations since audiences regularly saw one of Norman Lear’s shows. Young adults don’t comprehend just how much influence those held in pushing social issues into the homes of American families.

The 96-year-old Lear opened the broadcast sitting in Archie Bunker’s chair while explaining why these specific shows were chosen.

“When we introduced Americans to the Bunkers and the Jeffersons, people weren’t used to TV shows dealing with issues like racism and sexism. But we thought humor was a way into people’s hearts, and it did get millions of people talking,” Lear said.

“The language and themes from almost 50 years ago can still be jarring today, and we are still grappling with many of the same issues.

“We hope tonight will make you laugh, provoke discussion and encourage action. There is much more work we must do in this country we love so much.”

For Gen-Xers like me, these are childhood memories of watching television as a family.

The “All in the Family” episode (“Henry’s Farewell) centered on the goodbye party for neighbor Henry Jefferson (brother to character George Jefferson), bringing up generational clashes related to race, gender and economic classes.

The “The Jeffersons” episode (“A Friend in Need”) was the series premiere, originally aired in January 1975. The story focused on Louise Jefferson struggling with the idea of joining the upper class, mixed with bias from her husband toward mixed-race relationships and lower-income workers.

Both had impressive set details of the era from the artwork to the cake holder. It seemed so long ago that briefcase-sized radios and rotary phones were everyday household objects.

Big-name actors, many with television experience, pulled off the experiment. Most notable were comedian Wanda Sykes, who put her own swagger on Louise, and actress Marissa Tomei giving Edith Bunker a bit of a backbone.

A treat was seeing 88-year-old Marla Gibbs resurrect her role as the fast-talking, whip-smart maid Florence Johnson.

But, it was a bittersweet nostalgia.

While the dialogue remains provocative, it was sad for its continued relevance. Our country struggles with the same issues (no woman has been president, no Pope has been black and workforce opportunities remain unequal).

The issues then seemed more in-your-face, compared to the subtle and subconscious bias of today. The shows performed a service by showing difficult conversations in fictional homes.

Everyone knew Archie Bunker was racist and sexist, but he didn’t recognize it. His family, his friends and his neighbors called him out but didn’t shun him.

They argued but didn’t hate. They didn’t ban him from family gatherings; they sat at his table.

Families and neighbors disagreed and feuded, but they still loved and lived together in peace. They addressed bigotry and sexism with more talking, not less.

Before Norman Lear, TV lacked diversity: There were no people of color, working women, single moms or low-income families. These programs started adding those Americans to the broadcast world.

It made me want to revisit several classic television shows, many on streaming services.

Lear’s shows, including “Sanford and Son” and “Good Times” can be found on Starz. Hulu has “Mary Tyler Moore,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “M*A*S*H.”

Amazon Prime offers “That Girl,” “Alice,” “I Love Lucy” and “The Rifleman.” Netflix has “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

All these have episodes that would be intriguing to revive.

Imagine actors tackling the portrayal of Barney Fife, Fred Sanford or Dr. Hawkeye Pierce.

How many women could put their own spin on Lucille Ball’s spiel for Vitameatavegamin or her stint on the chocolate assembly line?

While these resurrections would be interesting, it would be compelling to see how artists would put a modern twist on vintage episodes.

The “M*A*S*H” messages in “Abyssinnia, Henry” (the discharge of Henry Blake) or “The Army-Navy Game” (a criticism of bureaucracy) would be powerful set in our current Middle East conflicts.

Or, would the suicide attempt in “Goodnight, Sweet Vera” (“Alice”) receive different treatment now? Mr. Grant’s sexist job interview of Mary Richards would have consequences.

Maybe the thought of a renaissance of these old shows is just reminiscing for my youth.

But, after watching Norman Lear’s shows again, the value in the approach to social issues have lasting lessons.


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Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376

ginnie.graham@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @GinnieGraham

Editorial Writer

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Ginnie is an editorial writer for the Tulsa World Opinion section. Phone: 918-581-8376