ABC hopped in a time machine to celebrate TV legend Norman Lear — and got terrific ratings.
Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for May 19 through 25 is the ABC special Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons.
Is nostalgia all we have left? If you were to watch Live in Front of a Studio Audience — a hyper-earnest attempt to replicate episodes of two of Norman Lear’s hit 1970s sitcoms with popular, contemporary actors — without recognizing its source material, would it make any sense to you? Would you know who Archie Bunker was without me saying, “the bigot who represented greatest generation conservatism in the 1970s mega-hit All in the Family”?
Probably. The storytelling of these old shows is rock solid, and so long as you’re at least somewhat familiar with what America’s cultural and social mores looked like in the 1970s (although if that’s the case, you likely also know the shows of Norman Lear), you could follow along just fine.
But there’s something so fetishistic about TV’s increasing reliance on resurrecting its own past by any means possible. Live in Front of a Studio Audience almost reminded me of a high school play version of M*A*S*H I once attended, where every performance felt like a copy of a copy of a copy of Alan Alda. It felt reanimated, right down to the ways that the various performers were doing spins on what the original actors brought to the roles. It’s all a little bit ghoulish, right?
Nah. I kind of loved it!
America’s very overt longing for the easy dominance of the monoculture is getting pretty embarrassing, huh?
I should note here that Norman Lear is a living treasure. He’s the man behind One Day at a Time, Maude, Good Times, the underrated movie comedy Cold Turkey, and so many other films and TV shows. And that’s in addition to All in the Family and The Jeffersons, the two shows that Live in Front of a Studio Audience recreated. The former is one of TV’s greatest sitcoms, while the latter (an All in the Family spinoff) isn’t quite at the same level of quality, but is endlessly watchable and stacked with great performances nonetheless.
Lear will turn 97 this July. He’s still spry as can be, but still — he’s almost 97. He appeared during the special to talk a little bit about All in the Family and The Jeffersons and what they meant to him in his heyday, and what they could mean to America now. I love the guy, and maybe that’s why I gave Live in Front of a Studio Audience, clunky though it was, a bit of a pass. (Hell, host and producer Jimmy Kimmel’s obvious affection for Lear even made me like Kimmel at least a little bit more.)
There’s a charming optimism to Lear, even now, and it doesn’t take more than a few moments of the special’s reenactment of All in the Family to notice. Watching its spin on All in the Family’s season four episode “Henry’s Farewell,” the mentions of Richard Nixon’s wars with the press that open the episode have a very “same as it ever was” feel. You start to sense how a 96-year-old might look at our current political landscape and say, “Psh. I’ve seen worse.”
When I first heard about Live in Front of a Studio Audience, it seemed like one of the more overt examples of America — or maybe just broadcast television — doing its damnedest to resurrect the monoculture that presided over the country in the ’70s and ’80s. Back then, broadcast networks were the dominant social force, and the fact that All in the Family and The Jeffersons’ scripts weren’t going to be updated at all for the present era made me fear that the project was a simple nostalgia play.
But the actual effect was something far more complicated and fascinating. By dragging these episodes out of the 1970s and into the 2010s, Live in Front of a Studio Audience offered some reassurance that our problems are not unique to our era, that we are not exclusively gifted with a world that seems to be falling apart — while also subtly insisting that overreaching presidents and the vast income gap between white and black Americans will always be with us. But if you think about that a little more, you start to realize how depressing it is to be reminded that our problems are not unique to our era, that we are not exclusively gifted with a world that seems to be falling apart.
There’s a certain optimism to be found in realizing that the past isn’t as rosy as you remember it, but there’s also a kind of glum realism that sets in when you realize the script for the Jeffersons pilot — in which a newly rich black couple tries to find their place in a high-rise building — would require only the most minor of tweaks to work in 2019. Institutional racism still exists, no matter how many jokes old sitcoms told about it. So one obvious argument you can take from this special is that our problems never really get solved. They just mutate.
The result is that Live in Front of a Studio Audience created a kind of nostalgia for the monoculture, but mostly for the monoculture as a vehicle through which we could talk about all of this stuff. Our political discussions are so fraught in 2019 that it’s tempting to long for the heated shouting of Archie Bunker and his son-in-law Mike. At least their anger was occasionally punctuated by audience laughter.
But how were the performances?
The weirdest thing about Live in Front of a Studio Audience was that so many of the actors were doing rough spins on the shows’ original performances, while some were more comfortable inventing their own spin on these roles. It created an interesting clash of acting styles — one part nostalgic pander, one part genuine attempt to update two classic TV shows. (I should also note here the special was directed by James Burrows, probably the best sitcom director of all time.)
By far the most adept performances came from Marisa Tomei as Edith Bunker and Wanda Sykes as Louise Jefferson. Both women presented basic riffs on the work that Jean Stapleton and Isabel Sanford offered on the original shows, while maintaining just enough of their own star personas to counterbalance what would otherwise be a straightforward impersonation. (Both also proved how adept they are at the stagier aspects of working in front of a live studio audience, something that a few of the younger actors in the cast struggled with.)
The weakest performance, somewhat surprisingly, came from Woody Harrelson, a guy who spent almost a decade on Cheers, another classic studio audience sitcom, and a terrific actor who’s found the complicated soul of tricky characters like Archie Bunker. Unfortunately, he got lost in trying to do an impression of Carroll O’Connor, which is perhaps understandable (O’Connor’s is one of TV’s all-time great performances) but still left me wishing Harrelson had departed further from the original.
But that wasn’t really the point of this special, was it? Live in Front of a Studio Audience was mostly designed as something that balances nostalgia with the thrill of what amounts to a sitcom cameo — you know, when the front door opens, and everybody says, “Will Ferrell?!” and the studio audience cheers.
Those cameos are what so much of this special amounted to, especially in the more overtly goofy Jeffersons episode. That riff on the show’s pilot featured Ferrell and Kerry Washington as the Jeffersons’ neighbors the Willises, who are in an interracial marriage (an incredibly daring move for TV in the ’70s) and also allowed viewers to hear Washington call Ferrell a “honky,” if that’s something they’d been longing for. But the real thrill came with the realization that Will Ferrell and Kerry Washington signed on to dutifully play sitcom characters who have been with TV fans so long they almost feel mythic.
Maybe, then, the level of the mythic is the level on which we should appreciate Live in Front of a Studio Audience. This is a clumsy 90 minutes of television (66 without commercials), but it made me immediately start fantasy-casting new versions of classic episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, of Cheers, of The Cosby Show. (Of all classic TV shows, Cosby is perhaps the one that could benefit most from new actors presenting exactly the same scripts — for hopefully obvious reasons). And the smash hit ratings for the broadcast similarly suggest that an audience (and a surprisingly young one, at that) definitely exists for this kind of show.
Is this what we want? An endless repetition of stories we already know, because we find some sort of comfort in feeling our way toward an ending we’ve heard before? Live in Front of a Studio Audience’s big ratings mean the sitcom curiosity will almost certainly become the next trend that TV runs into the ground, like the live musical and the sitcom revival season before it. But I hope everybody realizes there’s something special about this particular idea.
We’ve always repeated our stories, over and over, until we know them backward and forward. This special might have grown out of nostalgia, or Jimmy Kimmel’s ego, or a genuine desire to fete Lear while he’s still alive. But there’s a comfort in ritual, in recreating the same basic ceremony over and over again. And what is a TV rerun if not the ultimate ritual?
You can watch Live in Front of a Studio Audience on Hulu.
Author: Todd VanDerWerff