Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Uncomfortable Classics of Norman Lear

Norman Lear and his white floppy hat have been back in the news of late. 

First for being among the recipients of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors; and then for announcing his intention to skip the awards ceremony, as some sort of Donald Trump protest. 

I could write this blog about that but I won’t. What I will observe is that this accolade really has nothing to do with Mr. Trump. Honorees are selected by previous winners and the Kennedy Center trustees. It’s one of the highest honors this nation bestows upon its artists, and should have nothing to do with politics. Harry Belafonte accepted his medal from Ronald Reagan, and Charlton Heston accepted one from Bill Clinton. And everyone behaved themselves. 

But, again, that’s not the topic for today. Instead, I’d like to explore Norman Lear’s paradigm-shifting contributions to television. The reflexive position among TV historians is to praise them as brave and brilliant and progressive. And much of that is true. But I don’t own any of the shows he created on DVD, and have rarely watched them since their first runs, so joining that chorus of adoration would be disingenuous. 

I acknowledge that All In the FamilyMaudeOne Day At a TimeThe Jeffersons and Good Times are classic TV, either as a result of their quality or enduring appeal. Classic TV shows from the 1970s often serve as comfort TV as well. But this is one of those times when, at least for me, they do not.  

It’s not because they were groundbreaking – a trait that implies shaking up the status quo. That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show and I Spy and other comfort TV staples also share that distinction. The difference to me is that with the Lear shows, the controversial or incendiary elements were always at the forefront. It became what they were about, instead of being just one ingredient in the situation comedy stew. 

As a result, they shared another common denominator that disqualifies them from comfort TV status – anger. 

Quick – what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of All In the Family? It’s probably Archie and Mike in a heated argument over politics, or Archie calling his wife a dingbat. On The Jeffersons, a deluxe apartment in the sky did little to assuage George’s seething resentment over past indignities. And Julie on One Day At a Time was always yelling about something. 

Sure there were laughs along the way as well. But when I think of Comfort TV I don’t think about shows that consist largely of people screaming at each other. I get enough of that on Facebook. 

Norman Lear proved that television comedy could incorporate contemporary issues into stories. And since television reflects culture more than shapes it, it’s probable that if Lear hadn’t done it someone else would have, and perhaps not as well. 

But the fact that sitcoms can be provocative doesn’t mean they have to be, or even that they should be. Where I get perturbed is when cultural critics suggest that Lear’s shows were better, or more important, because they engaged such topics. 

I am not trying to demean Norman Lear’s legacy. His shows deservedly achieved both popular and critical success. All In the Family alone earned more than 20 Emmys. 

But there is a tendency in art, including television, to pat itself on the back more when it’s ‘edgy,’ as evidenced by the current Emmy dominance of cable and streaming shows over more traditional network fare. 

It’s fine to prefer television that confronts current event issues, but 20 or 40 years later a joke about school busing or Richard Nixon doesn’t pack the same punch. And it’s just as difficult to write a good sitcom episode about more benign topics, and make it funny and appealing. In fact I’d argue it’s more challenging, because you can’t lift material from the newspaper. 

And if you believe doing so makes Maude more substantial, and a series like Father Knows Best more antiquated, watch an episode of both and get back to me. 


  1. I can't speak to Maude because I haven't watched it recently, but my wife and I watched pretty much the entirety of All in the Family on Antenna TV recently and that show holds up very well. It's true that there are topical jokes in the show that don't hold up 40 or more years later, but the show still works in spite of that. Political engagement was critical to the show, but the relationships of the characters were just as critical. There was a lot of yelling, but there were quiet moments as well. I'm a 56-year-old liberal male, so I find Archie's views generally repugnant, but the humanity of the characters, including Archie, is allowed to shine through. I suppose you can't really call All in the Family comfort TV, but at times it is great television, even more than 40 years after it was made.

  2. I forgot to add...I really enjoy your site. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Robert! And I agree - there is a lot of great TV that isn't comfort TV. But after 5 years or so of doing this blog I suspected the Lear shows had become conspicuous by their relative absence, and this was a good opportunity to explain why.

  3. David Hofstede, will you ever do a blog commentary about the Canadian police series "Night Heat"?

  4. I was 10 when AITF first aired and for me, "All In the Family" is part of Comfort TV. I enjoyed it, along with other favorite comedies of the day (Green Acres, Dick Van Dyke Show, Bob Newhart Show, etc…) but for me, along with the comedy and entertainment, I learned valuable lessons watching AITF.

    Every Saturday night with my mom, dad and sisters we'd watch AITF and along with the laughter of the situations & characters we’d always discuss the subjects that each episode covered. Yes, the characters would yell and scream, but the writing and acting was so strong, and these subjects were presented in such an entertaining way that I’d get this additional education of learning about horrific and ignorant people and their hateful views and just how wrong that thinking was.

    As for Lear not attending, considering all that’s occurred over the past few days in Charlottesville, I’m not surprised that a man who spent most of his professional life writing and creating works that present the horrors of racism and bigotry would want to avoid being in the same room with Trump.