The Lasting Impact and Legacy of Norman Lear!
Whenever you think of groundbreaking American television, that changed the game on how we view shows and had many talking at the water cooler, “Norman Lear” should come to everyone’s mind regardless of age or generation.
Back during the late 60’s and early seventies, American television aired popular shows such as the Brady Bunch, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, The Partridge Family and so forth however, for the most part, the material was often sanitized with very little to no innuendos this can be attributed to the restrictions imposed by the federal communications commission.
Most of that changed during 1971 when Television Writer, Producer, and Director Norman Lear had developed “All in the Family” , a sitcom featuring Carroll o’ Connor as the middle-aged and middle-class bigot, Archie Bunker, whose wife Edith “dingbat” Bunker (Jean Stapleton) was the heart and soul of the hit series which drew in millions from the viewing demographic and despite the series being labeled as a comedy, where most of us laughed at Bunker’s archaic diatribes against Son-in-Law Michael Stivic, there were some shocking moments that featured unabashed social commentary, from racism, sexual politics, sexual assault, a transgender homicide, infidelity, abortion, vigilantism followed by a car bombing, this series was not shy of tackling real-life issues!
It was also the first to establish a connective “universe” which began with “spin-offs” from Maude, Good Times to The Jeffersons, with “Good Times” mostly focusing on poverty, that spiraled into a self-parody where JJ “Kid-Dyno-mite” became the in-joke of the series while sidelining the supporting cast. This led to conflict behind the scenes as actor John Amos who played as the patriarch of the Evans family, had expressed his concerns of stereotypical portrayals of young black men-primarily “JJ” played by Jimmie Walker. Amos was abruptly written off the show which featured Floria’s heartbreaking reaction, which became a meme of sorts.
Aside from topics that dealt with gang violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and child abuse, one of the more controversial subjects was the infamous “Black Jesus” episode which caused some backlash. The series created and written by Mike Evans, who also starred in The Jeffersons, finally ended on a positive note, and it was one of the first, at least for me, to watch a series finale as most tv shows that were canceled, had the cast protagonists’ scenarios including cliffhangers, unresolved.
What I loved about The Jefferson’s was how the main protagonist George Jefferson played by Sherman Helmsley, was a successful black businessman which was the opposite of James Evans’ struggling in the projects. George wasn’t shy of giving it back to racists, where in an era, there were more shall I say “creative liberties” sure he can be seen as buffoonish as with Archie Bunker, but overall, it was a progressive show. This can be attributed to some of the show’s black writers.
And speaking of whom, after a year All in the Family made it debut, Sanford and Son featuring legendary comedian Redd Foxx, focused on unapologetic humor, while avoiding the dramatic tropes from Good Times and All in the Family. The back and forth between Fred Sanford and Esther, was classic television! Both Good Times and Sanford and Son had become monumental successes thanks to comedian Paul Mooney’s script treatments.
Maude starring Bea Arthur was for the most part, a Feminist themed sitcom or rather, “sit-dram” in some cases as it also handled topics such as abortion, women’s rights, systemic racism, suicide, drug and alcohol addiction. The series also co-starred Arianne Barbeau as Carol, long before her breakout role in John Carpenter’s The Fog and as Maggie, one of the OG Godmother’s of Science Fiction heroines courtesy of Escape from New York.
While some may debunk Lear’s contributions as “agenda” shows, it was from his Jewish Liberal perspective, as one who came from an oppressed group, for the most part, spoke out against the injustices that plague America, till this very day, by using the power of television as his bullhorn. Without Lear’s contributions, there might not have been more adult themed sitcoms or dramadies such as SOAP, Roseanne, Black-Ish among many that have enriched the lives of others while sparking honest conversations in a post censor landscape. Thank you, Norman.