“My shows were not that controversial with the American people. They were controversial with the people who think for the American people.” —Norman Lear
Writer-producer-creative dynamo Norman Lear, who died on December 5, 2023, at the age of 101, didn't just change television; he invented it. More accurately, he invented television as we know it. His ability to invest in an established form, chiefly the sitcom, with a strong social conscience and casts of characters that properly reflected the diversity of its audience, revolutionized TV storytelling.
In doing so, far from alienating people with the unwelcome intrusion of real life, Lear created some of the most beloved and enduring TV shows of all time. Below, in tribute to his visionary brilliance, represents a selection of the must-see Norman Lear projects.
All in the Family (1971 – 1979)
The quintessence of Lear’s genius, All in the Family is, on the surface, a standard domestic sitcom familiar to audiences since the days of The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy. On a deeper level, it’s both blistering satire and astute social commentary, a scourge and a comfort designed for tumultuous times.
With the Vietnam War at its zenith, race relations on a knife edge, the Watergate scandal waiting in the wings, and the counterculture busily exploding into the collective consciousness, the sparring between curmudgeonly bigot Archie Bunker (Carrol O’Conner, the antithesis of the wholesome TV dad) and liberal son-in-law Michael “Meathead” Stivic (Rob Reiner) became a safe-space proxy to the violent ideological clashes taking place beyond the Bunker’s living room.
Not a single controversial subject – racism, antisemitism, abortion, homosexuality – escaped Archie’s withering, small-minded ire or Meathead’s reasoned riposte. To achieve that without being preachy, and without sacrificing either laughs or the integrity of the form takes a very special touch indeed.
The spirit of Lear’s masterpiece (loosely based on the BBC’s Till Death Us Do Part) lives on most vividly in shows like The Simpsons and – especially – Family Guy, but there isn’t a sit-com now or since that doesn’t owe a debt of some sort to All in the Family.
The Jeffersons (1975 – 1985)
Lear’s All in the Family spin-off has attracted criticism for alleged stereotyping of black Americans– criticism that no one can ignore. But it’s also tempered by Norman Lear’s sincere and, for the time, groundbreaking decision to portray an urban black family moving up the socio-economic scale rather than fighting for survival.
George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) is, in many ways, Archie Bunker’s counterpart; he’s similarly outspoken and similarly unable to accept or comprehend the changing world. The crucial difference is, he and his family – wife Louise “Weezy” Jefferson (Isabel Sanford), and son Lionel (Mike Evans/Damon Evans – survey the shifting cultural landscape not from blue-collar Queens, where they were once the Bunker’s neighbors, but from ritzy Upper East Side Manhattan. In the mid-1970s, seeing a black family on network TV was novelty enough (see Good Times); seeing a nouveau riche black family was not unheard of – as was Lear’s refusal to play the situation itself for cheap Beverly Hillbillies-style laughs.
All that aside, the huge success of The Jefferson’s rested equally on inspired writing and outstanding performances from its ensemble cast.
So, stereotypical? Yes. To an extent. But also inspirational, pioneering, and very funny.
Sanford and Son (1972 – 1977)
The late great BBC TV producer Beryl Vertue used to tell a story about pitching the iconic Brit sitcom Fawlty Towers to American TV execs. They loved everything about it, Vertue recalled, except for one thing – Basil Fawlty.
Norman Lear saw something in foreign – i.e., British – shows that would work for American audiences. As with All in the Family, Sanford and Son remade a popular BBC sitcom that, to most observers on both sides of the pond, felt far too steeped in British culture and the British class system to ever make the transition. And since Steptoe and Son focused on the love-hate relationship between a father-and-son team of London rag-and-bone men, they had a point.
What Norman Lear saw in Steptoe and Son, however, was not the location or the class trappings but the crucial co-dependent nature of the two men’s relationship and the tragic-comic potential it offered. Relocating the show to South Central L.A. and recasting the protagonists as working-class blacks (Red Foxx and Desmond Wilson), he proved the sceptics dead wrong. So wrong, in fact, that Sanford and Son remained a huge hit throughout its five-year run and often came second only to All in the Family in the ratings.
Good Times (1974 – 1979)
A spin-off of Maude (itself a spin-off of All in the Family), Good Times, in some respects, represented everything The Jeffersons was not – a sitcom about a poor black family living in a Chicago housing project and their everyday struggles to get by. In retrospect, it’s as on-the-nose as it sounds, and accusations of glossing over the dangers, degradation and soul-sapping grind of inner-city poverty hold some sway.
That said, it is a sitcom, not an exercise in social realism, and the comedy always springs from the situation rather than targets it. The fact that the Evans – father James (John Amos), mother Florida (Esther Rolle, and kids JJ (Jimmie Walker), Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis), and Michael (Ralph Carter) – are poor isn’t the joke. The laughs come from the character interaction and the indomitable way the Evans clan deal with adversity, never letting go of the belief that the good times of the title lurk just around the corner.
Ultimately, there’s a genuine warmth to proceedings, brought out in terrific performances from the main cast and a host of supporting players and guest stars. There’s also the inescapable issue of context: in its day, Good Times was a pioneering show for being about a Black family at all. This was an important starting point on which others would build, as Lear and the show’s creators, Mike Evans, and Eric Monte, surely knew.
Maude (1972 – 1978)
Maude Finlay (the fabulous Bea Arthur) was Lear’s potent antidote to Archie Bunker: an unabashed liberal who wears her political leanings on her sleeve. As much as the societal upheavals around him anger Archie, Maude falls over herself to keep up, not merely embracing the ideals of equality and civil rights but making them her rules to live by.
Basically, then, Maude is a New York suburbanite version of Lear in drag. But true to form, he paints her (and himself) warts-and-all: a well-meaning, essentially decent person tainted by champagne socialism and an often unbridgeable disconnect from the causes she champions. Of course, these all-too-real imperfections are precisely what places Maude in the very front rank of indelible TV characters.
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976 – 1977)
An underrated soap opera pastiche created by Gail Parent and Ann Marcus, developed by Norman Lear, Mary Hartman starred Louise Lasser as an Ohio housewife dealing with a series of bizarre and often violent incidents that beset her otherwise humdrum life. Which sounds eminently Lear-esque, but there was a sinister, surreal edge to Mary Hartman that didn't sit well with audiences.
A contemporary review in the New York Times summed it up: “The dreams and nightmares of the American people are reflected darkly through the glass of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” wrote critic Ted Morgan in 1976, “in the same league as those other sociological signposts that culture watchers … are always on the lookout for to help us explain ourselves.”
Not surprisingly, it has since received a major critical rethink and now enjoys a loyal cult following.
Fernwood 2 Night (1977)
Inexplicably forgotten by everyone except die-hard Lear fans, Fernwood 2 Night was a dead-on, way-ahead-of-its-time spoof of cheesy late-night chat shows starring Martin Mull as host Barth Gimble and Fred Willard as his sidekick Jerry Hubbard. The blueprint for The Larry Sanders Show, and every other chat show send-up that followed, it has, unforgivably, never been released for home consumption in any format.
The Deputy (1959 – 1961)
Overshadowed by more famous TV Westerns – Gunsmoke, Bonanza et al – Norman Lear’s TV debut, co-created with Roland Kibbee, was still a more than worthy effort. The show starred Allen Case as Clay McCord, the Deputy of the title, but top billing went to Hollywood royalty Henry Fonda as his boss, Chief Marshal Simon Fry of the Arizona Territory.
Like most shows of its ilk, The Deputy featured a special guest star in most episodes, among them George Kennedy, Denver Pyle, Vivian Vance (Ethel from I Love Lucy), film noir veteran Marie Windsor, and some kid named Robert Redford.
One Day at a Time (1975)
Produced and co-created by Norman Lear, One Day at a Time broke further new ground by having as its main character a divorced single mother (Bonnie Franklin) – and not judging her! More than that, the show was also unafraid to tackle such taboo “feminist” topics as gender inequality and reproductive rights. Naturally, crops failed, and Wall Street suffered major losses.
In tribute to the timelessness of Lear’s vision, the show was revived in 2017 with a mostly Cuban-American cast headlined by Justina Machado and Rita Moreno.
All’s Fair (1976-1977)
With the wounds of Watergate still festering, Norman Lear made the leap into political satire with this brash two-header starring Richard Crenna as a conservative reporter and Bernadette Peters as the (much younger) liberal photographer he falls for.
Shrill and obvious it may seem to modern audiences – or maybe not, given the current state of political discourse – All’s Fair nevertheless got its point across that love conquers all and life is too short to waste on pointless ideological bickering.
Channel Umptee-3 (1997)
The setting for Norman Lear’s utterly charming and idiosyncratic foray into the realm of edutainment was – what else? – a chaotic underground TV station whose mission to teach kids the value of everyday objects was constantly threatened by shutdowns.
A Year at the Top (1977)
Another barely remembered gem, proving Norman Lear’s purview extended far beyond the conventional sitcom, this contemporary update of the Faust legend stars Greg Evigan and Paul Schaeffer as a pair of mediocre rock musicians who sell their souls to the Devil (in fact, the Devil’s son, played by ex-Dead End Kid Gabriel Dell) for a year of success.
The show fared worse than its protagonists, lasting barely a month before the axe fell. An official soundtrack album was released in 1977 to capitalize on the show’s anticipated success – yours on eBay now for only eight bucks!
Hot l Baltimore (1975)
Adapted from Lanford Wilson’s Off-Broadway play, Hot l Baltimore (the title refers to the burnt-out “e” in the decrepit establishment’s neon sign) was an ensemble piece notorious at the time for featuring two characters who were prostitutes – one an illegal alien to boot – and the small screen’s first openly gay couple.
This was considered so controversial that ABC issued a warning before each episode aired. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, Hot l Baltimore was Norman Lear’s first taste of failure after a string of hits.
a.k.a. Pablo (1984)
Starring Paul Rodriguez as a struggling stand-up comedian, Pablo is not, in all honesty, a great show. It’s not even a particularly good one. Okay, it’s terrible (it ranks No. 45 on TV Guide’s “50 Worst TV Shows of All Time”), but it makes the cut as the first show to feature a majority Mexican-American cast and to attempt to translate a comic’s stand-up routine into the sit-com format. Sound familiar?
The Baxters (1979 – 1981)
On paper, The Baxters is classic Norman Lear: A large family (played by different casts over the years) with natural and adopted kids, all with competing opinions on – you guessed it – the rapidly changing world around them. In practice, it’s a rare instance of the maestro overplaying his hand. The sitcom elements are fine, the characters are winning, the scripts are funny and the plotlines glide on well-worn social commentary rails, each episode driven by a certain pressing issue of the day.
What falls flat is the ensuing Q&A with a live audience discussing that issue, an awkward add-on that’s every bit as baffling and unnecessary as it sounds. Still, zero points for execution aside, it’s 10 out of 10 for good intentions.