NORMAN LEAR makes television history. That's his job and he's very, very good at it. ``All in the Family'' broke new ground in television entertainment, as did ``Good Times,'' ``Maude,'' ``The Jeffersons,'' and ``Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.'' And he's at it again with the new pilot series ``Sunday Dinner,'' premi`ering June 2 on CBS.
Mr. Lear has never avoided controversy, and the deeply contentious subject he takes on in ``Sunday Dinner'' is religious faith.
In the new show, Lear approaches the subject of individual faith in God as a design for living, and he does this within the popular formula of the situation comedy. Surprisingly, television critics and the religious press have shown keen interest in Lear's outlook, and have taken a positive stance toward the show.
The program has its detractors, including the conservative Rev. Donald Wildmon and his American Family Association, which has launched a campaign to boycott potential sponsors. A few sponsors have indicated they don't want the controversy. Mr. Wildmon reportedly does not like the manner in which Lear's 30-year-old protagonist - an environmental lawyer - addresses God. T.T. (played by Teri Hatcher) claims no specific religion and refers to God as ``He,'' ``She,'' ``Someone,'' or ``Chief.''
T.T. is in love with Ben, a non-believer nearly twice her age, and must overcome his grown children's antipathy. Ben (Robert Loggia) has decided that his family will meet each Sunday night for dinner in order to get acquainted with his fianc'e. His son, two daughters, sister, and granddaughter raise every kind of resistance to the patriarch's marital plans.
It's a sitcom, and the structure of each show is therefore formulaic - a problem is posed, complications arise, and the immediate solution is arrived at through a little soul searching and communication - all in 25 minutes. Characters have to establish their identities in about 30 seconds, so it's difficult to develop real personalities until well into the series.
Jokes sprinkle even the most serious moments, and the whole thing is meant to be light and entertaining.
Though veteran actors like Robert Loggia and Marian Mercer lend dignity and stability to the cast, and young talents like Patrick Breen and Kari Lizer sparkle, some of the acting in the first two episodes is a bit forced.
The problem lies primarily with Ms. Hatcher's T.T., who relies too much on self-conscious cuteness and fails to convince us that her character is as thoughtful as she is supposed to be.
Still, there's never been anything quite like the character of T.T. on television before, and by the third episode Hatcher begins to warm to her task. What is interesting about the program is that it breaks through a TV taboo just as ``All in the Family'' did 20 years ago: ``Sunday Dinner'' deals with religion.
Lear has always addressed his ideas to the vast majority of Americans, and he believes that America is hungry for deeper values and the assurance of deeper meaning than its own materialism affords.
In a telephone conversation he explains, ``Over a long period of time we began to rely on only those things we can quantify with numbers.'' We've ``grown into a society that relies on SAT scores, Nielsen ratings, flow charts and polls, polls, polls to elect everyone and everything - and all at the expense of the attention once paid to the human capacity for awe, for wonder, for gratitude, for worship - that capacity out of which [we] find God.''
He speaks kindly, his voice fervent. The need for meaning, and the lack of meaning in this culture form the subtext of the '90s, he says, along with the inability of so many people to discuss these things freely.
Lear says people must feel that they can talk openly about the need for meaning again and the human capacity to find it, however hard it may be.
``I am nobody's mystic, I'm not a New Age fanatic, I'm not the least otherworldly. What I basically am is a level-headed, common-sensical lifetime explorer, and what I have found in my explorations is that for a design for living there is no more comforting or joyous way of surviving then to have faith ... especially in something larger than oneself.''
Like faith, ``morality'' is a difficult subject for public discussion. Lear hopes ``Sunday Dinner'' will stimulate popular dialogue about these issues. ``I think that just priming the pump a little and getting the spigot turned on [might help] a lot of people find it easier to discuss these things....
``What I choose to focus on and write about is this incredible thing that unites us all - which is this place in us that responds to and gives us a sense of awe, goodness, kindness, and morality - values.'' He believes the popularity of films like ``Ghost'' and ``Field of Dreams'' reflect the public's hunger for something beyond materialism.
Other TV characters have been religious. But none have shown a direct responsiveness to guidance from above. In one episode T.T. wakes up one beautiful morning and wonders aloud to the ``Chief'' how anyone could awaken on such a morning and not believe in a higher power.
In another installment, Ben's granddaughter struggles with choosing a topic for a paper she must write. Her aunt tells her to pray about it and the topic will come to her. T.T. quotes Emerson: ``We lie in the lap of immense intelligence.'' The child's mother, a scientist, mocks the aunt and T.T. Later the exhausted child falls asleep, awakens, and rushes upstairs to write, saying ``I have my topic!'' The scientist smugly laughs at the aunt and T.T. saying, ``So she was going to get it from God?'' One of them replies, ``Then where did it come from?'' as the camera closes in slowly on the mother's puzzled face.
``That's the very kind of discussion I would hope the show provokes - after it entertains,'' Lear says. ``The other thing I would hope for the show to do is to make far less mystical the whole notion of what comfort and joy there is in faith - how practical and pragmatic it is.''
Lear's approach is to raise questions rather than to offer answers.
He wants viewers to question and discuss the content of ``Sunday Dinner'' and there is plenty to argue about. Some will denounce the show for trivializing the subject matter. Inherent in the sitcom formula is the danger of too-easy answers to enormous questions. Religious people may squirm over the form of prayer, or the fact that T.T. and Ben are having an affair.
``I would hope that [someone] would bring that up,'' says Lear, ``and say, `But what has that to do with religion?' and the discussion would start....''
Much of Lear's work has carried a sharp social message. He says humanity cannot extricate itself from its grave troubles without what he calls a vertical leap.
``We're not going to make it with another development of so-called progress, with the development of a new source of energy, or by colonizing Mars.''