WRITER/PRODUCER Norman Lear has done it again. His new sitcom, ``704 Hauser'' (which premieres tonight), is up to his old standards of social sagacity and wit. It's an ``All in the Family'' for our own time - just as funny, but more intelligent, perceptive, and ambitious in its arguments.
Mr. Lear sets a black family in Archie Bunker's old house. The father, Ernest Cumberbatch (John Amos), is a liberal; his wife, Rose (Lynnie Godfrey), is an independent thinker and a deeply religious Christian; their son, ``Goodie'' (T.E. Russell), is a neoconservative; and the son's girlfriend, Cherlyn (Maura Tierney), is white, liberal, and Jewish. Arguments between father and son, unlike those between Archie Bunker and his son-in-law, Mike Stivic, of ``All in the Family,'' are well-reasoned, informed, and reflective of provocative contemporary political and economic thinking.
In a recent phone interview, Lear spoke of the conception of the show. ``I could never bring myself to destroy the `All in the Family' set,'' he says. ``I had it in storage. I have an accountant who would call me every six months and say, `Why are you doing this? It's throwing money down a rat hole....''
``About 10 months ago, he called for the umpteenth time.... I was reading Thomas Sowell, a black conservative philosopher, and Shelby Steele. I woke up one morning and thought, why don't I use that set again and with a black family living there now - a liberal father, a veteran of the civil rights struggle of the '50s and '60s, who names his only son after his hero, Thurgood Marshall. [The son] is, ironically, growing up to be a Clarence Thomas.''
As soon as he thought of the father and son, Lear realized that he should set the story in another location, but he so enjoyed the theatricality and continuity of extending the life of the ``All in the Family'' set, he couldn't resist it. The first episode has Gloria and Mike's grown-up son, Joey Stivic, returning to the old homestead to look around. It works especially well for viewers who came of age watching ``All in the Family.'' It's interesting and often amusing to reflect on the changes in our society as reflected by the two shows. Those changes appear every day in the newspapers, as Lear points out.
``Since the holidays,'' he says, ``I have cut easily 30 articles out of the newspaper and thrown them in a file for references for further episodes should the show get picked up. Every day's paper and every week's magazines are full of ... topics [for] this show. Whether it's another attack on affirmative action, or [Louis] Farrakhan, or the desecration of a Jewish temple, or the welfare system, it's endless. Then Newsweek did a big story on middle-class blacks still battling racism. I was deeply touched by it - people asking themselves, will they ever realize in their lifetimes, a time when it won't matter that they are black - no matter how successful they are.''
``704 Hauser'' is far more complex than most sitcoms, and it is the challenge that excites Lear, he says. ``Neither Archie nor Mike really took responsibility for knowing what they were talking about. Archie got it all wrong, and Mike really argued out of a reflexive liberal passion. [``Goodie''] knows what he's talking about, and the same is true for his father.''
``704 Hauser'' ``is more difficult to make funny than `All in the Family' was, because we could rely on the outrageousness of Archie - his malaprops and his misinformation. But Ernest Cumberbatch is not misinformed, and he is not going to get laughs from saying things incorrectly.''
Working with Lear on the show are three African-American writers. Lear says the days the group spent combing their own lives for stories were wonderfully fascinating and educational for him. They all became quite close, and he learned a great deal about the frustrations of being an African-American.
Out of those frustrations comes one of the most poignant episodes in the show, Lear says. Ernest and Goodie go shopping for a sports coat at a fancy store and come home with two different versions of a confrontation between Ernest and the store detective - Ernest claims he was harassed and Goodie claims Ernest overreacted. Cherlyn knows the store owners, disappears for a while and returns with the security video tape. What the video tape reveals is more complex than a simple resolution of the disagreement.
Though Ernest's arguments are stronger in this episode, Lear really wants an equality of give-and-take. Father and son are both intelligent and knowledgeable, but they see things differently, and they each believe in different solutions. Still, the lively discussions reflect some of the hottest topics in America today.
Lear lays out his ambitions for the show: ``Over time, I hope the mother's deep religious feeling comes across,'' he says. ``And also Ernest's. Though he views it quite differently and has less patience with it, he is deeply religious.''
``I hope that the son's fresh thinking about social and economic matters from his conservative point of view will come across, too. I trust we will be faithful to the essence of that point of view.''
``I just think the discussion between liberal and conservative is a major discussion in our country. It has already affected the way we think.''