In his 90s, Norman Lear is still in plain view. The legendary television producer, who at the height of his career had six shows in the Nielsen Top 10, recently published an autobiography, “Even This I Get to Experience,” and is now the subject of the documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.”
Co-directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the film comes across as a testimonial to an icon who, under the camouflage of comedy, and battling censors every step of the way, supposedly brought straight talk about racism and bigotry into America’s living rooms every week.
Lear’s string of TV successes kicked off in 1971 with “All in the Family,” followed by such shows as “Maude,” “Good Times,” and “The Jeffersons,” but it was “All in the Family” that served as the template for his comedy empire: Leave ’em laughing, but also leave ’em thinking.
In our current entertainment era – which, alas, is fused with our political era – outrage and (supposed) boundary-breaking are the currency of the realm. In “Just Another Version of You,” the point is made by a succession of talking heads, including Lena Dunham and Jon Stewart, that Lear was TV’s original agent provocateur.
But just how provocative were Lear’s provocations?
“All in the Family,” for example, which ran for nine high-rated seasons, showcased Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker, the loudmouthed bigot, but his rants were fairly tame even for that time (if not for what was seen on TV at that time). This was a generation, after all, still caught up in race riots and Vietnam.
What Lear did was to package incendiary material within the comfy confines of sitcom land. Archie never truly rages against gay people and black people. (Tellingly, he never uses the N-word.) What Lear did in TV shows was similar, though in a comedic vein, to what director Stanley Kramer did in films like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”: tenderize socially charged material for mass consumption. The ploy was canny and commercially successful. Viewers of “All in the Family” could have a good laugh and still feel virtuous for having received a valuable civics lesson.
O’Connor was a marvelous actor, and he certainly could have taken Archie into darker realms if Lear had given him license to do so. But the whole point of sitcoms is that no crisis is ever so critical that it can’t be resolved by the episode’s fadeout. If, on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Rob Petrie had walked into his home one day and announced to his wife, Laura, that he was having an affair and wanted a divorce, the entire edifice of the show would have collapsed. And if Archie had taken a swing at a black man, or at Edith, the show would have ended. He would no longer be a lovable bigot (an appellation O’Connor detested).
“Just Another Version of You” doesn’t dwell on the critical blowback “All in the Family” received from the liberal media – such as John Leonard’s over-the-top attack in “Life” magazine: “Why review a wretched program? Well, why vacuum the living room or fix the septic tank?” The film focuses primarily on how Lear was targeted by the likes of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, especially after he formed his “People For the American Way” political organization.
Lear’s point of contention with the evangelical right was that, essentially, he didn’t believe you should use religion to tell people how to vote. And yet, one could argue that Lear’s TV “mission” was basically of the same stripe. He believed he was using the religion of TV to reform viewers by waking them up to their prejudices – although, in the case of “All in the Family,” it may have unwittingly reinforced some of those prejudices among viewers who identified with Archie.
If there is a legacy of anger, righteous or otherwise, in today’s television, I doubt it owes much to shows like “All in the Family.” The anger in that show was faux anger. There’s certainly a place for that – without it we wouldn’t have, for starters, “Seinfeld” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
But if there is an inkling of genuine rage in television now, it is not in the comedic realm but in the dramatic realm – and, not surprisingly, in the long-form dramatic realm, where conflicts aren’t neatly beribboned at each episode’s end. Lear is responsible for many things, but without “All in the Family,” we would still have had “Roots,” “The Sopranos,” “Game of Thrones,” and all the rest.
Lear was a TV pathfinder, all right, but his path is carpeted with rose petals. Grade: B- (This movie is not rated.)