Live Performances of ‘All In The Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons’ Remind Us of Television
The ABC live performances of classic episodes of ‘All In The Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons’ aired live last week, and then re-aired on Saturday night. You can now watch them on Hulu, not live, but unaltered. They’re a miraculous example of how no cultural artifact, no matter how minor, ever dies.
Of course, in their times, those shows were hardly minor affairs. All In The Family was the most popular show in the U.S. for years, and The Jeffersons sat in the top 10 for most of its run. Even so, it seemed like they’d remain in the TV Land vault forever, deeply-receding nostalgia like I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith show. Yet now they’ve reappeared as marquee programming. ABC gave them a network revival like some sort of half-remembered Arthur Miller play.
In fact, that’s exactly what they resembled. The scripts in these episodes felt a little cornball compared with the rapid-fire jokes of contemporary single-camera sitcoms, but they also had some social urgency and immediacy. I can’t imagine that in 40 years we’re going to be watching live-action re-dos of hipster sitcoms like Master Of None, Girls, or The Mindy Project.
Archie Bunker, as created by Norman Lear, is every bit as recognizable and iconic as Willy Loman. You can’t find an archetype more American than George Jefferson, a guy from the neighborhood full of his britches because he owns some successful dry-cleaning outlets. The fact that Lear, still alive and full of nails at 96, introduced the shows with Jimmy Kimmel, gave the proceedings a little extra zip. If he could still get into these characters, then so could we.
So Were They Any Good?
Using the exact scripts and exact sets as when they originally aired in the early 1970s, the shows rose and fell on the casting. ‘All In The Family’ definitely felt like a mixed bag. Woody Harrelson is one of the all-time great actors, but he didn’t exactly register as Archie Bunker. You could sniff his accent from a mile away, and a lot of his lines didn’t land. Marisa Tomei did a pretty hilarious Jean Stapelton impersonation, with a ton of energy, but you couldn’t escape the fact that it was Marisa Tomei in a wig, which kind of made her Hot Edith. Very distracting.
I loved Ellie Kemper in the Sally Struthers part. She was actually an improvement. But that all got balanced out by Ike Barinholtz as Meathead, who threw every single joke to the backstop. Sean Hayes stopped by to embarrass us and himself as the Bunkers’ weird neighbor Mr. Lorenzo. On the other hand, Anthony Anderson played his guest role with low-key wit and charm.
It was fine, a kind of lukewarm TV bath.
Movin’ On Up
On the other hand, The Jeffersons reboot was a surprise barn-burner from the opening seconds, when Jennifer Hudson dropped by the kitchen to slay the show’s famous theme song.
Your mileage may vary on Jamie Foxx’s twitchy George Jefferson impersonation, but I thought it was hilarious. And Wanda Sykes absolutely dominated the proceedings, appearing prominently in both episodes as Weezie. She couldn’t even try to approximately Isabel Sanford’s throaty, regal delivery, so instead she brought it down to earth. The entire pilot is about Weezie’s reluctance to hire a maid. Sykes really buys into that struggle. She gives Weezie a sympathetic humanity that she never really had in the show’s original run.
The casting gods also gave The Jeffersons a better supporting cast, with really solid turns from Stephen Tobolowsky as The Jeffersons’ eccentric British neighbor, and Jackeé Harry, of all people, as a maid. Jovan Adepo was super-charming and handsome as the Jeffersons’ son Lionel. And then in waltzes Kerry Washington, looking fine, and Will Ferrell, as the Willises, TV’s most prominent interracial married couple. Asking anyone to compete with Will Ferrell in a live comedy show almost doesn’t seem fair, but he just kind of melted into the ensemble, doing his schtick when he could.
Best of all, Marla Gibbs shows up at the end as Florence the maid, the role she originated, for which she received five Emmy nominations. And at 88 years old, she still has perfect timing. There will be no more wonderful moment of TV this season.
But Does It Matter?
Lear introduced the episodes by saying that the issues presented in ‘All In The Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons’ still reverberate today. And it’s hard to argue. Americans still clash about race and racism and still feel class guilt and envy. Interracial marriage, while certainly not as radical as it was in 1973, still happens infrequently enough to feel surprising, especially on screen.
And I also found it interesting how even-handed Lear’s scripts were. Sure, Archie Bunker is the butt of a lot of jokes, but in Lear’s hands, liberals are also sometimes blinkered to the point of self-delusion. George Jefferson is both a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps hero and a greedy capitalist idiot. Ellie Kemper, as Gloria, gives an impassioned speech about how some day a woman should be President, saying that women are basically kitchen slaves. That got huge applause from the live studio audience, most of whom probably order dinner off Door Dash.
Women and men still have trouble finding a middle ground. People still vote for Nixon, or Trump, or someone unacceptable to the smart-set liberals, who beat their heads against the wall. Nothing really changes, except for maybe entertainment delivery methods. There I was, watching TV on a Saturday night. The glow enveloped me, and the familiar faces and voices soothed me after a stressful day. Just like they did 46 years ago.