By Ellen McGirt
May 23, 2019

Last night ABC ran a unique special that recreated, word for word, two episodes from two of American television’s most iconic shows.

Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons,’” pressed beloved stars into service to perform key roles, Woody Harrelson as the bigoted Archie Bunker, Marisa Tomei as his “dingbat” wife Edith Bunker, Jamie Foxx as the “militant” neighbor George Jefferson, and Wanda Sykes as his patient wife, Louise “Weezy” Jefferson.

For fans of the originals, it was like opening a time capsule. That “All In The Family” was set in Queens, the same borough that made Fred Trump and his future president son possible, was just one insight among many.

The nostalgic journey was, at times, confrontational.

Producer Norman Lear, still working at age 96, set the stage with this sober introduction. “The language and themes from almost 50 years ago can still be jarring today, and we are still grappling with many of those issues.” He wasn’t kidding. “[T]he reality of how [those issues] were enacted and endure in the world became clear, as the ABC censor had to lean on the button several times in the Jeffersons portion of the night, when the N-word screeched back from 1975,” remarks Dominic Patten in this rollicking review.

Lear had extraordinary influence in his heyday, using well-crafted, funny, and diverse characters to tackle the kinds of things – civil rights, racism, feminism, rape, homosexuality, war and beyond – that needed to be discussed by everyone’s family.

For ‘70s kids like me, watching “All In The Family,” was also the first time I felt I really knew what grown-ups talked about when I wasn’t in the room.

The show found a home in the American psyche. “All in the Family,” which aired from 1971 to 1979, launched a dozen beloved characters in spinoff shows that unflinchingly elevated important ideas.

Maude Findlay, a feminist character played by Bea Arthur, first appeared as Edith Bunker’s cousin and was the first to get her own show in 1972. There are too many “Maude” moments to recount, but the most famous is when the 47-year-old grandmother finds herself pregnant and conflicted. Ultimately, she chooses to get an abortion. The two-part episode, “Maude’s Dilemma,” attracted little controversy the first time it aired; according to The Chicago Tribune, the debut was carried by all of CBS’s 200 affiliates and only generated 7,000 protest letters. When the episode was re-run, some 40 affiliates refused to air it, corporate sponsors refused to buy air-time, and there were some 17,000 letters of protest.

It all sounds so tame, doesn’t it?

Maude’s maid Florida, who was the black counterweight to Maude’s suburban New York liberal archetype, was so popular she got her own show – the unapologetically black “Good Times,” inexplicably set in Chicago. It was the first show to ever portray a black home with two parents. And “The Jeffersons,” which followed Archie and Edith’s black neighbors when they moved on up to a luxury building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, aired from 1975 to 1985.

(Two things to note if you catch clips or the replay – Jennifer Hudson’s astonishing cover of “The Jeffersons” theme song, and Kerry Washington’s brief star turn as Lenny Kravitz’s mother.)

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Norman Lear at a fundraiser…or more accurately, I had the pleasure of embarrassing myself by leaping over chairs to sit next to him just to devolve helplessly into the kind of nerd-fan that warbles the entire “All In The Family” theme song, and yes, in both the Archie and Edith voices. Fans are fragile creatures, and his effortless kindness was such a gift. After I stopped making noise, we talked about his work and the world and what it all meant.

And then he said this, and I almost started singing again.

“You know, Edith was the Christ figure,” he told me. “That was her job, to love.” No matter what the drama, and there was always drama in their family and mine and also yours, Edith was the light. “She was the unconditional love.”

Those were the days.

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