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This Week in Freudenfreude: Those Were the Days

Obituary week continues, and we haven't even gotten to Henry Kissinger yet (though we're close). Anyhow, as most readers (at least, in the U.S.) will have heard, legendary TV producer Norman Lear—whose credits included All in the Family; The Jeffersons; Good Times; Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; One Day at a Time; Maude and Sanford and Son—died on Wednesday. He was 101.

Lear was a lifelong liberal and, as reader J.S. in The Hague, Netherlands, wrote in to observe, you get the sense that he was holding on just long enough to outlast the 100-year-old Kissinger, whom Lear was no fan of. Lear put his lefty convictions into action, founding People for the American Way, which fights for the separation of church and state, and Declare Yourself, which works to get young people (18 to 29) to vote. He was also a generous donor to various educational and civic causes, perhaps most notably spending $8.1 million on one of the very first copies of the Declaration of Independence in 2001 and then sending it on a tour of the United States that is still ongoing.

All of this said, we are writing about Lear because his various TV projects were intensely political, engaging with all manner of issues, some that remain touchy even today, and many that were almost entirely absent on TV before Lear came along. The list includes abortion, rape, segregation, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, feminism, urban poverty, acceptance of gays and lesbians, single motherhood and drug abuse.

What's remarkable is that Lear managed to engage with these highly contentious subjects... and yet still dominate the TV ratings. There's an oft-repeated notion that All in the Family could not possibly be broadcast today, because it's just too politically incorrect. This is patent nonsense. First, it is abundantly clear that the non-PC stuff is to be lamented and mocked, and not celebrated, in the same way that Blazing Saddles (which debuted just a couple of years after All in the Family did) is clearly an anti-racist movie, despite liberal use of the n-word. Second, there have been a couple of live-action revivals of All in the Family episodes in the past couple of years, and they got monster ratings. Third, the show Family Guy is a clear homage to All in the Family and its humor, and it's going strong, having just commenced its 22nd season.

What does not seem to be possible to replicate today, however, is the success that All in the Family (and Lear's other shows) had at reaching people across the political spectrum, and maybe even making them think a little bit. Today, the only hope a show has to find a politically diverse audience is to be exceedingly apolitical. Any shows that actually engage with the issues draw audiences that skew heavily lefty or heavily righty. Family Guy's audience, for example, is quite liberal, on the whole. Blue Bloods draws mostly conservatives. And so on.

How did Lear do it? That's not easy to know for sure, particularly since we can't go back in time 50 years and interview a bunch of viewers of his shows. Maybe it was because there was no cable TV, to speak of, meaning that a person could either watch shows that might annoy them a bit, or they could turn the tube off. Or, alternatively, maybe the absence of cable meant that there wasn't a vast "news" mediasphere out there telling people what TV programs and films to be angry about. Or maybe it was because Lear, though a liberal himself, generally accomplished a pretty even-handed presentation. Sure, the right-wing Archie Bunker was a buffoon, but so too was the left-wing Mike Stivic (a.k.a. "Meathead"). So, there was something there for everyone to laugh at.

However, we've been thinking about it since we heard the news of Lear's passing, and we cannot avoid the admittedly subjective conclusion that part of it was just that Lear was absolutely brilliant at what he did. Consider, for example, his casting. He picked, from relative (or total) obscurity: Carroll O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers, Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, Redd Foxx, Bea Arthur, Esther Rolle, John Amos, Bonnie Franklin, Pat Harrington Jr. and Louise Lasser, among others. That is an absolute murderers' row of actors, with 17 Emmys (among other accolades) between them. And if Lear was that good at one of the hardest parts of the job, then he must also have been very good at the things that were not as visible to the general public.

In any case, there never has been, and there presumably never will be, someone who was better at producing thoughtful TV entertainment that engaged seriously with the issues of the day. Thank goodness Norman Lear did not "stifle" himself. (Z)

The highest-earning performer on Cameo is... actor Brian Baumgartner, who played the hapless accountant Kevin Malone on The Office, and whose current price is $195 (it used to be less than $100).

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