In retrospect, it was only a matter of time before reboot and revival fever manifested as verbatim repeats — but if TV’s gonna go there, bringing back eerily timely shows like “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” is the way to do it.
That Norman Lear’s comedies are timely, or at least prescient, is an established TV industry truism decades in the making. The family sitcoms he produced — including “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “One Day at a Time” and more — refused to live by the dictum that everyone should just get along and avoid topics like religion, money, and politics. In fact, most of the characters on shows he produced barreled headlong into the most contentious issues of the day, grappling with their differences by airing them out in hilarious, sometimes excruciating detail. That model of family sitcom has endured ever since; today’s TV shares its DNA, whether in literal reboots like Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” or spiritual descendants like ABC’s “Blackish.”
So while Jimmy Kimmel enlisting stars like Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, Wanda Sykes, Kerry Washington, Jamie Foxx, and Will Ferrell to step into old roles for a (live!) one-off special could read as a blatant nostalgia grab, doing so for “The Jeffersons” and “All in the Family” is as much about reminding a wide new audience about relevant TV history as sheer entertainment. And as the now 96-year-old Lear made explicit in a pointed introduction, re-staging these shows was an experiment to test if they hold up as well in the present day as so many aficionados have said they would. “We are still grappling with many of the same issues,” Lear said. “We hope tonight will make you laugh, provoke discussion, and encourage action. There is so much more work we must do in this country we love so much.”
The experiment worked. With meticulous attention to set detail and wig shapes, ABC’s live staging of “Henry’s Farewell” (“All in the Family”) and “A Friend in Need” (“The Jeffersons”) managed to feel both like an artifact of a nostalgic past and the urgent present. Performing the episodes word for word meant that, for instance, Archie (Harrelson) retained his notoriously ugly streaks of sexism and racism. (It also meant that ABC, adhering to 2019 broadcast network standards, deployed startling, lengthy bleeps to blot out “Jeffersons” characters using the n-word.) On the surface, the episodes are linked by writer and “Jeffersons” co-creator Don Nicholl and the bombastic George Jefferson himself (played here by Foxx), who made his first appearance in “Henry’s Farewell” before launching his own spinoff with “A Friend in Need.” Both chapters are also linked by frank discussions of class inequality, cultural gulfs, and willful ignorance. Some of the punchlines reveal their age, but as Lear warned us ahead of time, far more hit close to home. (Swap out every Nixon mention for Trump and tell me they don’t read much the same!) That doesn’t mean they became less funny, but the deja vu does tend to create an extra depressing level to the proceedings.
As for the performances themselves, most hewed close to straight up impersonations to mixed effect. Harrelson’s Archie — or more specifically, his attempt at Carroll O’Conner’s thick Queens accent — didn’t quite settle until after the first commercial break, while Foxx got so caught up in mimicking Sherman Hemsley’s tics that he flubbed a punchline and blurted, “It’s live!” Better off was Tomei, who stole just about every scene with her wide-eyed, full-throated commitment to Jean Stapleton’s brand of quivering enthusiasm. Opposite these three in particular, Sykes immediately set herself apart by keeping her portrayal of Weezie Jefferson closer to her own instincts than Isabel Sanford’s — a grounded choice that paid off opposite Foxx’s broader impression. It helps that these core four were surrounded by able supporting players who, more often than not, have had ample experience on their own comedies borne of the Lear tradition. There’s just no resisting the sight of skilled actors like Anderson (“Blackish”), Stephen Tobolowsky (“One Day at a Time”), and Amber Stevens-West (“The Carmichael Show”) get huge applause breaks while paying homage to their sitcom ancestors — one of which would be “227” star Jackée, who just so happened to be onstage right with them, playing wonderfully off Sykes as Weezie’s friend Diana.
So, sure, the acting wasn’t flawless and the rhythms of the 1970s comedy occasionally felt jarring on a 2019 stage. But the special was so overwhelmingly dedicated to the fun of the conceit and the enduring accuracy of the punchlines that any technical nitpicks I had quickly faded from memory. By the time Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson was shimmying across the “Jeffersons” set belting “Movin’ On Up” and original castmember Marla Gibbs walked through the door reprising her role as clever maid Florence, it became frankly impossible to begrudge the spectacle of it all. TV could frankly do a whole lot worse than gathering talented performers to tackle smart, topical comedy with such visceral joy that they’re practically vibrating off the screen. That the material remains so stubbornly timely is a bonus — and a warning. The fact that these sitcoms can be recited verbatim almost 50 years later only proves just how much of our world is, despite such intense and ongoing efforts otherwise, the same as it ever was. As Lear himself said: there is, as always, so much more work to do.
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