This website has a TV category and we use it to deviate from the normal run of stuff around here. This post started as a Twitter thread, but I’ve turned it into a full post, since not everybody who visits here uses Twitter or follows me. (If you use Twitter and don’t follow me, what’s up with that?)
As a child of the 70s who grew up with the original shows, I found ABC’s live, one-night-only reboot of All in the Family and The Jeffersons earlier this week to be a worthwhile 90 minutes, if not a flawless one. Here’s what I think I think:
The cast was studded with stars: Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei played Archie and Edith, with Ellie Kemper and Ike Barinholtz as Gloria and Mike; Jamie Foxx and Wanda Sykes were George and Louise Jefferson, with Kerry Washington and Will Ferrell playing next-door neighbors the Willises. But Harrelson, Tomei, and Foxx made the creative decision to play the characters the way Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, and Sherman Hemsley played them in the 70s, instead of finding their own interpretation. Tomei couldn’t help but be charming as Edith, but Harrelson’s attempt to capture O’Connor’s body language as Archie made him look like he had some sort of spasmodic condition. While Foxx’s Hemsley was uncannily accurate, it got in the way of the storytelling. Sykes, Kemper, Barinholtz, Washington, Ferrell, and other members of the supporting cast were better. (Honesty compels me to report, however, that I’m predisposed to like whatever Ellie Kemper does. I’d watch her sit in a chair and read a book for two hours if somebody would put it on TV. And Wanda Sykes is usually the best part of whatever she’s in.)
One of the things inexperienced radio jocks do is to correct every mistake they make—if they flub a word, they repeat it, and often explicitly call attention to what they’ve done. But you learn with experience that unless your mother is listening, nobody is paying attention as closely as you are, and you eventually let the small flubs go by. Foxx fluffed a line about 15 minutes into the show and stopped to say, “It’s live. Everyone sittin’ at home just thinks their TV messed up.” He said it while staying in character, which caused the whole cast to break up. But the original fluff was so small that The Mrs. and I didn’t catch it at first, and when we backed up the DVR, we could still barely detect it.
I am just cynical enough to wonder if the producers didn’t ask him to intentionally blow a line just to remind people the show was live. When Sykes fluffed another line later in the show, she just kept going.
The Jeffersons episode contained two instances of the word “nigger,” which were awkwardly bleeped. In a brief documentary that followed the live show, Kerry Washington said she was “proud” of the way the cast and producers had decided to bleep the word instead of altering the original 1973 script. But bleeping the words was a cop-out. One of the stated goals of presenting these programs in 2019 was to show how their subject matter still resonates. The intrusion of modern political correctness made that resonance less pointed than it might otherwise have been.
The best part of the whole thing might have been Jennifer Hudson’s show-stopping performance of the Jeffersons theme. Either that or the surprise appearance of 87-year-old Marla Gibbs, who returned to her 70s role as Florence the maid, and who got the single funniest line of the night, when she notes George and Weezy’s deluxe apartment in the sky and the Willises’ maid and says, “How come we overcame and nobody told me?”
The sharp, topical writing of these shows was a powerful reminder of how network TV could reflect the cultural and political realities of the 1970s without being preachy—and a reminder also that shows like these simply couldn’t be made today. The live 90-minute special was a huge hit (by standards of 2019, if not 1973—10.4 million viewers), and that likely means that we’ll see more live, one-time-only reboots of classic sitcoms. But there are precious few shows that would repeat as well as All in the Family and The Jeffersons did.
If you watched the live show, please weigh in with your opinions of it below.