Affixing one’s glance to the rear-view mirror is usually as ill-advised as staring at one’s own reflection. Still, what a delight it was on Wednesday to see a fresh rendition of “Those Were the Days,” from All in the Family, a show I haven’t watched for nearly 40 years. This time it was Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei playing Archie and Edith. It was meta-nostalgia: The couple are looking back fondly on pre-Depression days when “girls were girls and men were men” and we “didn’t need no welfare state.” In 2019 we’re aching for All in the Family days, the last era before political correctness.
More time has passed since All in the Family ended than passed between the end of the Hoover administration and the debut of All in the Family. Yet if All in the Family is dead, All in the Family-ness is hot. Capitalizing on the conversation about the white working class and its real or imagined race and class resentments, ABC on Wednesday staged a live performance of an unaltered 1973 script for the show, followed by a staging of a 1975 episode of its spinoff series The Jeffersons. (The entire 90-minute program is streaming on Hulu.) The latter script was notably altered in two cases: The N-word was bleeped out. Sayable in 1975, in an era of mostly unchallenging entertainment; not sayable at all in 2019, even as part of a history lesson about 1970s television. Is ABC messing with us?
All in the Family, which ruled the TV ratings in the 1970s, was possibly the first sitcom treated as important social commentary by the chattering classes. Then a boy, I preferred sitcoms that were actually funny. The topicality must have seemed bleeding-edge to 1973 critics; the episode staged this week mentioned Richard Nixon, Shirley Chisholm, Tom Bradley, and “Elder Cleavage,” Archie Bunker’s mangling of Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther who (long after this script was written) became a born-again Christian and a Republican. Harrelson, Tomei, Ellie Kemper, and Ike Barinholtz do reasonable impressions of the original cast as Archie, Edith, Gloria, and Meathead Mike, with Tomei particularly energetic. But the script is feeble. In this episode, as in many others, there is no plot, just a lot of talk about a not-very-interesting situation (a farewell party for the neighboring Jeffersons, a black family Archie doesn’t like). As in many other sitcoms, the gags leverage one or two dumb people who keep misinterpreting others’ words, spewing malapropisms, and otherwise serving as straw men for the writers to knock around. “Black people have arrived; they’re here,” declares Mike, who has a tendency to declaim. “I ain’t lettin’ ’em in,” Archie grouses. Edith is a simpleton, Archie is a bigot, and Mike and Gloria are mouthpieces for grindingly dull liberals like the show’s creator, Norman Lear. Occasionally the show would allow Archie to score a point, which was the only time things were a bit surprising, hence a bit funny. Far from being “brave,” All in the Family was mostly content to tread water, returning to the same tropes week after week.
ABC’s live presentation reminds us that The Jeffersons was the more interesting show, which in this iteration begins with a snappy take on the gospel-soul theme song, “Movin’ on Up,” this time sung by Jennifer Hudson. Her fellow Oscar winner Jamie Foxx turns out to be very funny mimicking Sherman Hemsley’s nervy-bantam performance as George Jefferson, a child of no means who climbs the ladder and comes to own a dry-cleaning chain and an expensive apartment on the posh Upper East Side. Wanda Sykes plays Louise, his ever-reasonable, slightly exasperated wife. Will Ferrell (stealing the show for the couple of minutes he’s there) and Kerry Washington play Tom and Helen, a deliriously well-heeled interracial couple whose composition irks George. “I’m gonna fix myself a drink — mixed,” George says, when they visit.
George is much more complicated than Archie, and much funnier. George has issues. Archie’s just a racist. Why does Foxx, like Hemsley before him, have so much humming energy? The man pulses and fumes. George has moved on up, and yet he’s still full of frustrated resentment. He’s got money, but the world around him still feels wrong. He’s earned respect, so why is everyone always insulting him?
The slight in this episode is his wife’s friendship with a maid, Diane (Jackée Harry). Consorting with domestics is to George unacceptable. “Some people got to be the Ma’ams and the rest are the mammies,” he reasons. Louise tells George he’s forgetting where he came from. “It’s not a question of where I came from; it’s a question of where I am,” he says. When he suggests hiring Diane, though, Louise objects: She’d rather hire someone else, because it would be unthinkable to hire a friend to be a maid. Diane, when she learns this, is appalled: “I’m glad everybody ain’t as friendly as you are. My kids would starve to death.” No smug sermonizing here.
As Hollywood became a country club for the upper class, it grew ever more squeamish dealing with the endless possibilities of class, feeling on much firmer ground sticking with race. Creating a punching bag like Archie Bunker, then beating him up, in Hollywood gets you considered a sophisticate, even a visionary. Yet George’s demands that others acknowledge his dignity as a successful black man even as he is himself rude and belittling to everyone in range are a far richer source of comedy than Archie’s wish that blacks could be pushed back into their place.
Archie would laugh sarcastically to learn that the cultural elites he also despised had decreed the N-word out of bounds. ABC bleeped the word twice late in its Jeffersons episode, when George speculated that the interracial couple didn’t fight because that could trigger him to call her the N-word, and again when Tom clarified that he sometimes thought of the epithet in connection with his wife. I’ve no desire to hear the word in question, much less say it, but the censorious approach imbues the word with an eerie power it doesn’t deserve, makes it the Lord Voldemort of epithets, the Word Which Cannot Be Named. Opposition to political correctness need not be (as progressives seem to think) a disguised wish to hurt people’s feelings. More often it’s a wish that bombs be defused.