Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on X @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Norman Lear, who died Tuesday at 101 years young, leaves behind a rich and complicated legacy.
On the one hand, he was the right person for the right time. As the 1960s morphed into the 1970s and social change transpired at a pace too fast for some, maybe most Americans to absorb, Lear sifted those transformations through the family situation-comedy format America knew and loved.
Issues deemed untouchable, even radioactive by commercial television, whether it was racism, menopause, religious intolerance, even workplace injustice, were delivered in the middle of America’s living rooms and America had to like it or lump it.
Fortunately for Lear, America liked it. A lot.
Beginning in 1971, when “All in the Family” premiered on CBS, Norman Lear’s reputation as a hit-making TV producer and socio-cultural provocateur cut a thundering, all-but-unstoppable path through the rest of the decade.
You wouldn’t think adapting a scruffy hit British sitcom (“Till Death Do Us Part”) whose main character was a working-class Cockney reactionary could ignite a show-business empire. But Lear took everything he’d learned about timing and rhythm from writing sketch comedy for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the 1950s and, almost 20 years later, established a paradigm for success that would have been unthinkable in the years when if you were talking about an “out there” situation comedy, you meant “Bewitched” or “My Favorite Martian.”
On a base level, Archie Bunker’s working-class Noo Yawk bluster on “All in the Family” was familiar to those who fondly remembered Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden on “The Honeymooners.” But the ethnic insults – all of which stopped just short of corrosive epithets like the “n-word” or “k-word” – added something unruly and provocative to the mix.
Suddenly we had this muleheaded, bumbling patriarch whose type we’d come to know and, most of the time, love. And now here he was seething with reactionary resentment against what he saw as intrusion on his God-given autonomy by lily-livered liberals, lazy hippies, overbearing feminists, and any progressive entity you could name.
But he had…endearing qualities, too. He loved his wife and daughter, believed in an honest buck, and (Lord knows!) he loved his country. Lear made sure we saw these attributes pop up – along with the foibles and defects associated by generations to the Bumbling Dads of a couple dozen other sitcoms—to take the edge off his disquieting prejudices.
The phrase “lovable bigot” was often used in media and casual conversation to characterize and even explain Archie Bunker’s appeal to millions over 12 years and two programs, “Archie Bunker’s Place,” running from 1979 to 1983 being the second.
“Lovable bigot.” Hmmm…We’ll get back to that later.