How Many Versions Of Norman Lear: Just Another Version Of You Is Too Many?
Did American Masters bite off more than it could chew with this titan of the sitcom?
High-Profile Show Attempted: The Norman Lear episode of American Masters.
Subject: Norman Lear, nonagenarian, producer and creator of hall-of-fame sitcoms like All In The Family, Good Times, et al., and activist/founder of People For The American Way.
How Far I Expected To Get: To the end. American Masters has a way of turning subjects I expect to find tediously overpraised into three-dimensional people, often using contemporary footage that I haven't seen before, and because it's American Masters, it gets quality talking-head interviews.
I'd particularly looked forward to Lear getting that treatment, because when you are a TV critic who finds the majority of sitcoms irritating, you want to understand why Lear is important and revered, why he inspires a weird neediness in the not-inconsequential likes of Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart. I used to watch a lot of Jeffersons reruns as a kid -- they came on after Brady Bunch -- but I was maybe five, and I want to get an overview of the man and his work, in context, without having to watch the same notorious footage of the abortion episode of Maude again.
Well, the show doesn't manage to sidestep that particular mine, but that isn't my issue with it.
48:54 (out of 90 minutes)
What Did It: Winding up a discussion of Good Times, and the conflicts amongst the cast and Lear -- the cast feeling like Lear and his "I don't think there's any difference" variation on "I don't see color" when talking about how he was writing for African-Americans simply wouldn't work -- Good Times star John Amos talks about his hostility towards the writers: "My thing was, take the crap out or let's fight."
I mean, what a great line, and what an interesting admission from an actor on a show considered groundbreaking in its depiction of one type of American family -- in addition, at least in terms of Esther Rolle's objections in a 1990 interview to the material they got to play, to seeming kiiiiind of like garden-variety actor bullshit in addition to a valid point about whether a white show creator is in a position to hear what his cast of color is trying to tell him. I apologize for that overcaffeinated sentence, but my point in form and content (hee) is that it's really a lot of issues to unpack, particularly when Lear has consistently received praise for using Archie Bunker to satirize bigotry.
But the film doesn't take the hardest look at that. It moves on to the Black Panthers visiting Lear's office to tell him Good Times is a white man's version of a black family; and then to Russell Simmons explaining that Good Times is for white people, but The Jeffersons is for black people; and you think maybe the film's going to get into the complications of Lear's white privilege here, and whether at that point in his career Lear perhaps felt that he knew everything about representing American families in the sitcom space.
Instead, it does two things: it amps up the twee re-enactment device in which a grade-school boy wearing Lear's trademark white hat recreates moments from Lear's past while a Lear voice-over (I think from his memoir) explains what we're seeing;
and it doglegs into a lengthy, rationalizing segment on the demise of Lear's first marriage, as well as his pitched battle against Jerry Falwell in the 1980s, and the second family he started in his mid-sixties. This last includes a painful and superfluous clip from some roast or another in which his then-teenage son Ben mealymouths a joke about his father having been a senior citizen his entire life, like, who is this for? For that matter, which Lear is this about? What was going on with his father and prison time in the end, after all that lead-up?
Co-directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing have a top-notch c.v.; they've directed Jesus Camp, Freakonomics, and The Boys Of Baraka. The problem here is that this subject contains several well-regarded docus, but trying to get even their four directorial arms around a man in his nineties who's a cultural icon, has children in their teens, got in a media slapfight with the Moral Majority...it's way too much for one hour-and-a-half sit. I didn't really notice it getting out of control for the first 45 minutes, because they get fantastic talking-heads -- Bill Moyers; George Clooney; Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks and Lear clowning around; Phil Rosenthal, creator of Everybody Loves Raymond -- and tons of delightful old footage, not least of this queen.
But there's a feature about his retiring from Hollywood to become a full-time activist (hell, there's one just in his purchase of a copy of the Declaration of Independence); there's a feature about race in his TV shows, and what we see in it today that we might not have (or might not have talked about) then; there's a feature about his feminist first wife's struggles to register in a town and time that wasn't for her. But about halfway through, NL's attempts to do everything become evident, and the center doesn't hold.
Worth Taking Another Run At It? I actually did finish the entire movie before realizing I should probably have bailed after the Amos quote, and it's not a miserable experience or anything; it originally aired in 2014, so if you missed it then, now's your chance. But it's a missed opportunity, and I wish Ewing and Grady could go back and make each of the other films I listed.