No creative vision ever dominated television the way producer Norman Lear’s did throughout the 1970s. Starting in ‘71 with All in the Family and continuing on through Maude (1972-78), Sanford and Son (1972-77), Good Times (1974-79), Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-78), The Jeffersons (1975-85), and Fernwood 2-Night (1977-78), Lear defined middle- and working-class America with a precision and sympathy unmatched in TV history.
Except for the gloriously dark-minded Fernwood, each of these shows was aglow with Lear’s sentimental liberalism and strident humanism. Week after week, between the punch lines, the same points were hammered home: Prejudice is bad; the family is good; talking about your problems clears the emotional air. His creations arrived at a time when viewers were responsive to such messages — perhaps because, back then, they didn’t seem like messages, but earnest common sense that transcended party politics and pop psychology.
Now CBS seems to be mounting its own ’70s revival with a new yet very old- fashioned Lear sitcom, Sunday Dinner, followed by reruns from the producer’s greatest creation, All in the Family.
Sunday Dinner stars Robert Loggia (Mancuso FBI) as Ben Benedict, a widower who has fallen in love with TT Fagori (Teri Hatcher), a woman 26 years younger than he is. Ben’s three adult children (Martha Gehman, Kari Lizer, and Patrick Breen) don’t think highly of TT, who is roughly their contemporary but considered by them a ”bimbo.” The series is said to be semi-autobiographical: Lear married a much younger woman after his divorce from his wife, Frances, the editor-in-chief of Lear’s magazine. And he has noted in interviews that his three adult children didn’t take kindly to his new partner.
But rooting a show in reality is no guarantee of either truth or quality. Sunday Dinner is awful — fascinatingly awful, but awful nonetheless. It’s not just that the jokes are on the level of malapropisms like ”It’s either feast or salmon,” or that the debut episode finds Ben’s hostile, boring children engaging in a supposedly endearing food fight. And it’s not just that Loggia is utterly wasted, forced to stand around listening to the punch lines with a strained smile on his face — the grimace of a talented actor hoping he’s not turning into a hack before our very eyes.
No, what makes the awfulness fascinating is that Lear has chosen to make TT a deeply spiritual soul who frequently looks up into the studio rafters and talks to God — or, as she calls the Supreme Being, ”Chief.” As in, ”Morning, Chief! How can anyone wake up on a morning like this and not believe in some version of you?” Loggia’s grimace is never more convincing than when his Ben is expressing his discomfort with TT’s God-talk, but even this is couched in bad jokes: ”Why can’t you talk to Martians, like normal people?”
Lear apparently thinks that just as he took a pop-culture chance in making a bigot lovable in All in the Family, he’ll now dare us to like an ostentatiously devout believer. His logic is loopy, because it assumes that most viewers are like Norman Lear-sophisticated skeptics who think talking to God is cute verging on crazy. But it’s far more likely that Lear is literally preaching to the converted: Any pollster will tell you that most people believe in some sort of god, so the ribbing TT takes from Ben and his children may strike many viewers as intolerant or just plain mean.
Then, too, in his effort to make TT likable, Lear ends up presenting her as an idiot. In the fourth episode, written by story editor Fred Graver, TT talks to the Chief about ”the zillions of miracles that make up life — the night, the day, the oceans, the sky. ” Then she muses, ”There are people in this country — people everywhere — who have nothing, and they feel exactly the same way. Is it because they have some clear sense that there is something beyond all of this? Or is it a mystery that they would rather delight in than condemn just because they don’t understand it?”
Want a translation of that babble? I figured it out: Poor people are stupid and happy.
Sunday Dinner is a bomb — and not, it apparently needs to be said, Lear’s first. It’s amazing the way TV writers’ minds seem to cloud over when it comes to this man’s flops. Newsweek recently hailed Lear’s ”comeback…after a 13-year absence.” Huh? What about Hanging In, a sitcom featuring Maude’s Bill Macy which lasted less than a month in 1979? Or Palmerstown, U.S.A., a well-crafted 1980-81 fizzle coproduced with Roots’ Alex Haley? And what about a.k.a. Pablo, the 1984 stinker starring Paul Rodriguez?
Clearly, CBS is hoping we’ll all associate Sunday Dinner with its programming partner, All in the Family. Earlier this season, the network’s 20th-anniversary salute to this classic resulted in big ratings. But that special was a well-edited collection of clips; this series has been so widely available on local stations in syndication that I’d be surprised if many people stuck around to watch after finishing their Sunday Dinner.
It’s actually not the worst way to spend your time, though. In appreciating Family’s tight scripts and the impassioned acting of Carroll O’Connor’s Archie and Jean Stapleton’s Edith, you might arrive at a conclusion Norman Lear doesn’t want you to reach: That he doesn’t make characters like this anymore. D