Stream It Or Skip It?

In July, legendary sitcom producer Norman Lear celebrated his 100th birthday, which of course is a cause for celebration. The special Norman Lear: Celebrating 100 Years Of Music And Laughter is the retrospective you might expect, but with elements you may not.

The Gist: Most of the special consists of presentations from a star-studded party thrown for Lear, which features actors who either starred in shows produced by Lear or were greatly influenced by the comedy master, who created, co-created or produced legendary shows like All In The Family, Sanford And Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, One Day At A Time, Maude, Diff’rent Strokes, The Facts Of Life and more.

Interspersed with tributes from the people who were at the party — Tom Hanks, Rob Reiner, Kenya Barris, Jay Pharaoh, Ms. Pat, Rita Moreno, Gloria Calderón Kellett, Tony Danza, Emily Hampshire, Laverne Cox, George Wallace, and more — there’s a video tribute from George Clooney and a roundtable talk where Lear reflects on his career with Jennifer Aniston, Octavia Spencer, Amy Poehler and Jimmy Kimmel.

Also, Kristen Bell, Michelle Williams, Amber Stevens West, Kelly Rowland and others perform the theme songs from his most famous shows — and now they’re all in your head.

What Shows Will It Remind You Of?: The speech and performance segment was like an expanded segment on The Kennedy Center Honors, except that everyone is dressed more casually — Lear in his signature porkpie hat, of course.

Performance Worth Watching: In the roundtable, Spencer talks about how great it was to see a Black family on TV when Good Times premiered, even if the Evans family was struggling. Her family struggled, too, and it was completely relatable to her, despite the objections by the Black Panthers and others that the show featured a Black family that wasn’t doing well.

NORMAN LEAR: 100 YEARS OF MUSIC AND LAUGHTER
Photo: Christopher Willard/ABC

Memorable Dialogue: When Kimmel asks Lear about the key to living a long, happy life, he says his life philosophy is “Over and next. Something is over, it’s over; we’re on to next. That hammock in the middle is the best way I can describe living in the moment.” Poehler and Aniston riff on that by proposing a show called “Hammock In The Middle.”

Our Take: What we appreciated about Norman Lear: 100 Years Of Music And Laughter, is that it was less of a career retrospective than an appreciation of how Lear revolutionized TV 50 years ago with shows that weren’t afraid to deal with issues like race, sex, LGBTQ issues, abortion and more. In fact, it feels like he made shows back in the 1970s that were more daring than anything made today.

Yes, there are some clips, like Archie Bunker getting kissed by Sammy Davis, Jr., or Maude deciding to get an abortion instead of having a baby at 47. But thankfully, the special wasn’t a clip show. In fact, a number of Lear’s shows were barely touched upon. We saw a glimpse of Todd Bridges, for instance, but no mention of Diff’rent Strokes. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was barely mentioned, and the only mention of Sanford And Son was the women at the roundtable humming Quincy Jones’ classic theme song.

Of course, this could all be a matter of editing, with material that happened during the party being cut for time. But it wasn’t the goal to show all of Lear’s series, just measure his impact. And his impact could be felt through five of his six biggest hits: AITF, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Maude, and ODAAT. The fact that he’s had a revival of his producing career could be seen via Cox and Wallace, starring in his newest series, and Isabella Gomez (from the Netflix/Pop version of ODAAT) and Asante Blackk (who was in the Good Times segment of a Live In Front Of A Studio Audience special).

But the highlight of the special was Lear himself, whose mind is as sharp now as it was decades ago, even if his knees aren’t cooperating like they once did.

Could there have been more of an examination of how sometimes Lear’s shows had stereotypical characters? Maybe. But the special wasn’t the moment to put Lear on the defensive, and the good he’s done with his shows and with projects like People For The American Way outweighs anything that he could be criticized for.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Norman Lear: 100 Years Of Music And Laughter is a satisfying celebration of Lear as he becomes a centenarian, assessing his social impact and the impact he had on how sitcoms were made.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.

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