Movin’ on back, ABC and Jimmy Kimmel conducted a fun but only partly successful exercise in nostalgia and cultural context Wednesday with “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons,’ ” a special restaging of two episodes of the classic, socially relevant ’70s sitcoms.
It was a nifty idea, carried out by an all-star cast (and directed by old hand James Burrows) who accepted their mission with pride and faithful adherence to the original characters and concepts. But host Kimmel and guest of honor Norman Lear (still working at 96) failed to get across their reasons for doing the project. Why now? Did we miss an important anniversary? Was the project intended as a comment on the present-day state of the TV sitcom? Are there other modern parallels to Archie Bunker’s stubborn Queens-style bigotry, besides the one we’re all thinking of?
As host, Kimmel could have done a better job at pinpointing the context; mostly he just seemed to think the whole thing would be neat. And to be honest, it was kind of neat: Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei, starring as Archie and Edith Bunker, opened their episode (“Henry’s Farewell,” which first aired in October 1973) with a rousing duet of “Those Were the Days (Theme to ‘All in the Family’).” From there, it was simply a matter of paying attention to which actors got picked to play what parts: “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” star Ellie Kemper played the Bunkers’ liberated daughter, Gloria; Ike Barinholtz played Gloria’s lefty husband, Michael (a.k.a. “Meathead”).
The episode — re-created word for word and scene by scene — revolved around Archie’s refusal to attend a going-away party for Henry Jefferson (Anthony Anderson), the brother of Archie’s nemesis, George Jefferson (Jamie Foxx). The episode gets at Archie’s essential racism toward his African American neighbors. At one point, Archie takes a sweeping dig at black families, claiming they aren’t as able to show one another love and loyalty as white families usually are.
George breaks the acrimony long enough to come into the Bunkers’ living room and tell his brother how much he loves him. Foxx, who does a splendid impression of the late Sherman Hemsley’s original George, flubbed his lines and broke out of character, reminding the viewers that this was live TV.
“Black people have arrived — they’re here,” Meathead Mike tells his father-in-law. “When are you going to wake up to facts, Archie?” A slight chill went out across the airwaves; all that’s missing is the 65-inch flat screen on which Archie, in a 2019 guise, would get his steady drip of Fox News. If we can bring back nearly every show in existence, why can’t TV be brave enough to conjure today’s Archie Bunker?
Harrelson, who is nearly a decade older than Carroll O’Connor was in the original episode, got the Bunker voice and mannerisms down okay, but lacked O’Connor’s subtler, seething presence. Tomei made a passable Edith, all sweetness and screech, more costume party than performance. That turned out to be the true challenge for everyone involved — were they in this for real or just for kicks? Was there a way to honor their characters as they were and yet somehow innovate a little? Or was it just a game of dress-up and pretend?
The “All in the Family” episode was sprinkled with references that made more sense in 1973 — stray bits about Black Panthers and Tom Bradley’s defeat of Sam Yorty for L.A. mayor. If you caught them, I’m sorry to tell you you’re old. If you didn’t get them, ask Alexa.
I’m still trying to work out the math on how a special featuring two, 22-minute TV scripts managed to stretch itself to almost 90 minutes in length, even with the commercial breaks and the intro. The second-half “Jeffersons” staging seemed smoother and more enjoyable, thanks in no small part to Jennifer Hudson’s showstopping rendition of the theme song.
The episode was a re-creation of “The Jeffersons” premiere in January 1975, when George and his wife, Louise (Wanda Sykes), move to that deluxe apartment in the sky, where a maid who works in the building (Jackée Harry) first assumes Louise also works as a maid.
The episode was full of strong cameos (Will Ferrell and Kerry Washington as neighbors Tom and Helen Willis; Stephen Tobolowsky as Bentley), but none were stronger or more surprising than 88-year-old Marla Gibbs, who showed up at the Jeffersons’ door to reprise her role as Florence Johnston, their new maid.
Gibbs’s presence gave the whole evening a sense of cosmic continuity. So many of the original stars of Lear’s sitcoms have gone to the hereafter, while the discrimination that defined their characters’ lives stuck around.
But Lear is still here, Marla Gibbs is still here and the reruns will always be here. Perhaps that’s what this experiment was really about: the simple acknowledgment that television is also still here, and may yet deliver new comedies that get to the heart of who we really are.