“I’ve never heard that anybody conducted his or her life differently after seeing an episode of ‘All in the Family,’ ” Norman Lear wrote in his 2014 memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience.” But Lear noted that “people still say to me, ‘We watched Archie as a family and I’ll never forget the discussions we had after the show.’ And so that was the ripple of ‘All in the Family.’ Families talked.”
They’re not talking any longer. Or, at least, they’re not enjoying it. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center released this summer, people in both parties find conversations with people who have different political views to be “stressful and frustrating,” and rather than bringing us together, a majority of respondents said that talking to people with whom they disagree about politics leads them to believe they have less in common. And 77 percent of both Republicans and Democrats who are married or living with a partner say that their spouse or partner is registered with the same political party. The election results also brought a flood of trend pieces about political tensions as families gathered for the holidays, and Pantsuit Nation, the semi-secret Facebook group for Hillary Clinton fans abounded with prospects of familial fractures.
Americans need to learn to talk — and to fight — about politics again. Fortunately, a new generation of Lear-inspired sitcoms, from ABC’s single-camera family comedies “black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” to the multi-camera shows “The Carmichael Show” and Netflix’s reboot of Lear’s “One Day at a Time,” is here to show us how to do it.
“Despite all the arguing we do, I suspect that we don’t believe a lot of things because of arguments,” Maclean’s critic Jaime Weinman suggested in an email to me when I asked him about the return of issue-oriented comedy. “We take positions based on what we want, or what our loved ones want. The success of an issue-oriented sitcom is in getting us to see fictional people as our loved ones, which enables us to think a bit about ideas and perspectives we might not encounter very often in real life. The quality of the arguments between sitcom characters doesn’t really matter; what matters is that if we enjoy their arguments, they become our friends, and we want what’s best for our friends.”
That bias toward empathy, rather than any partisan position, shows up in the “One Day at a Time” episode “Strays,” which stages a debate over what should happen to undocumented immigrants. Members of the Alvarez family banter back and forth, until they’re confronted with the human consequences of ideas that have previously been abstract. Carmen (Ariela Barer), the teenage Elena Alvarez’s (Isabella Gomez) vaguely goth best friend, turns out to have been spending suspicious amounts of time at the Alvarez apartment not because she and Elena are gay, but because her parents were detained at a border crossing. The dramatic reveal wouldn’t work if Carmen hadn’t been introduced several episodes earlier and we didn’t feel the near-romantic intensity of her friendship with Elena, as well as the fondness Elena’s mother Penelope (Justina Machado) feels for her daughter’s closest friend.
Lear recalled an episode of “All in the Family” that operated in a similar way in his memoir.
“Empathy, like silence, is another sound that can’t be measured in decibels,” he argued. “Nothing caused our live audiences to ‘shout’ their empathy more loudly than Edith’s reaction to the news that a transvestite who’d become her friend was murdered by a street gang simply for being a man in women’s clothes.”
That episode aired in 1977. The American public was in a dramatically different place on issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. But Lear’s audience could embrace the dead character because Edith did.
The affection we feel for the characters in our favorite sitcoms doesn’t just make it easier for us to feel their pain when their friends are in trouble. It makes us willing to assume that they’re acting in good faith when they express opinions with which we disagree.
When the Johnson family argues about policing on “black-ish,” for example, we don’t assume that Rainbow’s (Tracee Ellis Ross) optimism about the prospect of progress toward racial equality means that she is deluded, or that Andre’s (Anthony Anderson) pessimism makes him anti-cop. On “The Carmichael Show,” when Jerrod (Jerrod Carmichael) squabbles with his girlfriend, Maxine (Amber Stevens West), over gender roles, we don’t assume that he’s a virulent misogynist. And because we know Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) so well, when we learn on “Fresh Off the Boat” that she never bothered to become a citizen, we don’t assume she’s apathetic to the point of being a lost cause; we just understand that her focus has been elsewhere. We might not side with Jerrod or with Rainbow, or make the choices that Jessica did, but we at least have the ability to hear them.
Weinman suggested that part of what makes multi-camera sitcoms with live studio audiences particularly effective at staging political argument is the very thing that has gotten them tarred as square and retrograde.
“Though sitcoms are usually written by liberals, the multi-camera sitcom format is in some ways inherently conservative: it has to stick to things that a randomly-selected audience of strangers will find funny, which means it can’t go too far beyond the stereotypes and assumptions that we carry around with us,” he wrote. “A show like ‘Will & Grace’ affirms a lot of stereotypes, and the premise even allows viewers to wish Will wasn’t gay, because then he and Grace would be perfect for each other. But having flattered those pre-conceived notions, it was then able to move us gently in a slightly progressive direction.”
Relying on sitcoms, or any other element of pop culture, to deliver partisan electoral results is a mistake that misunderstands the purpose of art. But artists who want to create the cultural conditions in which political change is possible would do well to learn from Lear and the sitcoms that are inspired by him.
“Comedy with something serious on its mind works as a kind of intravenous to the mind and spirit,” Lear wrote. “After he winces and laughs, what the individual makes of the material depends on that individual, but he has been reached.”