Tuesday, July 12, 2005

subversive tv

I've been hanging out on memory lane. My babysitters growing up were syndicated TV sitcoms, and lately I've been watching them again.

I've often thought that Norman Lear had a lot to do with racism going into hiding. Specifically, Archie Bunker made being an outspoken bigot undesirable. Like, he was a fat, ugly idiot. You might love him, in a comedy sort of way, but you sure don't want to be him.

From the Museum of Broadcast Communications:
All In The Family first aired on 12 January 1971. Wood commented in a 1979 interview that CBS had added several extra phone operators to handle an expected flood of reactions. They never came.

All in the Family's impact went beyond the world of television. The show became the focus of a heated national debate on whether the use of comedy was an appropriate means by which to combat prejudice and social inequality.

Over its early life there were a continuous flow of letters objected to language and themes and challenging Lear for his "liberal" views. Looking back in 1979 Lear remarked that he responded to such criticism by stating, "I'm not trying to say anything. I am entertaining the viewers. Is it funny? That was the question." Later, when attacks on the show asked how he dared to express his views he altered his response. "Why wouldn't I have ideas and thoughts and why wouldn't my work reflect those ideas?" And of course they did.

I can't find All in the Family on Netflix (though the library has it). So I've been watching a spin-off of a spin-off of the show: Good Times. I became interested in the show again when Janet Jackson hosted Saturday Night Live a few months back. They did a hilarious Good Times spoof, where one wretched thing after another happens to the family, to the howls of the studio audience.

So far I've gotten through the first disk of the first season, and I find it to be quite touching and profound. My favorite episode is "Black Jesus," in which Michael, the young radical in the family, hangs a painting JJ did of a neighborhood wino posing as the Savior. As soon as the picture goes up, the family starts getting lucky with "the long green" coming in left and right, much to mama Flo's chagrine. And the episode where Michael gets suspended for calling George Washington a racist. There are great subversive moments, like when Flo gets turned down for welfare and jokes that the rich look down on welfare but welcome "subsidies," and when dad James loses a job opportunity because "government rules can't be broken -- unless your the government." Everyone talks so openly and naturally about race.

I guess it didn't last, though. According to the broadcast museum's site:
Good Times is also significant for many layers of controversy and criticism that haunted its production. Both stars, Rolle and Amos, walked away and returned as they became embroiled in various disputes surrounding the program's direction. A major point of disagreement was the J.J. character, who metamorphosed into a coon-stereotype reminiscent of early American film. His undignified antics raised the ire of the Black community. With his toothy grin, ridiculous strut and bug-eyed buffoonery, J.J. became a featured character with his trademark exclamation, "DY-NO-MITE!" J.J. lied, stole, and was barely literate. More and more episodes were centered around his exploits. Forgotten were Michael's scholastic success, James' search for a job and anything resembling family values.

No doubt JJ was big when I was a kid. I think I even had a DY-NO-MITE T-shirt.

Still, I can't deny that these early shows had a positive impact on me. I don't know if Good Times broke down stereotypes, but it did humanize -- and not in a pitying way. And it had a strong moral core, certainly stronger than Gilligan's Island or Seinfeld.

But what really gets me wistful is the theme song, really any theme song from the great Norman-Lear era of TV. I still find comfort in them, their familiarity, their assurance that for the next 30 minutes I'll be safely transfixed by a good story.

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