Almost exactly 46 years ago—December 1977—I was 12 years old, in the orthodontist’s chair, getting my mouth fitted for a retainer that I had already decided I would never wear. But I sat there in dutiful obedience as the orthodontist and her assistant made a plaster cast of the inside of my mouth and complained to each other about the previous night’s episode of the sitcom One Day at a Time.

For those of you under 45, One Day at a Time was a television comedy that ran from 1975 to 1984 and centered around the lives of a single, divorced mother, played by Bonnie Franklin, and her two vaguely teen-age daughters, played by Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli. The show was produced and developed by the legendary television impresario Norman Lear, who died in early December 2023, and like most of his shows, it was a huge hit.

It also, like most of his shows, touched on American cultural divisions, changing morals and sexual standards, and depicted the characters digesting the tumultuous decade or so of upheaval that had preceded it. Ann Romano, Bonnie Franklin’s character, was an outspoken feminist career woman trying to raise her daughters in a post–Women’s Lib world.

But the episode that really irritated my orthodontist and her assistant didn’t grapple with any of the big issues that beset Americans in 1977. It wasn’t about abortion or gay rights or Vietnam veterans or the gas shortage or nuclear power. The episode was titled “Ann’s Crisis,” and it was mostly about Ann Romano freaking out because she had just turned 36.

And it wasn’t really played for laughs. A good part of the second act was a long solo scene in which Ann Romano meditated on getting older, being a woman of a certain age (36!), and losing her looks. It was a stagey, melodramatic monologue—not unusual, to be honest, for a Norman Lear production—and it really ticked off my orthodontist and her assistant who, I probably don’t need to say, were a few years past 36.

I mean, I think. I was 12, so everyone to me was ancient. But, boy, did it make them furious. And for some reason, when I heard the news of Norman Lear’s death, my mind instantly cast back to that moment, with my mouth full of plaster and two older-than-36 women—career women, just like Ann Romano—telling each other that they would never watch that show again.

They probably did, though. One Day at a Time ran for another seven years. At one point in the 1970s, Norman Lear was responsible for a half-dozen of television’s biggest hit comedies, among them The Jeffersons, Good Times, Maude, One Day at a Time, Sanford and Son, and the show that formed the foundation of his empire, All in the Family. His stratospheric career tells the story of 15 years of American history, an era of political volatility and Day-Glo weirdness, and even though he was an old-line liberal and establishment Democrat, he managed to capture a lot of American culture in his body of work. Say this for Norman Lear: He didn’t live, or work, in an ideological bubble. His characters came from all parts of the American experience.

All in the Family premiered in 1970, when the streets were still full of tear gas and there were 334,600 American troops in Vietnam. It introduced Americans to an enduring cultural icon, Archie Bunker, who spoke a blunt, bigoted language that made sense to a lot of Americans who were punch-drunk from the culture wars (and real wars) of the 1960s. The show was topical, profane, often hilarious—it took its inspiration from the bitter arguments around the family dinner table—and no one fretted about turning 36. There were bigger issues to write scripts about. And not just “issues” but Issues! The show was a weekly donnybrook between Archie, the hardworking reactionary breadwinner, and his hippie left-wing son-in-law, the perpetual graduate student. In between there were visits from draft dodgers, the Jewish Defense League, female impersonators, and a buddy of Archie’s who it turned out was a closeted gay man. Oh, and also, Edith Bunker, Archie’s long-suffering sweet-natured wife, got sexually assaulted.

Big stuff, in other words. And often terrifically funny. All in the Family was a preachy, left-wing agitprop comedy that really worked. I’m not sure it convinced Americans to vote a certain way—Nixon won a landslide victory in 1972, and eight years later, Ronald Reagan took the White House for eight glorious years—but it was an indelible snapshot of a country coming to grips with massive change, seen through the American working-class living room.

Lear’s first big spin-off of the show was The Jeffersons, which followed the Bunker’s former neighbors, George and Louise Jefferson, as they prospered and moved from Queens to…and do I really need to say it? To a dee-luxe apartment in the sky-high-high.

Georgie Jefferson burst into the All in the Family cinematic universe as Archie’s black neighbor—just as bigoted and small-minded as he was—with a crucial difference. George Jefferson got rich. He and his wife Louise (Weezie! Don’t tell me you don’t remember that!) moved into Manhattan in 1975, and while the show occasionally dealt with social issues, like alcoholism and adult illiteracy, it was really about a working-class guy with a chip on his shoulder who made good. The show ran 10 years and spent a good part of that time in the Nielsen Top 10. It was arguably the most successful—and profitable—Norman Lear production.

Eventually, of course, the tear gas clears and the urgent fights subside. By 1975, a lot of the fire and fury in American culture and politics had receded. Liberals won most of the cultural arguments depicted in All in the Family.

Which meant that movement liberals like Norman Lear were faced with a splintered and out-of-gas left wing. Some old lefties drifted into bizarre cults and criminal enterprises, like the Black Panthers and the SLA. Some devoted their energy to the newly emerging narcissistic Me Decade, like Ann Romano staring at herself in the mirror, feeling old at 36. And some, like George Jefferson, took advantage of the civil-rights gains of the previous decades and became successful capitalists—perfectly embodying the Reagan era, which began about halfway through the run of The Jeffersons.

The great irony is this: Despite his card-carrying liberal credentials, Norman Lear’s two most unforgettable and popular characters, Archie Bunker and George Jefferson, would both have voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Today, the left wing loves to talk about “structural racism” and “dismantling systems of oppression,” but they forget that true liberation comes from free-market capitalism, as exemplified by George Jefferson, who struts proudly into his dee-luxe apartment in the opening credits of The Jeffersons and spends much of the series arguing with his sassy maid.

Ann Romano, on the other hand, would have had a Geraldine Ferraro bumper sticker on her Honda Civic. (Under 45? Look it up.) On one episode of One Day at a Time, she was arguing with a classic male chauvinist pig—a real mansplainer, who didn’t much care for career gals in the working world. He called her “Mrs. Romano” and she instantly interrupted him. “Ms. Romano,” she said sharply. And the audience burst into applause, but it was a far cry from Archie and Meathead shouting about Nixon and Cambodia to a tiny little semantic victory.

The great legacy of Norman Lear isn’t really apparent if you watch the reruns. They often seem heavy and dated, artifacts of a distant time. There are still big laughs in every one of his comedies, especially The Jeffersons, and even though it enraged my orthodontist and her assistant, there was something revolutionary about a woman on a television comedy directly addressing the fear of getting older. Even when the world was simmering down, Norman Lear kept taking big swings for the fence. When the American dining room was a place of arguments and discord, he gave us All in the Family. When the culture got a little too into itself and navel-gazing, he gave us Ann Romano’s second-act monologue. When it turned to prosperity and Reaganism, he gave us George Jefferson.

In other words, he kept trying to capture what was actually going on in America—he felt like that was the whole point of television, in fact. And he was maybe the last television writer and producer who believed that. Which is why his loss will be hard to get over.

Photo: AP Photo

We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link