For a certain segment of the population, old things have a negative connotation. For no reason in particular, old movies or books illicit no interest. That certainly seems to be the tide that Jimmy Kimmel is swimming against with his presentation Live In Front Of A Studio Audience: All In The Family And The Jeffersons. As the rather cumbersome title suggests, the live television event was a remounting of a classic episode from each of the two iconic 1970s sitcoms produced by the legendary Norman Lear. The stated purpose was to show that no matter how far we think we have progressed as a society, there are still issues we are dealing with four decades after Lear’s shows first dealt with them in a comedic fashion. And it was a show that might not have reached the polish of the classics it was paying homage to, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
The two episodes picked – one from All In The Family‘s fourth season and the first episode from The Jeffersons‘ eleven-season run each dealt with issues of class and race in various ways. In the All In The Family episode, the Bunkers finding themselves hosting a going away party for their neighbor Henry Jefferson, George Jefferson’s older brother who had been living with them for a while. Archie is none too thrilled that the entire Jefferson clan in his home, and needless to say, conflict arises. In The Jefferson’s episode, George and wife Louise have just recently moved into their deluxe apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. George is rather taken with his new found social and economic status, and it is up to Louise to remind him “where he came from” when it comes to dealing with
The supporting cast delivered very strong work in bringing their characters to life. Ellie Kemper and Ike Barinholtz had some nice chemistry as Archie Bunker’s daughter and son-in-law, Gloria and Mike. Meanwhile Marisa Tomei seemed to be enjoying herself so much as Edith, I half expected her to turn to the camera and exclaim that she couldn’t believe she was getting to do this. Meanwhile, on The Jeffersons, Will Ferrell and Kerry Washington, bring more than just a sitcom level of tenderness to their recreation of television’s first interracial couple, Tom and Helen, especially during a convesration they share about how racist thoughts could come unbidden in their minds in the heat of an argument.
Unfortunately, where things got a little shaky were the leads for each “episode.” Where most of the cast was reinterpreting what the original actors had done to bring their characters to life, it felt as if what stars Woody Harrelson and Jamie Foxx were doing was more caricature. Harrelson is an amazingly versatile actor, and on paper seems like a good choice to slip into Carroll O’Connor’s shoes as the bigoted Archie Bunker. But there were times that Harrelson seemed lost in what he was trying to do. His Queens accent would fluctuate and there were times when he moved across the set in a way that suggested he wasn’t sure what he was to do next. While Fox should get some credit for fully going with Sherman Hemsley’s receding hairline, but when he extended his acting out to replicating Hemsley’s particular mannerisms, he overplayed them to the point where it felt more like he was performing a parody of the George Jefferson character for In Living Color, the 1990s sketch series that helped launch his career. Fortunately, Wanda Sykes as George’s wife Louise, managed to keep things grounded between the two.
Despite where the special stumbled, it was still a worthy venture. And one that I hope ABC, and maybe even other networks, would look into doing. Not just for the novelty value, though that could be enjoyable on its own. But as a way to gauge how far we have come, and how much further we have yet to go, as a culture.