“I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of the American right hand,” said the ever astute Norman Lear last year, a man who at 94 has still got his finger firmly on the (slightly elevated) pulse of the American nation, its foibles and its fears.
Even if you are way too young to have watched his television masterpieces like “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons”, if you’re a pop culture fan then you’ll know the Norman Lear name and its signature style. Often called “the most influential creator, writer, and producer in the history of television”, the once- poor Jewish kid from Connecticut singlehandedly brought US primetime television into step with the times back in the Seventies, and his talents have never waned.
Tonight’s documentary NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU – airing for the first time on New Zealand television on Rialto Channel, naturally – is the story of how one man came from modest beginnings to become one of the most successful television producers ever. Importantly, Lear also brought provocative subjects like war, poverty, and prejudice into 120 million homes every week – a veritable first for US TV at the time. He proved that social change was possible through laughter, and the impact he made was both impressive, and important.
NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s have made a fun, classy and well-assembled celebration of the TV veteran. It uses a clever theatrical devices to tell the tale and ask important questions, in that the producer’s life is presented as a theatre dressed with overlapping television screens. It’s cool to see the 9-year-old Lear (played by Keaton Nigel Cooke) walk around a live collage of past, future and present, while the genuine item - then 93, now 94 - looks on.
I love that as well as talking to big names like George Clooney, Louise Lasser and Rob Reiner, the film shows Lear himself watching on, shedding a tear for loved ones past and laughing along with us at some of his funnier memories. One of the most affecting looks back at the past features “All in the Family” star Carroll O’Connor, who played the bigoted working-class nightmare known as Archie Bunker. Lear acknowledges that Archie is a version of his own father, and openly cries watching a famous episode where Archie describes his dad, a bigot who beat his values into his son, as a great man and a loving parent.
Bunker’s satirised bigotry on screen directly reflected a US population still raw from the Civil Rights battle, and unaware of how it felt about true racial equality. It has even been said that the upwardly mobile black family at the heart of Lear’s creation “The Jeffersons” paved the way for the likes of “The Cosby Show” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”, and that he decided to create the show after a couple of Black Panthers burst into his office to tell him that his then-screening show “Good Times” was racist!
Interestingly on that topic, NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU also features footage of an interview with Esther Rolle, the African-American star of “Good Times,” in which she condemns the show’s breakout character JJ as “a way of putting us all down,” closing with a plea for “comedy without buffoonery”. I would have liked to have seen the filmmakers show Lear’s reaction to these claims in detail, if only for a little shade during an otherwise pretty damn effervescent outing.
So in conclusion, watch! Even if you are one of those aforementioned folks too young to have seen Lear’s seminal work, it’s a great night on the couch anyway.
NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU premieres at 8.30pm on Thursday 12 January on Rialto Channel SKY TV 39