Would there be an audience today for a new version of All In The Family? Sony recently asked legendary TV producer Norman Lear – who created the original series – to consider the possibility, he told an audience at the Paley Center this morning during a conversation with Netflix’s Ted Sarandos. “‘Forget the Bunkers, forget the characters you know,'” he says the company told him. “Just do an All In The Family kind of show. They can be a Caucasian family or Latino family. But a family in 2015.” Lear says he’s been thinking about the idea and concluded, “I’m not sure that there’s much that I would elect to do. After a while, with success comes the ability to say, We’re not doing this.”
In the wide-ranging conversation, Lear said that he doesn’t have enough time to watch all of the good shows currently on the air – but singled out one on Amazon, Netflix’s chief online rival. “I’m utterly taken by Transparent and watching one of the great performances of all times” as Jeffrey Tambor — who opens up to his family that he identifies as a woman — walks “the line between hilarity and heartbreak. It’s a great performance.”
For the most part, though, Lear says it’s become harder than it was in the 1970s for the major networks to offer shows about real-life issues. “They can’t deal with impotence, abortion, aspects of cancer. The networks won’t have it.” He recalled that when Bea Arthur’s character in Maude had an abortion, a story in two episodes, “the nation didn’t know the first episode was coming. Happily, it was on the air in the winter or late fall and there was absolutely no reaction of any serious consequence…. Abortion was something that families in America dealt with all the time.” But opposition mobilized in time for the reruns in the spring. “That’s when all the noise happened. But America had taken it in stride.”
Lear recalled another high-impact story in which AITF‘s Edith Bunker confronts a rapist. “The rape story was written originally for Bonnie Franklin and then I saw a big story about a woman in her 70s who was raped, and we thought, ‘Oh, to get away from the notion that the woman has something to do with the reason she was raped. She was pretty, her skirt was too short, that nonsense.” He says that “the biggest reaction I can remember from an audience when she gets away from that rapist.”
The producer also says that writers of Good Times looked to the newspapers for story fodder. “One day somebody came in the news item that hypertension in Black males was at some kind of all-time high, significantly higher than white males. And that was interesting. It provoked a conversation that resulted in: ‘Wouldn’t that be a terrific story to follow?’ And the fallout from that is that when we did the show the network got so many calls from African-American families across the country wanting information about hypertension.” When it was time for reruns, the network filled some advertising time with public service announcements for people seeking help.
As he views the broad social landscape today, Lear says that “we need to be led. And we’re not led well. And I’m not talking about the president. I’m talking about the media I’m talking about chemical companies” and others in power.