SPOILER ALERT: This review contains details of tonight’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons on ABC. So, don’t be a meathead and read more if you don’t want to know what happened.
“It’s live,” Jamie Foxx told a suddenly wide awake America tonight after flubbing a line on ABC’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons.
“Everyone sitting at home just thought their TV just messed up,” the Oscar-winning actor with trained recovery skills, breaking his George Jefferson character as fellow cast members like Woody Harrelson’s Archie Bunker, Ellie Kemper, Ike Barinholtz, Anthony Anderson and Marisa Tomei’s Edith Bunker cracked up in the background.
— ABC (@ABCNetwork) May 23, 2019
At that moment, as everyone let the tension of expectation out, got loose and simultaneously found the deep groove, you knew these pros had come to play and take us back to some classic TV reborn.
Amidst the highs and mainly forgivable dips of the 90-minute special, the direct genius of Foxx joined Jennifer Hudson belting out that “Movin On Up” theme song; almost everything that Wanda Sykes and Tomei did; and the truly marvelous surprise of Marla Gibbs as the best of the Jimmy Kimmel co-hosted re-staging of the producer’s iconic sitcoms.
— ABC (@ABCNetwork) May 23, 2019
With the great wordplay, Shirley Chisholm references, and those fastball cultural critiques that defined the best of Lear’s cottage industry of television back in the day, the appearance of the octogenarian Gibbs reprising her multi-Emmy nominated role as George and Louise Jefferson’s quip rich maid Florence Johnston was a true turn of heart that bridged the decades without a word. As the last remaining member of the core cast, Gibbs’ standing on that stag was a loving remembrance and homage to the deceased Isabel Sanford, Sherman Hemsley, Michael Evans, Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover.
Obviously a passion project for the infectious 51-year old late-night host Kimmel, who called AITF and The Jeffersons “two of my all-time favorite shows” at the rehearsal I was at on Tuesday, the re-staging bumped up against the difference in decades on only a few occasions, with fashion and race-related language.
Opening with a pre-taped introduction by a bell-bottomed and action-encouraging Lear, sitting in a replica of that iconic Archie Bunker chair (the real one is in the Smithsonian), the special took a PSA tone to inform 2019 viewers that “the language and themes from almost 50 years ago can still be jarring today, and we are still grappling with many of those issues.”
The issues were there in the scripts, no less perturbing than all those decades ago when Alice Cooper and Issac Hayes ruled the world.
But the reality of how were enacted and endure in the world became clear, as the ABC censor had to lean on the button several times in the Jeffersons portion of the night, when the N-word screeched back from 1975. Knowing what was being beeped out was a shock that was not funny at all, and yet likely the most immense indication of the impact these shows had on their first run and today.
Cutting to the soundstage at the beginning of the night, there was a suited and booted Lear and Kimmel in the center in a moveable balcony that had the potential to make them a live action and praise-slinging version of The Muppets’ Statler and Waldoff.
As a segue between AITF and The Jeffersons, the Lear, Brent Miller, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Kimmel and Justin Theroux EP’d special would return to the duo for commentary, which, while informative of how much the late-night host loved the Lear series of his childhood, unnecessary slowed down the pace of the performances. It also halted things before Hudson’s supreme command of the stage, when she sang one of the greatest TV theme songs of all time.
Then, with the Jeffersons‘ Apt. 12D on the left side of the stage, and the Bunkers’ front room to the audience’s right, it was a step back to the first year of Richard Nixon’s second term with All in the Family.
That hug Harrelson gave Tomei when they finished their rendition of “Those Were The Days” seemed to let out all the anticipation of getting to the moment of lift-off. Unfortunately, as great as Academy Award winner Tomei was at the role that Jean Stapleton brought to life, her Cheers alum partner took a while to warm up to the task at hand, while simultaneously slipping in and out of a distracting accent that never suspended disbelief.
The first secret of the night to be unveiled was what episodes of the eleven-season Jeffersons and the nine seasons of All in the Family were going to be performed. The decision was very specific to the context of the re-staging in Donald Trump’s America, and the existential logistics of moving from one series to the other. Allowing tonight’s performance to introduce almost all the characters, the special started off with the John Rich and Bob LaHendro-penned “Henry’s Farewell” from October 20, 1973, where George Jefferson’s brother, played tonight by Black-ish’s Anderson, departed. That was followed by the January 18, 1975 pilot of The Jeffersons.
The sixth episode of the fourth season of AITF stumbled with its grumpy Archie, which Harrelson often overplayed with uncharacteristic low energy, as he was burdened by the legacy of the O.G. Carroll O’Conner.
However, beyond that breaking of every wall by Foxx’s flub, the real star of All in The Family tonight was Tomei, who weaved the anxiety and vulnerability that the late and great Stapleton brought to Edith, and injected her own sense of playfulness, especially in scenes with Sykes’ Weezy – a team-up destined to be seen again in another form if Netflix has any programming shuffle left.
Almost beat for beat the same as the full dress run-through that I attended on the Sony lot last night, tonight’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience was ruled by the headliner, as the Jeffersons moved right on up.
Foxx and Sykes, along with Jovan Adepo as their on-screen son, Lionel, had already jettisoned the afterburners. But the arrival of Kerry Washington and Will Ferrell as one of American TV’s first mixed-race couples, Helen and Tom Willis, shot the re-staging stratospheric. While it would have been witty to have Tom Willis played by Scandal’s ex-POTUS Tony Goldwyn instead of Ferrell, it would have risked overwhelming the actual production and denied us the comic flair of the Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby star.
Part Dreamgirls reunion and 227 reunion, and part exercise in the bottomless American appetite for nostalgia, the reprise of The Jeffersons’ pilot was so authoritative that I forgot I was watching a staged throwback until that far-from-Gerald-Ford-era, Washington-instigated group hug right near the end.
Otherwise, in the greatest tribute to the overcoming original and the re-staging, I was back on those nights as a kid when my parents and I howled at Sanford, Hemsley, Gibbs and gang.
Or as Norman Lear told Jimmy Kimmel tonight, “I sit in a chair in an audience and I was had!”
So, if the ratings are strong enough against NBC’s Chicago Med and Chicago Fire season-enders, can we have some more? And let’s have that tune one more time too –
Such an honor to be part of this INSANELY SPECIAL evening bringing, the brilliant work of @thenormanlear back to television. Thank you @jimmykimmel for including me in the cool kids! Love you. #liveinfrontofastudioaudience #allinthefamily #thejeffersons pic.twitter.com/Ux9i3VluZl
— kerry washington (@kerrywashington) May 23, 2019