Where is this generation’s Norman Lear and why aren’t the networks courting him?

This pilot season is shaping up to be an exciting one. It looks like the networks learned from last year and there are lots of high concepts, plus fresh and intriguing sounding ideas. There are many big name actors coming to the small screen where frankly, the best stuff is. It’s been obvious for about 10 yrs, but it seems now even big movie stars are realizing –  TV is the superior medium, by far.

I have often lamented the lack of diversity on the networks lately so it’s incredibly exciting to see incredible actors like Kerry Washington and Angela Bassett fronting new ABC dramas and the wonderful Taraji P. Henson is the co lead of CBS’s “Persons of Interest”.

Unfortunately looking over the comedies there are not many family sitcoms revolving around anything but a white family. There are, however, a few notable exceptions: As I was writing this, Damon Wayans was picked to star in the CBS comedy pilot based on Sports personality Colin Cowherd. No other casting has been completed yet. They also have a family comedy with Rob Schneider playing a man who marries into a Latin family, which is great, – but it’s told from his perspective. ABC has the intriguing “My Frickin Family” revolving around an interracial couple- He’s half Indian, she’s White and from the South. (memo to ABC, the original title “Cowboys and Indians” seems more clever to me). FOX has Rob Thomas’s “Little In Common”, a Modern Family ish family sitcom consisting of three different families – Latino, African-American and Caucasian who meet though their children’s soccer games and have very different parenting styles.

I grew up with shows like Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son, The Cosby Show to name a few. I loved them, they made me laugh and most importantly, I related to them, even though I’m Jewish and white. They were authentic family comedies. We all have more in common than we don’t. I just would actually like to see a diverse representation on TV just like I do in real life.

When I think about what Norman Lear was writing on TV 40 years ago- it’s flat-out astounding. Forget the fact that his shows were funny and well written, they were the voice of a man who was deliberately forcing important issues on the public while they laughed. He touched on racism with All In The Family. With Good Times, he depicted the life for a poor black family living in the projects of Chicago but at the same time showed them to be a strong, loving, working class family who were happy, amidst their struggles. Then with The Jeffersons he flipped it and created a show about a family who made it and was “moving on up to the East Side”. The show’s cast also featured television’s first interracial couple. He created a show about a young divorcee and her life as a single mother when it wasn’t “de jour” with One Day At A Time. With All In The Family he tackled the subject of rape when Edith was assaulted in her home. On Maude he had his lead character have an abortion. Do you realize all these things were done on broadcast TV in the 70s????

Norman Lear is a brilliant producer but also a man who is fearless and felt in addition to being funny it was his job to enlighten and show all facets of America. Look how America responded. All the above shows were hits that had long runs. These shows were authentic, and had real characters who were relatable. In making these shows funny and well written he could also shine a light on other things. While viewers loved Archie Bunker they could also see his bigotry and his hypocrisy. We are all flawed human beings. Mr. Lear’s talent is showing that there are many shades of grey in the human condition.

It’s a shame that 40 years later we have fewer comedies that represent the full spectrum of America. ABCs wonderful Wednesday comedy lineup contains an underrated gem, The Middle, which displays a middle class (at best) blue-collar family in the middle part of the country – Indiana. It’s funny and brilliantly cast but it’s also real and reflects many families today struggling to make ends meet in the economic downturn. This lineup would be perfect, I think, if at 8:30 there was a single camera family comedy with a different ethnicity. How perfectly would Everybody Hates Chris have fit in there? I would love to see ABC court someone like Ali Leroi to create a sitcom for them. In the last decade ABC was the best broadcast net at this, and they clearly made it a priority.  – My Wife & Kids, George Lopez and Ugly Betty. I’m kind of surprised finding diverse family comedy is not a higher priority for them and all the nets. As I said, there are some intriguing concepts for the Fall that reflect this. But not enough, in my humble opinion. We all know the ratio of how few pilots actually get ordered to series. Currently there is not one all African American, Latino, Asian, or Indian family comedy on any of the big 4 nets. That needs to change.

The other thing that Norman Lear was brilliant at was reflecting society and bringing it into everyone’s living rooms. ABC in particular has been wonderful of making sure there is a gay main character on most of their hit shows. Certainly Modern Family has the first gay family as regulars on broadcast TV. But why is there still no family sitcom like The Middle with two moms or two dads and I’m not talking about a Kate and Allie situation here. Before anyone says “well middle America won’t accept this”, I call B.S. – Modern Family is the highest rated scripted show. Glee has done a suberb job of making sure Kurt’s sexual orientation and relationships are front and center. With Mike O’ Malley’s Burt Hummel they also have shown American a loving father who accepts and loves his gay son and and has his back, no matter what. I think if there is a family sitcom where the only parents on the show are of the same-sex,  it will succeed and people will accept it just fine- if it’s well written and authentic and heartfelt – basically the same criteria as most hit shows. Irregardless, it’s time to see it on TV. Sometime you have to give people something they don’t know they are ready for. Just a few short years ago, Mitch and Cam would have been Mitch and Carol.

We have an African-American family in The White House so why are there less African-American families on TV than there were 40 years ago? Speaking of that fact, many people feel that seeing the fictional David Palmer as president on 24 was helpful in getting some people to accept the real thing. Similarly those that are uncomfortable with same-sex unions in real life might feel differently when it’s presented in a family sitcom. Those that aren’t comfortable might realize, once again, they have more in common with these parents than they don’t. All most parents just want to know is that their kids are happy and healthy and good people. That doesn’t change with sexual orientation. I know if Norman Lear was still creating sitcoms he’d have done this by now, so where’s this generation’s Norman Lear and why aren’t the nets courting him?

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One Response to Where is this generation’s Norman Lear and why aren’t the networks courting him?

  1. Pingback: Lamenting The Same Old/Same Old in the Recent Network Comedy Development: | Random Musings from a BigTVfan

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