Saturday, December 12, 2009


For reasons I don't fully understand, I've taken to watching reruns of All In The Family. It wouldn't exactly be true to say this is a show that holds up well, but it has its own unique pleasures, but mostly not for reasons its creators may have intended.

In the seventies, there were basically two schools of sitcoms: The Norman Lear style and the MTM style. MTM was a production entity originally set up to produce The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and following its success, continued to turn out more sophisticated, character-based programs: The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP In Cincinatti. Norman Lear was the king of broadly-played, vaguely "relevant" shows. He hit it big with All In The Family, and from it sprang any number of spin-offs and off-shoots: Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times. Not every comedy in this decade was a creation of one of these companies, but they all seemed to creatively pledge their allegiance to one of the two families: MASH, by taking its characters and situations seriously, could almost have been an MTM creation, whereas Welcome Back, Kotter, a loud, boisterous assemblage of cartoonish ethnic types, was obviously in the Lear mold.

The biggest differences between the two schools wasn't in their approaches to writing or characterization so much as the production techniques. Mary Tyler Moore and All In The Family were both recorded in front of live audiences, but ace MTM director Jay Sandrich geared his staging and performances mostly for the camera. Yeah, occasionally the actors have to hold a line to wait for audience laughter, but otherwise you wouldn't know you weren't watching a single-camera show. The MTM model favored varying camera angles, and larger casts, so they could always cut to a reaction shot. Following Sandrich's lead, MTM was the proving ground for director James Burrows, who co-created Cheers and has had a hand in seemingly every other sitcom for the last twenty years. To put it another way, only the clothes and settings date The Mary Tyler Moore Show when viewed today.

All In The Family, on the other hand, almost looks like it came from another world. Norman Lear's shows were always shot on what seemed to be the cheapest videotape imaginable, on brightly-lit, brazenly artificial sets. Presumably he thought this would give the shows a sense of immediacy, a live-wire quality that the more carefully-honed MTM product couldn't match. Mostly, it just gave his shows a hideously ugly physical appearance which, combined with Lear's penchant for small casts and loud, obnoxious characters, make almost everything he did unwatchable today. Go ahead: Try sitting through an episode of Good Times or One Day At A Time without developing a piercing headache.

But with All In The Family, Lear's crude physical production really does give the show a palpable live quality. It helped, of course, that his leads were two exemplary actors, Carroll O'Connor and especially Jean Stapleton, stage vets who could play to the cheap seats without sacrificing quality of performance. Their work, along with that of sometime regulars Betty Garrett and Vincent Gardenia and old-pro guest stars like Barnard Hughes, make watching the show kind of like watching a live theatrical performance.

Not a good theatrical performance, mind you--more like a touring production of a Neil Simon play. The writing has a Simonesque tendency to resort to cheap one-liners to defuse tension, and the settings have a surface realism that lets you buy into the premise at least temporarily, but without ever making you forget you're watching actors on a set, actors who say their lines and wait for their co-stars to say theirs before responding. (The wide camera angles favored by the show frequently capture the cast members not actively involved in a scene simply standing there, waiting for a cue.) The whole thing is so blatantly artificial--and artificial in the name of "realism"--it at times achieves a near-Brechtian quality.

And we'll almost certainly never see anything like it again. The only sitcom in the last twenty years to even attempt something like the Norman Lear house style, Roseanne, emulated its ugly shot-on-video look and vaguely humanist concerns, but at its best, utterly transcended them, thanks to incisive writing and superb acting of a caliber Lear might not have allowed. (Two of its leads, John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf, were stage vets, but honed in more raw, less theatrical technique than O'Connor and Stapleton.) Otherwise, there's nothing like it on TV now--even a stale laugh machine like Two And A Half Men has a visual sophistication worthy of an MTM product, and the best comedies on TV today--Community, Parks And Recreation--are shot one camera style, each episode essentially a mini-movie. Even the recent high-profile failure of a Broadway revival of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs suggests that the "well-made play" model used by Lear is out of favor forever.

The reruns will always exist, though, a reminder that this is what the whole country once gathered around and watched, enjoying it and embracing it without a hint of irony. Odd that a show intended by its creators to be explosive and even divisive has instead ended up as video comfort food.