December 06, 2023

SIU sitcom expert: Force of Lear’s achievements continues to be felt

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Legendary television producer Norman Lear helped bring groundbreaking change to how Americans viewed the nation and themselves, says Walter Metz, a cinema professor in Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s School of Media Arts.

“Long before faddish contemporary notions of ‘world-building’ and ‘cinematic universes,’ Lear conjured a vast sociological nexus of television narratives to interrogate life in the United States in the 1970s,” Metz said. “In triangulated tandem with ‘M*A*S*H’ (Larry Gelbart) and ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ (Grant Tinker), Lear's ‘All in the Family’ (CBS, 1971-1979) serves as the pivot toward what scholars would later describe as, ‘quality television,’ a sophisticated form of storytelling in which a genre such as the sitcom was reinvented to grapple with great nuance the collision of political ways of being in the world.”

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walter-metz.jpg Walter Metz, is the author of three books: “Engaging Film Criticism: Film History and Contemporary American Cinema,” “Bewitched” and “Gilligan’s Island.” His thematic areas of interest include the television sitcom, documentary, experimental film, Holocaust studies, natural history filmmaking and science studies. He can be reached at 406-579-3679 and

Lear died Dec. 5 at the age of 101. Lear, alongside television producers William Asher (“Bewitched”), Sherwood Schwartz (“Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch”) and Paul Henning (“The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres”), “serves as an example of what Horace Newcomb describes as television being a ‘producer’s medium.’”

Lear often used familial themes that audiences could relate to. CNN noted that in a 2020 interview Lear would take issue with his shows being “edgy.”

“Edgy is what others wrote about it, but I never thought it was edgy,” Lear said at the time. “We were simply dealing with the problems that existed in our culture.”

Metz uses several examples of Lear’s shows during the 1970s “centrifugally spiraling outward his complex portrait of the United States across various identity political domains” — whether the issues were generational (“All In the Family”), Black poverty (“Good Times”), working class life (“Sanford and Son”), upward social mobility (“The Jeffersons”) and “different intensities of feminist discontent and revolt (“One Day at a Time” and “Maude”).”

Metz recounts an “All in the Family” episode with Archie Bunker and his son-in-law, Mike, where Lear “modeled the generational debate.” Bunker “arrogantly assumes his U.S. Army buddy agrees with his Nixonian hawkishness regarding the Vietnam War.” Bunker rails against Mike’s friend, who is a draft dodger, but “then is stunned into silence when the elder man tearfully laments that his son died in battle and wishes that his son had also fled to Canada.”

“Lear's death represents the last gasp of the post-World War II intellectual using the palate of popular television to transplant the ideological critiques of the comedies of Aristophanes and Shakespeare into living rooms across the United States and beyond,” Metz said.

“His gargantuan achievement continues to be felt across the contemporary electromagnetic spectrum, from HBO's ‘Veep’ to CBS' ‘The United States of Al’. We shall not see Lear's like again, but our storytelling will be forever enhanced by what he taught us about the power of television to crystallize what it means to be a player in the promise and tragedy of the bold American experiment in democracy.”