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‘Live in Front of a Studio Audience’ Review: A Fun Throwback to The Golden Age of Sitcoms

Jamie Foxx in ABC's Live in Front of a Studio Audience
Photo Credit: ABC/Eric McCandless

Ever since The Sopranos ushered in the second Golden Age of television back in 1999, the TV landscape has been rife with critically-acclaimed prestige dramas, with the burgeoning streaming networks only adding more and more fresh, innovative, and quality content to our TV menus. 

Though we may be living in the era of peak TV, you wouldn’t know it from peeking at my Netflix queue. I stan classic sitcoms and I stan them HARD. There’s always some new show I’m being told I OMG HAVE TO WATCH and I’ll half-heartedly toy with the notion of hitting play on Black Mirror or Ozark while in bed at night before ultimately settling on rewatching Cheers or The Golden Girls yet again. “Are you STILL watching Frasier?” Netflix asks me with what I can only assume is a judgmental side eye. YES I AM.

While I love the televised comfort food that is a classic sitcom, there is perhaps none I’ve loved longer (thanks to all those WPIX reruns during my childhood) than Norman Lear’s brilliant, hilarious All in the Family. Centered around the oft-oxymoronically described “lovable bigot” Archie, his dingbat wife, liberal hippie daughter, and her scholarly, unemployed husband, All in the Family skewered Archie’s prejudice and pervasive ignorance (Bunker remains the undisputed king of the comical malaprop) but never forgot that Archie was human and probably similar to an eternally frustrating, yet ultimately decent old man in your own family or neighborhood. So I was very excited to hear about the one-night revival of both All In The Family and one of its several successful spinoffs, The Jeffersons on ABC’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience.

All in The Family, like many past great sitcoms, had a theatrical sensibility. With the action being mostly contained to the Bunker living room and focused on their masterfully-acted petty squabbles and reconciliations (seriously, the amount of yelling that takes place on the show makes Always Sunny look like an ASMR video), each episode had a sense of intimacy – as though you were getting a glimpse into a real working class home – that often felt akin to watching live theatre.  As such, Lear’s sitcoms seemed perfectly suited to this kind of live event (much like the recent live network musicals, which themselves feel like a throwback to an earlier era of TV).

Also, as now 96 year-old producer Norman Lear said in his introduction, the heavy themes these shows tackled, such as racism, sexism, and the struggles of the working class, are still extremely relevant today, nearly 50 years after these shows were on the airwaves. That these original scripts still felt current without updating anything to modern times (by say, swapping Trump for Nixon in Archie’s high esteem) is a testament to both the writing and the fact that, despite all our cyclical progress and regressions, the American ethos remains largely the same.

In keeping with that original spirit, “Henry’s Farewell” (an episode from the series’ fourth season) opens with Woody Harrelson’s Archie and Marisa Tomei’s Edith taking on the classic theme song originally performed by Carol O’Connor and Jean Stapleton.  As the episode opens, it’s evident that the sets and wardrobe are perfect, right down to their famous chairs and Archie’s plaid wool coat. While the look and feel were on point and brought me right back to that brown-hued Queens home, “Henry’s Farewell” suffers a bit in comparison to the original source material.

Tomei is certainly game in her impression of Jean Stapleton’s beloved dingbat, convincingly rocking her customary housedress and nailing the harried, daft, yet joyful way Edith flapped around the Bunker home. It’s hard to adequately fill the shoes of a character so expertly crafted by a wonderful actress like Stapleton, so though it’s hard to fault Tomei for her well-done impersonation, she ultimately comes across as a particularly good SNL parody of Edith.

Harrelson, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be going for a full-on Carol O’Connor impression (except for his pronunciation of “little goyle,” which makes him sound more like Popeye than O’Connor). Harrelson is a fantastic actor but with his lankiness and drawl, he inherently possesses somewhat of a sinister quality that renders his Archie a little more malicious-seeming that O’Connor’s, particularly given the character’s regressive viewpoints.

Archie was a “lovable bigot” because O’Connor brought a vulnerability to the role and we saw in his fat face and sad, blue eyes that behind the bluster and tirades hid an insecure, soft-hearted boy. When O’Connor yelled about his cold dinner, he was merely petulant. When Harrelson yelled about his cold toast, he seemed more like the kind of man who might actually beat his wife for such an infraction.

Again, I really don’t want to fault Harrelson for not being able to live up to O’Connor in the role, as I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who could (perhaps James Gandolfini, were he still alive, who brought a lot of Archie’s antihero vulnerability to Tony Soprano). Perhaps it would have been better for Tomei and Harrelson to put their own spin on the roles, instead of serving us impersonations which could only suffer by comparison.  As the younger members of the Bunker clan, Ike Barinholtz was fine as Rob Reiner’s meathead Michael Stivic, but Ellie Kemper missed the mark a bit as Gloria, as Sally Struthers more adequately captured the fact, that despite her liberal leanings, Gloria was very much her hotheaded father’s daughter.

Fortunately, though, as Lear stated in the show’s opening, the issues All In The Family routinely tackled really do hold up to this day. The pointed discussion between Archie, Henry (a great turn by Anthony Anderson, serving as a fitting foil to the Bunker patriarch), Lionel, Gloria, and Louise about the viability of a woman presidential candidate versus a male presidential candidate, regardless of race, obviously feels just as relevant in our current political landscape as it did when this episode originally aired in 1973. “Henry’s Farewell” may not have been my first choice of an episode for this event, but it certainly proved Lear’s sentiments true and also, thanks to the inclusion of Lionel, Henry, Louise, and George, served to introduce The Jeffersons for the following segment.

“Friend In Need,” the first episode of All In The Family spinoff, The Jeffersons, was ultimately a much more successful endeavor than “Henry’s Farewell.” A cheesy grin was planted on my face from the moment the incomparable Jennifer Hudson sauntered across the Jeffersons’ well-appointed ’70s apartment and absolutely SLAYED the show’s iconic theme song (“Moving On Up” is easily my favorite television theme of all time. I once saw a drag queen perform it at a bar and it brought the house down, much more so than any Donna Summer / Madonna / Britney song performed that night. It’s THAT good).

Though I wished Harrelson and, to a lesser extent, Tomei, had put their own spin on their roles, Jaime Foxx brings the same magic to his embodiment of Sherman Hemsley’s cocky, swaggering George Jefferson as he once brought to his portrayal of Ray Charles. Even when breaking the fourth wall in his appearance in the All In The Family segment, Foxx was a scene-stealing delight and he consistently sells the character and earns laughs in “Friend In Need.”

More so than anyone involved in Live In Front of a Studio Audience, Wanda Sykes brought her own spin to Isabel Sanford’s Louise “Weezy” Jefferson. Rather than engage in impersonation, Skyes played it straight but in doing so, brought a grounded realness to the role that very much kept in spirit with the original character. Calling back once again to Lear’s opening comments, Weezy’s moral conundrum about hiring a maid and reconciling her values and experiences with her new bougie lifestyle (especially as a black woman who has recently been granted access to a world which, though comfortable, still overwhelmingly excludes women like her) feels particularly current.

Will Ferrell and Kerry Washington as Tom and Helen Willis (mainstream TV’s first interracial couple) also turn in great performances, camping it up and clearly have a lot of fun in their roles.  As always, it’s great to see the wonderful Jackee Harry and, even better, the 95 year-old Marla Gibbs, stepping back into her original role and fittingly, looking around the Jeffersons’ posh apartment, and closing the evening with the perfect, weighted Lear quip, “How come we overcame and nobody told me?”

Overall, ABC’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience, was a really fun throwback to the peak era of sitcoms and even if not totally successful, I’d love to see similar endeavors in the future. TV’s second Golden Age has been brought us The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and other wonderful, thought-provoking dramas, but there’s truly nothing as cathartic and comforting as a classic sitcom. As Lear expertly stated in the in the intro, “Humor has a way into people’s hearts and, boy it did get millions of people talking.”

Live in Front of a Studio Audience is now streaming.


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