The brilliance of Lear's creations was that, although the "liberal" side almost always won in his programs' episodes, viewers of all political and social stripes had somebody to embrace. Archie Bunker, most prominently by far, was supposed to be an easy-to-hate, ready-made bigot always comically set up for a fall by his own backward thinking or that of his goofy friends, or by his daughter and cultured son-in-law (and even sometimes by his sweet wife). Maude herself gave Archie fits in the early years of the series, as did George Jefferson and Irene Lorenzo. Pretty much all of Lear's subsequent creations (the successful ones, anyway) emerged like smoke from Archie's cigar. Archie Bunker was pater familias of the most dysfunctional extended TV family of all time. But a funny thing happened on the way to Archie becoming a villain. He became a hero. So many Americans loved him so much--warts, humiliations, bald-faced bigotry and all--that the show's producers eventually had to make the show all about him. The liberals faded, slowly, as did most of Archie's nemeses. Gloria disappeared. Meathead disappeared. Maude got her own show fairly early on. The Jeffersons got one even earlier. Even Edith, beloved wife, got killed off when Jean Stapleton quit the show. But Archie soldiered on, eventually half-spinning off into a show that really was all about him, Archie Bunker's Place. It ran into the Reagan administration, which surely would have pleased a real Archie Bunker.
Archie possessed the same charm that Howard Stern used to rule the airwaves for a decade or two and that Donald Trump is using now to try to ascend to the highest office in the land. He said what he felt when he felt like saying it, and he didn't care who heard or what other people thought. Americans love a loudmouth, almost no matter what he (or she) says, and let's face it: Archie was lovable! And hilarious! And not always wrong! Mostly, that was because Carroll O'Connor gave the character more wrinkles than Abe Vigoda has on his whole body (if, indeed, Mr. Vigoda is still alive, and I think he is). But it was also because Archie said what a lot of Americans were thinking at the time, and the funny part is that history has proven him right on at least a few occasions. At the end of the Jimmy Carter election episode in 1976, maybe 1977, Archie barked to Meathead, "You're getting Reagan in '80!" And on another famous episode, Archie's televised proposal to arm every passenger on an airplane with a pistol in order to prevent hijackings foreshadowed the era of air marshals post-September 11.
But back to Norman Lear almost killing television. In a nutshell, it all got to be too much. All in the Family's ratings started to slip, just a little bit, in 1976 and fell from there. Maude suffered a similar fate. George and Weezy lasted into the mid-'80s but with a vastly changed set of messages. They basically went from serious to silly. George ended up doing the unthinkable and palling around with Tom Wills! One Day at a Time also softened considerably, eliminating the contentious divorced-father character and turning Schneider, the famous building super, from a somewhat lecherous dude always wanting to boink Ms. Romano into a protector of the single mother and her girls (or girl, of course, after poor McKenzie Phillips went off the rails and took Julie Cooper with her). Good Times should have ended when John Amos left the cast. In any case, fighting got old. Yelling and screaming got old. Politics got old. No other entity can overdo a good thing and pound it mercilessly into the ground the way American television can. That's what was happening in the late '70s. The outlook was bleak. The Lear formula was boring, but networks kept trying it. And then somebody at ABC came to his (or her) senses.
What you're about to see is powerful. It's borderline mind-blowing. This is how ABC responded to CBS and Norman Lear's hegemony on television. Stripping away all pretension, ABC went old school. It brought back stand-up-style comedy, sort of (Welcome Back, Kotter). It brought in an alien for more, and more bizarre, stand-up stuff (Mork and Mindy, of course). It brought back hot chicks, sexual tension and broad physical comedy (Three's Company). It brought something of a yeller-screamer show to the fore, but it made the conflicts personal, not political, and it gave multiple characters enviable depth, not just one or two (Taxi). And it brought back the '50s (Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley)! When in doubt, bring back the '50s. Nothing bad ever happened in the '50s, right, Archie Bunker? Now, ABC's revolution didn't start in 1978. It had been going for a few years, and by the time the long-form trailer below hit advertising agencies, ABC had become the No. 1 network on television, mainly by killing off Archie Bunker with Mork, the Fonz and Suzanne Summers. Behold:
Now, let's take these gems one by one.
Welcome Back, Kotter: It didn't have long to run, as Vinny Barbarino would soon be on his way out and Beau de la Barre on his way in, but Welcome Back, Kotter managed to capture inner-city pathos without pounding us over the head with it. There were two white guys, a black guy and a Puerto Rican Jew serving as the main characters on this show, along with a Jew-fro'ed, mustachioed, wise-cracking teacher who himself had been a Sweathog a scant decade or so before taking over in the classroom. We didn't ask why guys from diverse racial backgrounds were friends. (Norman Lear would have hammered that angle.) All we knew was that they were scamps, mostly low-level troublemakers who wouldn't so much as be called down in the classroom in today's era of school violence. And they loved the one guy they could relate to, the one guy who got them, who had been one of them in a not-so-distant former life. This is probably one of the better shows about teaching and classrooms ever made (Head of the Class also comes to mind) in part because it mostly deals with the everyday, fairly mundane problems that seem so magnified and earth-shattering in high school. There's really not much in the way of hard drug use, alcoholism, teenage sex or domestic violence on Kotter. (Again, Norman Lear would have had a field day with that stuff.) The guys worry about girls, sports, their hair, whatever. Kotter just wants to keep them out of trouble--not life-changing trouble, necessarily, just school trouble. This show teaches without preaching. That's why it worked in the let-up era of the late '70s.
Operation Petticoat: This one doesn't jog the memory for me, but it looks sufficiently slapstick to fit into the lineup. Hey, not every hit is a home run.
Taxi: This must have been Taxi's first season. (I did no research for this entry.) This show is criminally underrated (yes, really) and merits a long blog entry of its own. What made it appealing was an amazing cast and characters that people cared about because they seemed like people, not like the political caricatures Norman Lear (skillfully) drew. Sure, there was conflict, but there was also resolution (most of the time, anyway) and the strong feeling that these people could, and maybe did, actually exist. And seriously, that cast: Judd Hirsch, Danny Devito, Marilu Henner, Tony Danza (yeah, OK, but he had a pretty good career after Taxi), Jeff Conaway, Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future!) and, for heaven's sake, the unbelievable, inimitable, completely mold-breaking Andy Kaufman. And Carol Kane as his wife! Other than the cars and the telephones, this show holds up well today. It has a timelessness that the Archie Bunker family tree mostly doesn't have. That's not to say that Norman Lear's creations weren't great. They were. They just weren't set up to be relevant 40 years after they aired.
Happy Days: The show that ended up originating the phrase "jump the shark" (which now dates to the late '90s, ouch!) hadn't quite done it yet in 1978. It was still goofy Richie and his pals, cool Fonz (how was he ever cool? ... that's another blog entry) and the straight-laced Cunninghams. Smooth and easy. Satisfying. Nostalgic for the middle-aged folks and yet entertaining enough for the kids. This show was emblematic of the ABC revolution and led the way. It didn't need to be brilliant. It just needed to be fun, and it was ... until Chachi came along.
Laverne & Shirley: Happy Days with girls! And more laughs! And more goofiness! And Carmine "the big Ragu" Ragusa, the world's first dancing tough guy! And one of the great theme songs of all time! After half a decade of strife, yeah, people were ready for this. And it was great ... until they moved to California.
Three's Company: Based on a British show (as so much of our television is, check out Til Death Us Do Part sometime) called Man about the House, this show became emblematic of mindless drivel on television and was probably the most prominent antidote of all to Norman Lear's seriousness. But you know what? Three's Company was funny. John Ritter was a brilliant physical comedian. The writing was vaudevillian in the best possible way. The setting, Southern California in the '70s, could not have been more enticing. And there were blondes, so many blondes, blondes with big hair and short shorts and halter tops. And there were the Ropers, and after the Ropers came Mr. Furley, who was actually funnier than the Ropers! As a kid, I wanted to live in Three's Company, just in the same neighborhood as Jack, Janet and Chrissy/can't remember the middle one's name/Terri. This show is still great today because innuendo, mild situational irony and a horny straight dude having to pretend to be gay will never get old. By the way, that gay thing ... Ridiculous as it might have been on this show, homosexuality was something Norman Lear never really, really breached in his a career, at least not prominently. Just saying.
Starsky & Hutch: Overrated. Sorry, but it was. Great cars, cool clothes, but it got repetitive. But crime dramas get that way. Sacrilege, I know, but I don't care. Definitely cool at the time, though, and yes, I still have the toy car.
Vegas: This, however, was great. Robert Urich is underrated historically. I never figured out, though, why he parked his car right in his house, or apartment, or whatever it was. Didn't the engine make the place hot? Didn't the car smell? Whatever, awesome show. Dan Tanna. Seriously.
Charlie's Angels: Its best days were past it (Farah Fawcett returns to guest star ... ugh), but three beautiful women fighting crime for some guy we never see? Again, after Maude, America needed this. America wanted this, no matter how much Maude would have hated it. (Or would she have? It was all about female empowerment, after all.)
Eight is Enough: TCU's own Betty Buckley! Eventually! This show was the serious Brady Bunch, but it worked because Dick Van Patten was strangely likable and Adam Rich was just cute enough. Again, ABC went with family here, but it was a family that fought over personal things, not over politics (mostly). These seemed like real people until one of the girls married a pitcher for the Dodgers.
Mork and Mindy: Oh, wow. What is there to say? Robin Williams. An adorable Pam Dawber. Later, Jonathan Winters! A settling in Boulder that was brilliant, in that Mork could hide pretty effectively in a midsize college town that was half full of stoners, anyway. This was one long Robin Williams stand-up show, complete with his constant message of peace and kindness, with the occasional friendly chiding or shocked reaction from Mindy. And for a while, it worked. Spectacularly well. But it's hard to carry such a goofy set-up on for very long. Eventually, Mork starts figuring out Earth. He starts figuring out Mindy. He settles in. Then what? Then it's over. But what a sensation this show was, and what a brilliant and funny departure it was from the Archie Bunker family of shows. Mork was an alien right in the heart of the Star Wars era, when science fiction was huge. But he wasn't scary. He was Robin Williams, RIP and thanks. It's hard to watch this one now, but the appeal is still fresh. And remember, this was actually a Happy Days spin-off. The Fonz had a family of his own.
What's Happening!!: Is it racist for me to say that this is very likely the best black sitcom in the history of television? Yes, really! Why was it so great? First of all, it was funny. Always funny. The characters were endearing. The scripts were memorable. (Dwayne bet on the football team that had the helmet he liked best. Tampa over Oakland? Oh, no!) There was plenty of charm to go around, from Shirley at the diner to Mama to Dee to Rerun and Dwayne to Roj, arguably television's first black nerd. But what really worked on this show was that it was about people--black people, but that didn't matter. After getting lecture after lecture from Norman Lear about race (some of them necessary, of course), here we had a program that featured black characters with no soapboxes. They were just funny characters. And the theme song was awesome. Another criminally underrated show.
Barney Miller: Just as teachers talk about Kotter as the best classroom show ever made, cops talk about Barney Miller as the best cop show ever. Well, at least those old enough to remember it do, or used to. TV has tried so hard over the decades to come up with something both entertaining and authentic to depict the lives of police officers, but until the actual show Cops debuted, nothing had come as close as Barney Miller to nailing the scene. Sure, the cops on Barney Miller were detectives, not street cops (except for poor Levitt, of course), but their daily routine of filling out paperwork, drinking terrible coffee and dealing with fringe-ish types in Greenwich Village was much more accurate a portrait of cop life than the car-chase and gun-battle action shows that both preceded and followed the sitcom classic. Or so I've read, or been told ... or maybe I just want that to be true. In any case, here was another show that mixed characters seamlessly and didn't bother to talk much about the fact that there were white, black, Puerto Rican and Asian characters sharing the same small space. (Again, this was extremely post-racial stuff compared to All in the Family or The Jeffersons.) Even Linda Lavin had a turn as a female detective in the show's early years. Barney Miller was elite television, despite, or maybe even because of, numerous cast changes. It's still one of the best and most entertaining shows on TV, a cut well above most of what the medium has cranked out over the years.
Soap: It wasn't Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman or Fernwood 2 Night, although the idea was similar, if not pretty much the same. Still, this show, which actually looked a bit like a Norman Lear comedy (remember, it spawned Benson), became a farcical '70s classic. Despite the always corrosive presence of Billy Crystal, Soap was a rollicking riot of a show that captured the Carter-era malaise by making every character on the show pretty much completely indifferent to every other character. This program took the feelings and anger of Lear's work and turned them into farce and complete stupidity--with hilarious results! Of course, it would never work today because the programs it parodied, soap operas, are basically dead, and realty TV has swallowed the last bit of potential irony on television.
Family: To my somewhat limited memory, this show was Eight is Enough with fewer kids and with a budding star named Kristy McNichol, who pretty much disappeared after the show's run, save maybe for a few after-school-special-type programs. She did some damage on Battle of the Network Stars, though, another brilliant ABC creation (starring Howard Cosell and Bruce Jenner!).
Donny & Marie: Mormon disco! This was the oldest of old-school crap. Whatever. People liked it ... for a while. It was definitely mindless, and that was appealing for the era.
Apple Pie: One bad Apple didn't spoil the whole bunch for ABC, but this show only lasted eight episodes. I'd never actually heard of it until I saw the promo video. Sitcoms with historical settings only last if they're set in the '50s (including M*A*S*H). This was was from the '30s. Why? Still ... Dabney Coleman!
Carter Country: Unquestionably the best mostly forgotten sitcom of all time, this show was about black and white cops in the South (Carter Country, as in Jimmy) but still managed to be mostly silly, with Roy, the gruff police chief; Kene Holliday's savvy cop character; and the Mayor, who coined the catchphrase, "Handle it, Roy! Handle it! Handle it!" goofing around in a small-town Georgia police station. This was a sillier version of Barney Miller that lacked Barney's gravitas but nevertheless turned out to be pretty entertaining. And again, we're mainly in post-Lear racial territory here, with everybody getting along for the most part and their relationships requiring no real explanation. Carter Country was an absolute delight and was as late-'70s as Sam Houston was Texan. It's a gem to see these days if it pops up on one of the nostalgia channels. Why this show didn't get a more legendary treatment remains a mystery.
The Love Boat: Oh, wow. Oh, wow oh wow. I'm not saying that I named my first born after Isaac the bartender, but I'm not saying I didn't. Because I kind of did, kind of. This is a cultural touchstone if there ever was one. Basically a reference point for cheesy television, The Love Boat nevertheless ran for a very long time and roped in every guest star imaginable from mid-'70s and early '80s television. What an absolute tour de force of sappy, goofball television this was. Needed a break from Norman Lear's preachy creations? Oh, America, you got it. I mean you really got it.
Fantasy Island: This show was awful, awful, awful. Diabolically acted, amateurishly cast, drippily dramatic and borderline scary, it's hard to believe that it's still pretty much the defining role of Ricardo Montalban's career. Still, again, it was a break from what the first half of the decade had brought to television. The unintentional comedy on this show was rampant, though, something I've mainly discovered watching the program in recent years on nostalgia TV. How did TV execs of the era green light this stuff? And how did it stay so popular for so long? Was Tatu really that cute? (By the way, Herve Villechaise, who was from Paris, had normal-sized organs in that tiny body and lived every day in excruciating pain. Which is sad. But apparently his not-dwarfy genitals were popular with the ladies. Really! Aren't you glad you read this far? I know. Nobody did.)
The Hardy Boys: I vaguely remember this show, but what I don't remember about it was it being the gayest show ever. NTTAWWT, of course. But still. Wow, so gay. I actually feel some sense of retro happiness for all the poor, closeted gentlemen who, at least, got to get excited about seeing this show on Saturday nights, even if they couldn't express their true selves in the open in 1978. Good for you, guys, really. Somehow, Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy (IMDB profile photo from 1978, no joke) are still working, Cassidy as a pretty big-time producer. There's no business like it. (OK, so I did a tiny bit of research. IMDB is a day killer.)
Movies: Taxi Driver on network TV? How? I'm pretty sure I saw The Bad News Bears on ABC in 1978, deleted bad words and all. And Battlestar Galactica, wow, what a great show and franchise that was. World class, and I'm not even a sci-fi guy, normally.
And then there's a musical number at the end of the video! (Remember the video? That's what all of this was supposed to be about.) Mr. Cunningham, Isaac, Shirley, Barney Miller ... they're all there, grooving to a mild disco beat. I've seen better promo dance numbers (much better), but it's charming nonetheless. And that voice of ABC was the best TV voice ever.
Norman Lear was a genius, a revolutionary and quite possibly the most important person in the history of scripted American television. But when enough was enough, ABC came through with a lineup so powerful that its awesomeness and grandeur still resonate today. And most of all, it was fun. It defined the greatest era in human history, the late '70s. And it kept the beautiful medium, television, from eating itself. We owe much to Mork, the Fonz, Wojo, Alex Reger, Roj and even the Mayor from Carter Country. Long may their legacy endure.