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Norman Lear DVD Collection

Norman Lear, creator and developer of several popular 1970s comedies for television, recently appeared at a press conference to promote his new deluxe DVD set, released by Sony today. The 19-disc set is a rehash of previously released first seasons of TV’s All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, One Day at a Time, Sanford and Son and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Their creator and developer, who was somewhat subdued at the presser, looks great and he’s still sharp. His work ages nicely, too.

Maude (1972–1978) is an exception. The CBS comedy starring the late Bea Arthur as strident Maude Findlay was more of a character than a show. The topically feminist-themed program was a spinoff (Mr. Lear’s first) of his vaunted All in the Family (1971–1979), which is based on a British series. While Mr. Lear is liberal and the comedy has that reputation, All in the Family depicted a likable white bigot—imagine such a character being introduced today—who often scored a point. Back then, a character could progress beyond idiocy and Archie Bunker became enlightened (he opened a bar in a later incarnation of the show). So, Mr. Lear reminds us that Archie was not an irredeemable bigot.

Another CBS All in the Family spinoff, The Jeffersons (1975–1985), is among the most successful shows in television. Why? I think it’s partly because the character George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) held the show together as one of America’s most persecuted minority: the businessman. Always fresh, lively and interesting, the middle class American family was supported by the dry cleaning business that Mr. Jefferson worked to make profitable and its cast of characters defied stereotypes: sassy maid Florence (Marla Gibbs), quietly rebellious Lionel (Mike Evans), and, in early seasons, mean, old Mother Jefferson (Zara Cully), besides the more widely known characters Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford), British Mr. Bentley (Paul Benedict) and the show’s interracial couple, Helen and Tom Willis (Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover). The Jeffersons was a microcosm of America, with foreigners, mixed race kids, college-bound sons, independent women and one strong-minded, self-made businessman who was happiest making money and guiltlessly enjoying the rewards. George Jefferson would not have liked Barack Obama’s economic policies.

Mr. Lear explained that hugely popular The Jeffersons was created to blunt criticism that his other CBS spinoff series, Good Times (1974–1979), portrayed the American black family as poor and unglamorous. Good Times, contrary to its title, layered on layoff after layoff for the Evans family, who lived in a government housing project on Chicago’s South Side, and they could never seem to get out of poverty. That might have been the show’s point—that housing subsidies trap the working poor in a viciously downward economic cycle—but the writers evaded deeper causes and went for laughs, saddling Jimmie Walker as J.J. with the comic relief. In hindsight, the J.J. character is the show’s saving grace. Good Times was created when its matriarch, Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), left her job as a maid for Maude.

That particular connection speaks to Norman Lear’s success. His shows were not merely a platform for the knee-jerk liberal. Black working woman Florida told white liberal housewife Maude off in an episode in which racially obsessed Maude patronized Florida unceasingly and Florida finally begged Maude to leave her alone to do her job. In another episode, one of TV’s best depictions of white liberal guilt, Florida’s replacement, who is also black, quits rather than submit to Maude’s constant racial harassment. Norman Lear created dimensional characters.

Also included on this exclusively first season collection with a disc of features: the satirical Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1975–1977), which was syndicated, One Day at a Time (1975–1984), and Sanford and Son (1972–1977), Mr. Lear’s only show from this collection not to air on CBS (it ran on NBC). The Los Angeles-based Sanford and Son is built around raunchy comedian Redd Foxx, though not enough credit goes to his onscreen son, played by Demond Wilson, who had the task of playing straight to his conniving old junkyard pop. With no relation to the phrase made popular in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), One Day at a Time followed the lives of a woman (Bonnie Franklin) who divorced her husband after 17 years and moved with her two daughters back to her hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. One Day at a Time was an example of powerfully topical television programming, with episodes about youth suicide, drugs, job loss, and prejudice against women.

All of these shows, whatever their flaws, combine realistic characterizations with topical plots and humor and any of them are more realistic than the entire slate of today’s overproduced so-called reality shows. The extras—some run longer than others, with some stars in interviews, other stars glaringly absent—are admittedly a disappointment. This highly priced, handsomely packaged collection ($ 159.95) is strictly for those who haven’t bought the original first season products…and miss seeing the intelligent and thoughtful comedy of Norman Lear.

New ‘Star Trek’ Movie is Bland, Not Bold

As a reset for Paramount’s popular series, the new Star Trek movie, opening this weekend and directed by J.J. Abrams, is disappointing. The original NBC television series was an intelligently written program which put highly individualized characters into often philosophically driven plots and this effort doesn’t come close to measuring up. That said, at least Star Trek has a coherent plot, which is rare. There are no major missteps.

The plot is formulaic, characters are too broad, and the conflict is the stuff of cable reruns. Playing in IMAX theaters (where I saw it), Star Trek contains the requisite action and plot progression but it doesn’t have what it takes for a franchise reboot.

Previous movies are mixed, but the TV series kept things simple, with the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise as the focal point, her international crew poised for action in a clear hierarchy and conflict resolution as the primary plot purpose. Here, we get twin tracks of expository set-up—Kirk and Spock—and it takes too long, wanders too wide, and emphasizes personalities instead of developing dramatic tension. The Enterprise is an egalitarian gathering place where the crew stands around trying to rule by consensus.

Kirk is a playboy, Spock is tortured and everyone sounds like they’re reading from a script. The character Uhura is expanded at the expense of Bones. Sulu, Chekov and Scott are all there (Sulu fares best) and Bruce Greenwood is added as Kirk’s mentor. Some scenes, such as an elevator scene with Spock, are well done, but soon it’s back to the banal. Overbearing music, jerky camera shots, and a Jurassic Park rip-off burden the heavy load and it is hard to get excited about an evil Romulan—who, it is implied, has a point—on the warpath. Finally, Star Trek urges us to abandon reason and act on faith, a bad message you can get from any TV preacher or member of Congress (and, with both advocating religious statism, it’s hard to tell them apart). Many readers are going to see it anyway, but the new Star Trek, while not a bust, is, as I suspected, as blurry as its poster.

Supreme Court Rules Against Freedom of Speech

The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision against Fox in the television network’s case versus the fascist Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Fox rightly asserted that the FCC’s “fleeting expletive” rule is arbitrary. But Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, stated that he did not find the rule arbitrary and capricious, as Fox claims. So, this decision is extremely harmful to freedom of speech because broadcasters will continue to be censored and live in fear of government penalties. However, the Supreme Court dodged the issue of whether the FCC rule is Constitutional (censorship is certainly not Constitutional) giving a lower court a crack at addressing that fundamental issue. Look for more on this highly important case, which may determine how quickly we advance toward dictatorship.

Susan Boyle, YouTube Sensation

When a friend sat me down to watch the now-famous clip of Susan Boyle on YouTube (appearing on a British television talent show), I didn’t know what to expect. Of course, most people have heard about it by now because the clip went ‘viral’ and has become among the most watched video clips in the world. Another friend later sent a clip of Boyle’s heroine, Elaine Paige, singing the same song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” from the 1980s’ Broadway musical, Les Miserables, based on the novel by Victor Hugo. I hesitate to venture my thoughts on the video hit as a cultural barometer, however, it has spread so far and wide that it’s hard to deny it suggests a common bond among Westerners. I think the clip succeeds due to the contrast of an admittedly ordinary woman who possesses a lovely voice, the reactions of the judges and audience, which heightened the sense that Susan Boyle overcame their prejudices, and the particular selection of music, a melodic elegy for what might have been, which resonated from a person who seemed matched to the material.

But I think that the clip caught on fundamentally because people want to see a talented person in action. The culture’s not completely jaded. Not everyone is infected with nihilism. People may laugh at cynical shows such as South Park, The Simpsons, and sniveling nightly diatribes by Stephen Colbert, Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher (who can be funny, though not much anymore), but they don’t rush to spread sneers. People, judging by the overwhelming response to what was a memorable moment on television, apparently still seek to spread the sight of something good.

Pittsburgh, Television, and an Update

Blogger Aaron West’s first blog post is an excellent tribute to an historic city of capitalism, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the businessman once thrived. The post is a desperately needed reminder about what makes America great. Once a bustling boomtown, Pittsburgh is no longer at the center of American industry. But the metropolis evokes the best of our nation’s Industrial Revolution. Built into the rolling, green hills of western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh rises as a triangle of skyscrapers at the intersection of two rivers, which merge to become one, wide river, the Ohio, which flows into the West. Aaron’s post, citing industrialists Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan, pulls an excerpt from a book published in 1907, which captures the spirit of Pittsburgh: “Without a single exception, the steel kings and coal barons of to-day were the barefooted boys of yesterday. In this respect no other city is as genuinely republican, as thoroughly American, as Pittsburgh.”

Another byproduct of Pittsburgh capitalism, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), bearing the names of Andrew Carnegie and banker Andrew Mellon, recently sponsored a thoughtful discussion about making money in arts and entertainment, “The Future Business Model of Television” (Pittsburgh is also the site of the world’s first broadcasting station, KDKA). The event was hosted by Heinz College’s Master of Entertainment Industry Management program in Hollywood and included NBC Universal’s Chief Marketing Officer John Miller, Fox’s Marcy Ross, William Morris Agency’s Steven Selikoff, head of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences John Shaffner, and producer and former Warner Bros.’ executive vice-president for production, Judith Zaylor.

The event, held at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, California, was moderated by Wayne Friedman. Miller recalled that, when Dallas aired on CBS, everyone freaked when they learned that Larry Hagman, who played the male lead, earned $ 50,000 per episode, and he observed that the government might invoke national security and take over local television programming, which is struggling. Zaylor explained how the Sarbanes-Oxley law, which imposes regulations on business, has seriously damaged the ability to produce TV content and everyone talked about the success of Fox’s American Idol, studio cost-cutting and so-called reality TV programming, which, as Shaffner reminded those in attendance, echoes the early days of TV, which was dominated by wrestling, boxing and talent competitions. TV is experiencing a tremendous business model change and the panel reflected the current state of the industry as a work in progress, ripe for new opportunity.

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