There was a bittersweet quality to ABC's triumphant two-hour live sitcom special on Wednesday night. At least, for me there was.
On the sweet side, watching talented stars like Jamie Foxx and Woody Harrelson re-create classic scripts from All in the Family and The Jeffersons was a shot of pure, uncut nostalgia. There are few spectacles as entertaining as these guys mugging their ways through impressions of classic characters like George Jefferson and Archie Bunker — in live performance.
For those of us raised on the original stuff — the inspired swagger of Sherman Hemsley as self-made success George; Carroll O'Connor's vividly authentic, Queens patois as Archie — even the distant echoes evoked by Foxx and Harrelson on ABC's live special were entertaining. And, of course, Foxx stole the show by improvising his way through an inevitable line flub. ("It's live," he said, turning to the audience while his co-stars struggled to keep straight faces. "Everyone sitting at home ... think they TV just messed up.")
Harrelson actually struggled a bit as Archie; I never quite bought him as a cluelessly bigoted (yet somehow lovable) working-class schlub from Queens. And his labored efforts to make those old-school punchlines sing revealed just how much O'Connor's grounded performance helped sell the material back in the day.
Marisa Tomei fared much better as well-meaning wife Edith Bunker, smoothing over Archie's barbs with a manic earnestness very close to the magic Jean Stapleton once managed weekly. Wanda Sykes was earnest, but uncharacteristically subdued, as Louise "Weezy" Jefferson.
They, along with a cast of fellow stars, re-created two actual, unchanged scripts from All in the Family and The Jeffersons that originally aired in the 1970s, on sets painstakingly copied from the originals, directed by the great sitcom craftsman James Burrows. Hosted by late-night talker Jimmy Kimmel, who dreamed up this revival, the live event also had the blessing of the TV legend who helped develop both shows: 96-year-old executive producer Norman Lear.
Lear's benediction came before it all started, delivered while sitting in Archie's legendary living room chair: "The language and themes from almost 50 years ago can still be jarring today," he said, as a bit of a warning. "And we are still grappling with many of these same issues."
It was a loving tribute presented like a Broadway play. So why did watching it make me feel so, well, odd?
The two episodes they re-created, "Henry's Farewell" from All in the Family and "A Friend in Need" from The Jeffersons, centered on a farewell party for George's brother held at the Bunker home, and an argument between the Jeffersons over whether they should hire a maid.
Part of the problem was the rigidness of the setup. With no changes to the scripts, actors had a tough time delivering a fresh take on their characters. When Archie, Edith, George and Weezy first burst onto TV screens in the early 1970s, no one had seen characters like them on network television. This time, we saw pale imitations through the haze of fond memories.
Frankly, I'm way more interested in seeing Jamie Foxx play a George Jefferson in today's world than I am in seeing him re-create another actor's signature character in a way that feels a little too much like an old In Living Color skit.
Also, much as we might despair that the country hasn't moved far enough on issues of racial equality and fighting prejudice, the fact is: We have changed. As evidence, note that ABC felt the need to insert a lengthy bleep over George Jefferson's use of the N-word in a scene on Wednesday; that same scene was unbleeped when it originally aired in 1975.
You can grouse that networks are too politically correct these days to air a word contained in quite a few hit rap singles. But back in the 1970s, network TV — the medium of the masses — didn't seem to care much whether anyone was put off by one of the worst racial slurs in our nation's history. Changing that attitude sounds like a good thing.
I don't usually find fulfillment in straight-up TV nostalgia. I prefer the reboots and reinventions of old TV shows that take classic programs in new directions, like Star Trek: Discovery or the new Latinx-centered Party of Five. So even while I was impressed by the scope of ABC's revival, I was also a bit disappointed. Is the future of network television really going to be so focused on re-creating its past?
Still, there were amazing moments Wednesday. Jennifer Hudson was her usual incandescent self, belting out a voice-and-piano version of The Jeffersons' theme "Movin' On Up" to transition between the two different episodes. Kerry Washington and Will Ferrell were inspired choices to play the interracial couple Helen and Tom Willis. And bringing in Marla Gibbs to reprise her role as the Jeffersons' maid Florence was a nice touch.
Given that the special was Wednesday's most-watched show with more than 10 million viewers, and all the goodwill generated by this experiment, I'm sure there will be more classic sitcom revivals in network TV's future. But I hope there's also some energy expended on making the new renditions unique and fresh in their own ways, rather than just re-creating shows we originally fell in love with because they were so original in the first place.
Patrick Jarenwattananon and Nina Gregory produced and edited this story.