From a consumer perspective, the box set The Norman Lear Collection is something of a missed opportunity. The box contains newly packaged versions of six pre-existing “complete first season” sets—All In The Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son, and One Day At A Time—along with the first 25 episodes of the soap opera satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, plus two discs’ worth of interviews with Lear and his stars. Lear was involved with more shows than the set covers (including some that have all but disappeared into the vaults), yet aside from the material on the bonus discs, there’s little in The Norman Lear Collection that’s not already commercially available. A more comprehensive “best of” set—favoring top episodes instead whole seasons, and including footage from some of the British sitcoms, stand-up routines and Broadway performances that inspired Lear—might’ve captured the man more completely and concisely.
But for anyone who doesn’t already have the bulk of the material in The Norman Lear Collection—and can afford the set’s hefty price-tag—the sheer quantity of classic television contained within is something of a revelation. A lot of ink has been spilled over the years about the way Lear brought hot-button social issues to the American sitcom, but it’s still bracing to hear his characters debate racism, homosexuality, abortion, and the root causes of poverty so openly and fearlessly. And they’re not talking in broad, abstract terms either, but with their own idiosyncratic opinions and personal biases laid bare. Even the look and sound of All In The Family and Maude and the like seems somehow edgier and more exciting now. Lear staged his shows like short two-act plays, shot on video in front of a live studio audience, and his actors responded with performances that were both bold and nuanced, with a lot of slow-building interplay between the characters. Lear’s heroes were complex, too; they could be charming even when they were wrong, and annoying even when they were right.
Not everything in The Norman Lear Collection is golden. While All In The Family, Maude, Good Times, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman are still thrilling in their uncompromising topicality and intimate style—and while the first season of Sanford & Son is likeably low-key compared to the more broadly cartoonish show that emerged later—The Jeffersons plays too much like a Frankenstein stitch-up of Lear’s prior hits, and One Day At A Time undercuts its on-target portrait of a divorced single mother with an excess of shouting and winking innuendo. On the other hand, that shouting is something of a Lear signature. If Lear has any legacy remaining on contemporary television, it’s not in today’s best sitcoms—which tend to be gag-oriented and stingless, not achingly relevant—but in the sports analysts and political pundits yelling at each other all across the cable TV spectrum. The problem is that none of those bozos are as funny or endearing as Archie Bunker or Maude Findlay.
Key features: Over two hours of reflections from the man himself and the people who worked with him.