'Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear's "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons'' ': TV Review

Eric McCandless/ABC
Ike Barinholtz, Anthony Anderson, Ellie Kemper and Woody Harrelson in a live performance of an 'All in the Family' episode.
A mixed bag, but definitely an experiment worth trying again.

Jamie Foxx, Marisa Tomei and Jennifer Hudson were among the standouts of ABC's live productions of Norman Lear's 1970s hits 'All in the Family' and 'The Jeffersons,' from producer Jimmy Kimmel.

If you have the chance, it's often interesting to check out a big Broadway show early in previews. It's easier to get tickets, and you get to watch big stars working out the kinks in front of an audience. Sometimes they have trouble remembering lines. Sometimes the blocking is cumbersome. Sometimes a performance is too loud or too soft or the actors haven't figured out yet when they need to pause for laughter. But if you're lucky, you can spot a kernel of something great.

The experience of watching a really rough preview performance was what came to mind repeatedly during ABC's Wednesday night special Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear's "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons." The cumbersomely titled dream project from Jimmy Kimmel felt like a star-studded goof at least as much as it felt like a validation of the timeless genius of Norman Lear. With more time to rehearse and prepare and refine, I think you'd have seen interpretations more tailored to the actors and less beholden to the originals. You'd surely have gotten tighter timing and more sense that the stars had been off-book for longer than a day or two. But you also probably wouldn't have gotten Woody Harrelson and Jamie Foxx and Will Ferrell and Marisa Tomei and Kerry Washington and Ike Barinholtz and Wanda Sykes to join forces for a TV production.

My bottom-line thought was the slightly contradictory sensation that Live in Front of a Studio Audience was imperfect and frequently messy and that I really, really hope that ABC does this again.

The gimmick, in case you missed it, was that under Lear's watchful eye (and the direction of industry icon James Burrows), this all-star ensemble staged an episode of All in the Family and an episode of The Jeffersons back-to-back and live for the East Coast. Both shows' sets were re-created with loving attention to detail, the costumes showed loving attention to butterfly collars, and not a line of dialogue was changed. In a perfect world, that meant that young viewers were sent scurrying to Wikipedia to understand punchlines relating to Tom Bradley or Shirley Chisholm or Lester Maddox — I'll assume the Richard Nixon zingers landed well enough without explanation — and were simultaneously amazed at the timelessness of Lear's approach to comedy.

The All in the Family episode was "Henry's Farewell," credited to Don Nicholl, and featuring Archie Bunker (Harrelson) in a snit about having to host a farewell party for Henry Jefferson (Anthony Anderson), the brother of next-door neighbor George (Foxx) and uncle to Lionel (Jovan Adepo). As usual, the episode hinges on Gloria (Ellie Kemper) and Meathead (Barinholtz) being wary that Archie will ruin the occasion with his casual racism and Edith (Tomei) being loopy, sweet and vaguely disconnected.

Presumably this half-hour was chosen because of the presence of the Jefferson clan — double the Jamie Foxx and Wanda Sykes! — and for its solid encapsulation of Archie's blue-collar insecurities and how they manifest in jovial bigotry, even as he's bludgeoned from all sides by his daughter, son-in-law, neighbors and the forces of progress that cause everybody around him to wince every time he refers to the "coloreds." From contemptuous dismissal of an unpopular president to talk of race- and gender-based wage gaps to a deconstruction of why America might, in the '70s, have felt more ready for a black president than a woman in the White House, it was a solidly selected script.

It might have worked better with a better Archie or, rather, with a better conception of how to approach Archie. Archie Bunker needs to have his own gravitational force, because every other character in the series only makes sense as an offshoot of Archie's grandiosity. Harrelson's interpretation was halfway to an impression, mostly an inconsistent and exaggerated accent and lots of hand gestures and an unmotivated stammer, but none of the requisite size. Given more time, I'm guessing Burrows, who worked with Harrelson to exceptional effect on Cheers, might have pushed him to the right performance. Instead, Harrelson's work, and perhaps the entire All in the Family episode, peaked with a marvelously off-key rendition of the theme song.

To me, Edith is believable mostly as the answer to the two-pronged question "What kind of woman would be married to Archie Bunker for several decades, and what would that do to her?" With an ill-defined Archie, Tomei's off on an island doing an epic, if not always explicable, Jean Stapleton impression that made me laugh repeatedly with its vibrant, off-the-wall lunacy. Tomei stole the episode in ways that probably weren't ideal. Playing mostly off each other rather than Harrelson, Kemper and Barinholtz each had good moments.

The episode really came alive when Sykes and Foxx arrived as Weezy and George. Foxx accepted all the makeup and hair embellishments that Harrelson clearly turned down, and his George felt like a sketch version of Sherman Hemsley, but it was still a force-of-nature sketch performance of the sort that could cause every other actor in the room to fade away, were Sykes not his equal. This interaction, which continued through the Jeffersons episode, is a perfect illustration of what was missing from Edith and Archie.

Honestly, the Jeffersons episode probably could have stopped with Jennifer Hudson's rendition of "Movin' On Up," an assertive tribute to a classic that had the audience clapping along, albeit against the beat.

The Jeffersons pick, written by Barry Harman and Harve Brosten, might have been less "topical" than the All in the Family episode, but I was struck throughout by how it delivered a critique of the intersection of race and class that was tighter than anything on a current show trying to do comparable things, like CBS' The Neighborhood. A conversation between Washington's Helen and Ferrell's Tom about how, despite their love and mutual admiration, unspoken racist slurs can lurk just one fight away, felt like something you'd never see today because a network would be afraid to dig that deep. It helped that both Washington and Ferrell were in top form, with a little sitcom broadness and the suggestion of real feelings.

The pacing of the Jeffersons episode was far better than that of All in the Family, or maybe it's just that I appreciated how well Foxx and Sykes were working off each other. Throw in format legends like Jackée Harry and the great Marla Gibbs, and this became a multicam master class. Adepo was great across both episodes. With this, When They See Us and Sorry for Your Loss to his credit, the Leftovers veteran is on the verge of a massive breakout (if he isn't there already).

Hit-and-miss though the broadcast was, I'd love to see ABC do this kind of thing two or three times a year. My own preference would be for future installments to stray a little further from direct copies of the original sitcoms. Keep the exact scripts, but cast a couple of roles against type, and see what other colors you can pull from the texts.

Give me the Maude abortion episode with Allison Janney. But that's too obvious. Don't stop there. Give me a Family Ties episode with Timothee Chalamet as Alex P. Keaton. Give me Taxi with Tiffany Haddish as Latka.

Bring it on!