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When Jimmy Kimmel conceived of the Live in Front of a Studio Audience format back in 2019, it was designed as a simultaneous tribute to The Great Norman Lear and the resilient appeal of some classic, boundary-pushing sitcoms.
The first iteration tackled episodes of All in the Family and The Jeffersons, while the second paired All in the Family and Good Times installments.
Live in Front of a Studio Audience: 'The Facts of Life' and 'Diff’rent Strokes'
Airdate: Tuesday, December 7
Cast: John Lithgow, Kevin Hart, Damon Wayans, Jennifer Aniston, Gabrielle Union, Allison Tolman, Kathryn Hahn, Jon Stewart and Ann Dowd
The casting, while not without a wee bit of wink-and-nudge, was mostly pure. Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei are and were plausible 21st century versions of Archie and Edith Bunker. And, strange bald cap aside, Jamie Foxx seemed likely enough as a George Jefferson for a new generation. Maybe Andre Braugher and Viola Davis approached their Good Times characters from slightly outside of the traditional multicam lane, but they were more pie-in-the-sky picks than bizarre gambits.
Neither installment was perfect, but they worked because of a common thread, namely that All in the Family and its various spinoffs were shows that were decades ahead of their time, boasting sharp punchline writing and topicality that could find a home on a broadcast network today. There’s no better way to honor Norman Lear than to make it clear that not only is he the sharpest, most charmingly foul-mouthed nonagenarian on Earth, but he was a creator possessed of a genius that transcended its era of origin.
After two years away, Live in Front of a Studio Audience returned Tuesday (Dec. 7) night as a very different thing. For this year’s pair of restaged favorites, Kimmel selected Diff’rent Strokes and its spinoff The Facts of Life, two sitcoms that were central in my childhood but in that way better left in the haze of nostalgia than experienced with jaded eyes. I don’t mean to say that The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes are bad, but their timelessness doesn’t come from prescience or any particular excellence. They’re timeless because they’re broad and they allowed generations of viewers to simultaneously grow up with their characters and their stars.
Going back to those first Live installments, you could see the care that was taken to find episodes that were both representative and made points that could strike a chord with modern viewers as well. They weren’t necessarily the “best” episodes of any of those shows, but you could see why the material was selected.
Were I to be generous, I’d say that Tuesday’s Facts of Life episode — 1982’s “Kids Can Be Cruel” — had an anti-bullying message that, while rather quaint when you replace social media viciousness with slam books, still works. A little. And were I to be understanding, I’d say that Tuesday’s Diff’rent Strokes episode — 1979’s “Willis’ Privacy” — was chosen because it was a generic example of the series in “funny” mode, since attempting to do one of its very special episodes would have bordered on disaster. But in these two episodes of resurrected TV, I’m not sure there was a clever line of dialogue or bold concept. Norman Lear made great shows that changed the medium forever and then he made shows through his production banner that were mostly intended to, God forbid, be successful.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but when it comes to heavy lifting, a script from All in the Family can be counted on to do at least half of the work. For Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes, the onus was on the two casts — and instead of strategizing to pair actors and roles in intended harmony, this was mostly “Wouldn’t it be funny if …” stunt-casting.
There were exceptions, starting with Ann Dowd, who provided the heart and soul of both shows as Edna Garrett. Thanks to The Leftovers and Handmaid’s Tale, we think of Dowd primarily for her stern, authoritative dramatic brilliance, but she shuffled right into the warmth and high-piled hair that made Charlotte Rae so beloved. If you were to bring back Facts of Life today — and once Head of the Class is back on HBO Max, you know that quality and narrative urgency are non-factors — Dowd could anchor the reboot and, realistically, give it far more legitimacy than it would deserve. That will never happen, because Dowd would want better material than a Facts of Life reboot would ever supply. For one night only, delivering her lines in near-song, she was a marvel.
Also playing it straight — and also far too good to ever do a long-term reboot — was John Lithgow as Diff’rent Strokes patriarch Phillip Drummond. A versatile performer as adept playing to a roaring studio audience as wallowing in latex for a period costume drama, Lithgow was the Live actor who, if I had to guess, had probably been off-book for the longest. Lithgow just looked comfortable. He had mostly weak punchlines, but his physical comedy opposite Kevin Hart as Arnold was impeccable. As for Hart, he made for an angrier Arnold than I ever remember Gary Coleman being. If Coleman coasted on his inherent juvenile charm, Hart had to work harder, but in an often funny way. By the end of the episode, he and Damon Wayans as Willis generated a little sweetness. Snoop Dogg, as Willis’ friend Vernon, probably got more laughs than either of them in a forgettable episode.
Audiences were prepared for Hart and Wayans playing kids by the Facts of Life episode, in which the show’s teenage quartet was loosely embodied by Jennifer Aniston (Blair), Gabrielle Union (Tootie), Allison Tolman (Natalie) and Kathryn Hahn (Jo). Like Hart, all four leading ladies needed exertion to get anything out of the material, and unlike those All in the Family stagings, there was no point at which I ever thought the material was the thing being highlighted. Still, I appreciated Union channeling Kim Fields down to the bowl cut and braces, Hahn’s unexpected comic intensity and Tolman’s adroit playing to the crowd. Aniston made me appreciate how much of Blair Warner’s DNA was in the initial version of Rachel Green and she made “Ham and cheese on boomerang buns” into my favorite line of the night.
I don’t know if it’s good or bad that however much I enjoyed the two Live in Front of a Studio Audience episodes, I was far more amused by the retro commercials interspersed in the ad breaks. Masterminded by Kimmel with Ryan Reynolds, apparently, and featuring recurring appearances by Alfonso Ribeiro and Jennifer Beals, they repurposed landmark campaigns like “This is your brain on drugs” and “It’s morning in America” and “Nothing gets between me and my Calvins” to plug for Kraft and Aviation gin. They were more clever than anything the A-listers got from their dusty scripts, holding my attention during the endless and all-too-frequent ad breaks. Even the trailers of ABC shows like The Rookie and Queens got a grainy, VCR-ready revamp, and the grindhouse version of Big Sky teased here looked many times better than the real show.
So who needs actual programming if a TV critic was more entertained by the commercials than by watching top-tier actors mug their way through mid-tier sitcoms? With better material as a starting point, maybe there’s a happy medium to be found.
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