Norman Lear Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Norman Lear 1922–

American writer of screenplays and television scripts, movie and television producer, and film director. Lear has been credited with expanding the boundaries of television with the situation comedies he created, which brought current social concerns and formerly taboo subjects to viewing audiences. Before All in the Family appeared in 1971, television comedy series were often considered mindless, unrealistic entertainments with no relevance to real life. This program was the first to present issues such as rape, breast cancer, homosexuality, and, especially, prejudice on the home screen. Revolving around Archie Bunker, a bigoted white working man in Queens, it was immediately controversial, although not immediately successful. It gradually became accepted and popular through its appealing combination of comedy and reality, a premise which Lear has used as the basis for all his other series. Lear took the ideas for several of his early shows from programs already established on British television. Till Death Do Us Part became All in the Family and Steptoe and Son was turned into Sanford and Son, a program which openly ventilated ethnic humor from the black viewpoint. Fred Sanford was the black equivalent of Archie Bunker, just as the character of Maude, an ultra-liberal feminist, was his antithesis. Maude, a spinoff series from All in the Family, continued its tradition by introducing controversial topics such as abortion, mental illness, and suicide. Along with his partner, Bud Yorkin, Lear created a group of successful spinoff series, and at one time had eight situation comedies running concurrently. One of Lear's biggest successes was Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, an offbeat, often outrageous parody of soap operas which dealt with the travails of a befuddled housewife. As well as spawning series like Fernwood 2-Night, a satire of talk and variety shows, Mary Hartman was the first program to be marketed independently to individual stations. Lear has won many Emmy awards for his programs, and has been recognized several times with awards from his professional colleagues. Not all of Lear's ideas have been successful. All That Glitters, which dealt with male/female role reversal, lasted for only a few episodes. His programs have been criticized for their increased trendiness and a tendency towards shock effect and excessive cuteness. However, many of them have been commended for their accurate portrayal of the family unit. Lear has based many of his ideas and dialogue on his own life; the character of Archie Bunker, for instance, was based on his father. Much of the success of his programs has been attributed to good timing, but Lear feels that the American people "have always been ready" for the depiction of adult themes on television. Whatever the reasons for Lear's success, most critics feel that he has had an undeniable influence on the forward movement of the television industry. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)