Norman Lear Changed TV, Even If He Couldn’t Change the World

David Hinckley
4 min readDec 7, 2023

Norman Lear could have scripted his own exit scene.

The Associated Press quoted Lara Bergthold, a Lear family spokesperson, saying Lear died Tuesday night “in his sleep, surrounded by family.”

So the Lear family was gathered around his bed, watching him sleep in case he died? Is that a black-humor scene from a Lear sitcom or what?

In the bigger picture, of course, Lear’s death at the admirable age of 101 takes away one of the most boldly creative minds in television history — someone who took an improbable shot and scored.

“All In The Family”: Rob Reiner, Jean Stapleton, Carroll O’Connor, Sally Struthers.

His run started in 1971 with All In The Family, a sitcom built around the often clownish bigot Archie Bunker. But Lear didn’t just use Archie for target practice. As the show dominated television over the first half of the ’70s, Archie became more than a cartoonist caution against intolerance. There was some “us” in Archie, though most viewers likely assured themselves that meant their loud uncle, or their humorless coworker, or someone they saw on TV complaining about how the neighborhood was changing.

Truth is, Lear and actor Carroll O’Connor, who brilliantly seized the role of a lifetime, gradually gave Archie multiple dimensions. Like almost every character on the shows in the Lear stable — Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times, One Day At A Time, etc. — Archie wasn’t all anything. He could throw around the N-word, he could rage at the world and he could still have legitimate complaints and even human compassion.

That complexity helps explain why, for all the accolades being showered on Norman Lear in the wake of his death, his shows would have a harder time getting on a major network today than they did in 1971, when it was hard enough. (ABC turned All In The Family down before CBS picked it up.)

Yes, shows today push boundaries. Demolish them, in some cases. Since streaming allowed the video universe to explode, it’s hard to think of much that’s not available. But in much of commercial media, the path has become harder to navigate.

With the megaphone of social media and the Internet, what were once seen as isolated objections, protests and complaints can take on the appearance — real or illusory — of an avalanche.

At a time when we debate how to regard men who owned slaves while writing the foundational documents of democracy and freedom, some voices inevitably will argue that nothing can redeem certain sins — or certain artistic content.

Also, sadly, we’ve lost some of our sense of humor, an essential attribute of a society claiming to value and practice freedom. If we learned nothing else from Norman Lear, we learned something can be simultaneously disturbing and funny.

He talked about that in a 1991 interview.

Norman Lear.

“We’re so complicated,” he said. “We get our liberty, we get our freedom, then we give it away when we don’t want to be angered by something like pornography. The trouble is, along with getting rid of porn go other things you care about.”

Part of the problem, he suggested, is that too many people, for a variety of reasons, look on the arts and artistic freedom as a second-tier issue.

“People are concerned about so much these days,” he said. “When they’re worried about work, about the economy, about their families, it’s very difficult to find the emotional time for social concerns. There’s a connection between bad economic times and a lack of the critical time it takes to be concerned about other things.”

It’s important to remember that Lear characters, whatever their socio-political persuasion, never gave up. They soldiered on, playing the hands they were dealt as best they could and sometimes, like Archie, even learning a little something as they went along.

“Most people turn out to be reasonable,” Lear said, though he added that did not necessarily mean the world would be fine.

“I’m extremely hopeful and positive,” he said. “But history is full of bad times, and I’m afraid that in this time, things are getting worse.”

Lear told the Los Angeles Times in 2009 that in retrospect, he didn’t think shows like All In The Family had really changed anything.

“The real fantasy,” he said in 1991, “would be to put these shows [that deal with subjects like bigotry and injustice] out of business, because those issues wouldn’t exist.

”Vigilance is the eternal price of liberty.”

Call it fitting that Norman Lear went out with a vigil.

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David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”