Breaking into television as the medium was starting in the 1950s, Norman Lear rose up as a sharp writer and producer. In 1971, he changed TV with his smash hit All in the Family, which kicked off a string of sitcoms that changed so much of culture.
Lear tackled issues most TV dramas wouldn’t touch, let alone comedies. His shows addressed race, class, economic problems, cultural changes and more. His legacy as a groundbreaker earned him everything from Emmys to Peabody Awards to the Kennedy Center Honors. His passing at 101 is a great time to check out where his best shows are streaming now!
All in the Family
There are groundbreaking shows, and then there’s All in the Family. Carroll O’Connor was amazing as Archie Bunker, a man whose bigotries and temper should have made him hated but instead beloved. Jean Stapleton matched him as his ditzy wife Edith with Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers bringing youthful energy to the series.
The show was fantastic, addressing race and class issues with memorable episodes from Archie meeting Sammy Davis Jr. to Edith surviving an intruder in her home. The short-lived Archie’s Place sequel series wasn’t as good, but the original All in the Family deserves its place as one of the greatest shows in TV history.
Streaming: Prime Video/Freevee
Lear began expanding All in the Family with various spin-offs. The most successful was this hit with Sherman Helmsley as George Jefferson, basically the black Archie Bunker. A low-status guy made good, George’s massive ego was matched by his boisterous attitude and always ready to pick a fight with anyone.
Like its parent show, the series addressed issues of race (George could fire off an epithet as much as anyone) and a great supporting cast (especially Marla Gibbs as housekeeper Florence, always putting George in his place). It’s little wonder it remains one of the biggest African-American sitcoms ever.
Streaming: Prime Video, Tubi
Before The Golden Girls, Bea Arthur became a TV legend for her starring role in this daring show. Maude was a proud liberal woman living with her fourth husband with her domineering personality showing some sharp wit (see her catchphrase “God will get ya for that.”)
The show had a great supporting cast, including Arthur’s future Girls co-star Rue McClanahan. It also had the historic episode where Maude decides to get an abortion, a TV first. Other episodes addressed Walter’s alcoholism as Maude may be the best example of Lear able to weave some laughs amid the real-life struggles people endure, all anchored by Arthur’s amazing performance.
The final of the main All in the Family spin-offs was notable for addressing the struggles of an inner-city African-American family in Chicago. Esther Rolle was Florida with John Amos as husband James. The breakout of the show was Jimmie Walker’s J.J., whose “Dyno-mite!” line became a catchphrase.
The show would tackle the problems this family faced and some major twists, such as Amos leaving and James being killed off. Later seasons had a young Janet Jackson joining up with Lear expertly showing how this family endured their struggles for a good time for audiences.
Sanford and Son
While not as hands-on with this as other shows, Lear’s touch is still evident in this hit. Redd Foxx was perfectly cast as Fred Sanford, the cantankerous owner of a junkyard, with Demond Wilson as his educated and patient son Lamont. Much of the humor came with Fred’s get-rich-quick schemes backfiring on him.
The show was famous for Fred constantly faking a heart attack (“I’m coming, Elizabeth!”) and the banter between him and Lamont showing they did love each other despite their issues. It had a few spin-offs of its own, but the original is still the best to showcase another Lear gem.
Streaming: Peacock and Pluto
One Day at a Time
It’s rare that the same producer is able to craft two versions of the same show, but Lear did it. The original Day aired nine seasons with Bonnie Franklin as a single mom raising her two teen daughters. It could be pretty unique in storylines, such as Franklin turning down a seemingly perfect guy because she doesn’t want more kids. Plus, handyman Schneider always provided some good help.
Lear also produced the 2017 Netflix revival, which put a Latin-American spin on the concept. It was just as fun and frank with touches like the teen daughter a proudly out liberal while legendary Rita Moreno stole every scene. Either version is a showcase of how Lear could be daring in family matters.
Streaming: Original series on Tubi, 2017 reboot on Netflix
Lear did produce more shows (sadly, his cult favorite Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman isn’t on streaming) but these rank as the ultimate tributes to the works of a man who changed all of television.