The documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You finds pathos in an amiable, fluid construction that chronologically charts the career (and political) ambitions of TV producer Norman Lear, whose work on envelope-pushing shows like All in the Family, Maude, and Good Times throughout the 1970s emblazoned him as a father figure for aspiring, socially conscious comedians. That latter point is made, but isn’t hammered home by directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who use a brief, talking-head appearance from George Clooney and a clip from a chat with Jon Stewart to espouse Lear’s interest in imbuing the primetime sitcom with sociopolitical issues.
As Lear tells it, he recognized television’s possibility for such matters after seeing an episode of the British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part in the early ’70s. Subsequently, he developed a pilot for All in the Family, in which Archie Bunker, a conservative, bigoted patriarch, has repeated confrontations with his liberal, pacifist son-in-law. Lear sought to bring the topics of the nightly news into the living rooms and everyday lives of TV characters, which meant discussions of Vietnam, homosexuality, and, in the case of Maude, the title character’s dilemma over whether or not to get an abortion. The filmmakers soft-pedal through several of these topics with representative clips standing in for a pointed discussion of more controversial exchanges, as when Carroll O’Connor’s Archie says: “I never said a guy who wears glasses is a queer. A guy who wears glasses is a four-eyes and a guy who’s a fag is a queer.” As a retrospective on Lear’s use of daring language especially, the doc is content to marvel at such brashness instead of taking a sober, analytical approach.
Nevertheless, Ewing and Grady make excellent use of archival interviews and footage, most notably a bit in which O’Connor explains Archie as a man with “burdens that have poisoned his life.” It’s a stunning, even stomach-churning moment, especially in conjunction with the previously stated trepidation by critics that audiences were embracing the character of a lovable bigot. O’Connor, an “Irish-Catholic liberal,” shares Lear’s interest in skewering the “religious New Right,” as Lear calls them, and combatting the subsequent fear-mongering moralism of televangelists like Jerry Falwell. The filmmakers leave unresolved the complexities of representation and audience reception, which is understandable since it’s outside of the doc’s immediate subject, but nonetheless disappointing, because there’s a nagging sense that the accolades being heaped at Lear (the film has plenty) could be dialed down in favor of contemplating a deeper fissure between the strengths of Lear’s popular art and its reception on social terms.
The doc’s closest examination of this relationship comes through a section about the show Good Times, which reveals how cast members like Esther Rolle were constantly combatting depictions of African-Americans through a pursuit of “comedy without buffoonery.” Rolle believes the series ultimately failed in that regard with the emergence of a character played by Jimmie Walker, whose catchphrase “Dy-no-mite!” became the show’s primary source of amusement for audiences. As Rolle says, “To make him the most popular black in America was putting us all down.” While that point seems directed at the show’s reception and a system that exploits difference for commercial gain, it’s endemically a judgment on art’s limited ability to generate widespread empathy, even when that is its proposed aim. While the filmmakers never directly address this quandary, it haunts Lear’s work throughout as a consistent reminder that nothing can effect a change of hearts and minds without a public’s reception, where the possibility of misinterpretation looms just as large as any desired, positive effects.