Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m featuring a full-length installment of Love Thy Neighbor (1973, ABC), the 12-episode American adaptation of the popular British sitcom about a white liberal couple whose new neighbors turn out to be Black. We discussed this series back in 2018 when I shared a copy of the pilot script, by producer Arthur Julian (December Bride, F Troop, Hogan’s Heroes, The Doris Day Show, Maude, Gimme A Break!, Amen), so I’ll ask you to refer back to that post for more information on its production and reception.
Here, I just want to put the series in the context of our recent Norman Lear commentary, for having now had the opportunity to screen four episodes of Love Thy Neighbor, I can confirm that my initial adjudication of the show’s limited premise and lack of dimensional, well-defined leads not only still stands, but also validates just how exceptional Lear’s early ’70s output is, even despite its shortcomings as idea-driven fare that only uses its regulars for the sake of guiding issue-based interests that can’t narratively sustain a long run. For, as usual, it’s all relative — Lear’s smartest gems, like All In The Family, may not be concerned with exploring the characters like MTM’s classics are, but his shows are at least able to often marry their desired sociopolitical conflicts to relatable internal relationships that both emphasize strong comic definition for the leads and give emotional weight to the chosen dramatic topics, so that they’re more than just exploitative. This is in contrast to a show like Love Thy Neighbor, which nevertheless also exists within the era’s trend of low-concept realism and seeks a Lear-ian social cachet (indeed, this was one of ABC’s reactions to the success of other topical British imports like All In The Family on CBS and Sanford And Son on NBC), but doesn’t have the fundamental base of humanity to make its idea-driven premise more than just a clichéd one-joke notion with surface, one-joke characters, who are a threat to the series’ desired realism and therefore its premise. Of course, it doesn’t help that, by the summer of 1973, the novelty of such topicality was already wearing thin — in fact, Love Thy Neighbor was essentially taking the two-year-old Bunkers vs. Jeffersons dynamic on All In The Family and stripping it of its clear characterizations, its surrounding leads, and the counterbalancing seriousness that kept the show from indulging only in cheap, tacky race jokes that wouldn’t be funny without the sharp personas to endorse them. But it’s not just dwindling novelty to blame for this tired premise; even The Jeffersons was able to do more with a “Black vs. white” setup — two years later — all thanks to better character work.
Interestingly, creator and producer Arthur Julian, a veteran sitcom scribe (and actor) with an old-fashioned yuk-yuk sensibility (evidenced here) eventually went on to write for Maude during the latter’s last two seasons. But by then, that series had pivoted away from topicality as its sole focus and had accrued enough of a foundation of character to offset the kind of traditional, idea-led storytelling it was employing, where it only mattered that the leads were basically believable in their realistic low-concept trappings…Now, for a sample of the opposite, I’m sharing the final aired entry of Love Thy Neighbor, “The Minstrel Show,” which was broadcast on September 19, 1973, written by Arthur Julian, and directed by Bill Hobin (who had helmed many early Maude segments). Its plot, in dubious taste, plays to the series’ single-dimensional “Black vs. white” premise — a minstrel show (an idea later used in the sixth season of All In The Family, incidentally) — while revealing just how starved of relatable, well-defined leads the show is because it’s too busy focusing on its narrow, and not-so-fresh setup, failing to deliver characterizations who could both provide humorous plot outside of hacky idea-driven shtick and/or inspire the kind of humanity seen in the best sitcoms of this era, overtly topical or not. So, ultimately, this is a series that makes me appreciate Norman Lear, whose sociopolitical offerings were funnier, realer, and better fleshed out via characters (even Good Times’)! Here’s a clip. For access to the full show, visit this link; the password is arthurjulian.
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Good Times!