Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’ve got another Sitcom Potpourri, where I briefly discuss several of the short-lived comedies I won’t have a chance to highlight in full — offering drive-by commentary that culminates in the selection of an episode that I think best represents each series at large. For this post, I’m looking at two of the three early ’90s multi-cams produced by the remarkable Norman Lear, who celebrated his 100th birthday last week!
In honoring him, I hope to also indicate just how outstanding his classic All In The Family (1971-1979, CBS) was, for while I sometimes use his idea-driven style to draw a contrast against more genre-affirming (and satisfying) character-driven offerings, the reason this series — his best — was so special is because it had such strong characters. This point should become especially clear when examining his later efforts, like Sunday Dinner (1991, CBS) and 704 Hauser (1994, CBS)… But, first, you’ll note that I already discussed the series he produced in between those two — The Powers That Be (1992-1993, NBC) — back in 2017. I found it to be one of the finest short-lived sitcoms I’d ever seen — part of the early ’90s’ trend of revisiting the soap/drama aesthetic in sitcom form. It’s propelled by story, yes, but enlivened by funny, well-defined leads who help inspire some very unique episodic notions. So, although it’s fundamentally idea-led like all of Lear’s series, it’s got great character work in support. It’s also, interestingly, not created by the maestro himself, and thus, less structurally connected to All In The Family than the two here — which falter, in part, because of obvious associations. But let’s dive in…
SUNDAY DINNER (June 1991 – July 1991, CBS)
Premise: A widower’s family has trouble adjusting to his new romance with a younger woman.
Cast: Robert Loggia, Teri Hatcher, Patrick Breen, Martha Gehman, Kari Lizer, Marian Mercer, Shiri Appleby
Writers: Norman Lear, Marie Therese Squerciati, Wayne Lemon, Fred Graver, Howard Gould, Marta Kauffman & David Crane, Charlie Hauck, Vincent Ventola & Roseanne Alessandro-Ventola
Thoughts: Norman Lear made several attempted sitcom comebacks in the early ‘90s and this was his first. Inspired by his recent marriage to a younger woman, Sunday Dinner’s premise is perfectly paired right now with Empty Nest, another show where a widower’s daughters had to adjust to his dating. But, of course, this one is much more Lear-ian in its style, as it tries to incorporate a lot of what made All In The Family so brilliant, like strong ensemble relationships that can channel both relatable familial conflict and some issue-based debate. In fact, while All In The Family saw a father trying to hold onto his daughter after she married a hippy dippy man who was his political opposite, Sunday Dinner offers a variation, as two daughters — and specifically the elder one — struggle to hold onto their father when he takes up with a hippy dippy younger woman who also doesn’t share their beliefs. Specifically, said younger woman, played by Teri Hatcher, is a devout Christian and environmentalist — an odd pairing that Lear seems politically interested in reconciling (that is, science and religion), in addition to using as elements for tension within the family. However, it’s all more ham-fisted than on All In The Family, because these points-of-view are less supported by the expected generational divide. Additionally, the May/December romantic engine proves to be even less masterful, for although All In The Family was always structurally designed to critique and lampoon Archie, with Mike and Gloria most often framed as correct, at least Mike had comic traits that indicated flaws and enabled him to meet Archie as something of a partner in their weekly battles.
In Sunday Dinner, because we’re supposed to root for the relationship between the older man and the younger woman, they’re treated with kid gloves — charming, likable, and with few of the flaws necessary to push conflict. Instead, everything comes from his family members, most of whom take issue with their romance and actively hope to break them up. This imbalance makes the characters with flaws/quirks feel overly broad, while those without flaws/quirks feel overly bland. Again, I get why — our sympathies are supposed to lie with the couple — but I think this actually backfires, for without comic shape that emboldens them to be true participants in conflict with the family, the couple feels false. What’s more, the younger woman’s weekly prayer session looks especially manipulative in this context — she’s too loving, too righteous, both in terms of the familial drama and in their issue-led arguments. (Contrast this with a show like Everybody Loves Raymond. No one was explicitly trying to split up Ray and Debra as a goal, but in a show similarly hinged on family discord, the Ray/Debra bond was successfully centralized as its emotional core… because they were both allowed to be flawed too. This in turn made them comedic when opposed with the elder Barones, but more believable and therefore sympathetic as well.) So, this is a Lear sitcom at its worst — when the presentation of preordained ideas is harmfully prioritized over the depiction and use of its characters in story. Accordingly, though I see so much of All In The Family in Sunday Dinner — like the dramatic interest in getting all the leads together under one roof for long, theatrical scenes (every Sunday) — Lear’s dwindling care to ensure that everyone in the cast has some kind of comedic bent, regardless of his premised and very obvious perspective, means that this is simply a lesser version of that earlier classic.
Episode Count: Six episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All six.
Key Episode: #4: “My Dinner With Jack And Dolores” (06/23/91)
Why: This is a bit of a departure for this brief series, as its conflict doesn’t only come from the daughters’ efforts to break up their father’s romance. It’s also rooted in the couple’s desire to be approved by his old friends, played by Paul Dooley and Doris Roberts, both of whom are always material-elevating, instilling in this entry some missing humanity as they match comic shape with emotional dimension and take some of the dramatic burden off his family. That said, you can still see the flaws here, like the manipulative way the show uses its young environmentalist’s religion to suggest her moral correctness, which is precisely the problem: she’s too good, and it’s just as false as the caricatured opposition of his daughters.
704 HAUSER (Apr 1994 – May 1994, CBS)
Premise: Black parents must adjust to the fact that their son is both conservative and dating a white Jewish woman.
Cast: John Amos, Lynnie Godfrey, T.E. Russell, Maura Tierney
Writers: Norman Lear, John Baskin & Roger Shulman, Walter Allen Bennett Jr., Kevin Heelan, Janet Lynne Jackson, Greg Cope & Sean Dwyer, Andrea Allen-Wiley, Mady Julian
Thoughts: As the conservative movement found new champions in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s via talk radio, Lear thought the time was right again — as it had been during the Nixon administration — for a show about the country’s political polarization, seen through the construct of a nuclear family. So, he turned back to All In The Family, using it even more directly for guidance than on Sunday Dinner, to craft this similar show about a family divided on both generational and ideological lines — only now, the family would be Black, and instead of the parents being more conservative than their younger counterparts, they would be the liberals. Okay… despite existing as a clear inverse of All In The Family, this isn’t a bad setup, for it has the capacity to work just as well as the aforementioned — as long as its characters are well-defined, and the ensemble relationships can help give motivated emotional weight to their political beefs. What’s more, with the generations switched, there’s the possibility for this show to actually be more nuanced with its topicality, for now the flawed, crotchety father will be embodying the show’s own viewpoint, complicating Lear’s more straightforward messaging… However, there are a few things that keep 704 Hauser from rising to the occasion. For one, it’s there in the title — this show is set in a renovated version of the Bunkers’ old house, with the association between these two series meant to provide a thematic hook. And this forces comparisons that do this show — heck, it would do most shows — no favors, for not only are these characters less comedically distinct than the Bunkers (who had the benefit of their era’s more pronounced generation gap connecting the dots), their relationships are also not as strong. Note two key structural differences. The first is that both mother and father are aligned politically, and while they quibble over some issues like religion and feminism, they are each equally forceful — and similarly loud — when combatting a conservative idea. This minimizes their personality differences, giving their dynamic less dimension and richness than Archie and Edith’s.
Second, and more importantly, 704 Hauser’s primary clash is between two liberal parents — particularly the dad — and their son, a conservative. That renders the son’s girlfriend an outsider, for instead of her being the source of tension for the father, as Mike is to Archie, she is in political accord with the family against her boyfriend, minimizing their potential battles and leaving her basically extraneous to the ensemble’s main conflict. That would be like if All In The Family was about conservative Archie fighting liberal Gloria, who’s now married to a conservative man — a construct that wouldn’t be as fruitful or believable, for the relatable tension between in-laws is what helped fuel the Bunkers’ political animosity, with both Edith and Gloria stuck in the middle as contrasting mediators, making each player structurally crucial. In 704 Hauser, because she’s liberal too, the girlfriend (Maura Tierney) is never fully necessary — she’s on the outside (she doesn’t live there) — and merely causes trivial angst only because she’s white and Jewish, so the series can mine tired Jeffersons-esque laughs from interracial notions that, by the ’90s, were less novel. To that point, there’s also a lot of allusions to Lear’s past efforts — in addition to the mixed coupling, and the 704 locale, the series stars Good Times’ John Amos, and story ideas in its brief six-week output include a plot cribbed from an old Sanford And Son, and another where we meet a Maude-like character who challenges Amos’ patriarchy. Beyond that, the pilot is an almost beat-by-beat remake of All In The Family’s, with a grown-up Joey Stivic making a cameo and filling something of Lionel’s space in the original. Again, these comparisons to an earlier — and better designed — series are bad for 704 Hauser, for while the writing itself is decent, and the cast is fairly sharp, it’s just not as smart. And then the gimmickry of winking about its pedigree further cheapens what is here, emphasizing a lack of originality…. Plus, ultimately, for as much as Lear thought the time was right for a new All In The Family, the hits of the mid-‘90s prove that he was wrong. This was the era of “Singles in the City” rom-coms, not kitchen sink social dramas in sitcom form. Those days — Lear’s days — were over.
Episode Count: Six episodes, five of which were broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All six.
Key Episode: #3: “Ernie Live On Tape” (04/25/94)
Why: Although the pilot conjures up the most associations with All In The Family because it’s a structural copy of that series’ debut, #5 offers a Maude-like character, #6 cribs a Sanford And Son, and #2 is notable for how it weaves in a debate about Clarence Thomas that divides the family in interesting ways, my favorite is #3 — it offers a narrative more predicated on the central differences in perspective between father and son, as they disagree over whether a shared encounter was evidence of racism. In this entry, the ensemble relationships all get fleshed out by being in the spotlight, and the story is unique to this series and its own premised conflict.
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for Evening Shade!