Sony // 1972 // 3331 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // November 13th, 2008
"This is the big one! I'm comin' to join you, Elizabeth!"
Sanford and Son was initially conceived as simply a vehicle for Redd Foxx, a nightclub comedian who was well-known in the comedy circuit for his outrageously raunchy records. Based on the 1960s British series Steptoe and Son, Sanford and Son could have simply fallen into obscurity like many sitcoms, given that Foxx wasn't yet a megastar and his costar, Demond Wilson, was an unknown.
Instead, Sanford and Son became a smash, running for seven seasons and nominated for several Emmy awards (though it never won any). Foxx became a household name and his character, crotchety junkman Fred Sanford, became a pop-culture touchstone. Even the show's catchy theme song, by Quincy Jones, became iconic. Start humming it anywhere and it's guaranteed someone else will finish it for you.
The reason for the show's success was simple: Foxx. Wilson, as Fred's long-suffering son Lamont, was an able straight man (and would eventually get some chances to prove his comedic chops in the show's later seasons). The show also had a rich supporting cast, including LaWanda Page as priggish Aunt Esther, Whitman Mayo as Fred's dim-bulb friend Grady, and Don Bexley as Fred's scheming friend Bubba. Really, though, the show was Foxx's and he carried it with aplomb. Though he seemed a little restrained in the show's first season, by the second he had developed the confidence to seemingly adlib lines and add touches to his line readings to make the character of Fred totally his. The force that he brought to the show can be seen in the string of episodes in the third season when he was absent due to a salary dispute. Though Mayo took over temporarily and provided some laughs, these are easily among the weakest episodes in the series' history.
To be sure, the show's producer, Norman Lear, deserved some credit as well. Lear had shown a knack with his previous hit All in the Family for taking simple premises and using them as backdrops to examine complicated issues. The first season of the series is a bit tentative. In fact, many of the episodes here simply rehash episodes of Steptoe. By the second season, however, the writers had developed the confidence to examine the show's setting, in the post-riot Watts area of Los Angeles, with more detail. This season also had a couple of episodes, "The Dowry" and "Sanford and Son and Sister Makes Three," that contained more explicit and naturalistic language than could have been seen on TV at the time. Not surprisingly, these episodes were co-written by another star comedian, Richard Pryor. They paved the way for episodes in later seasons, such as "Lamont as Othello" that addressed issues such as class and race more straightforwardly. Sanford and Son would be groundbreaking, even though it would fall within conventional sitcom terms, just because its setting and characters were unlike anything that had been seen on TV before. That allowed a perspective that would pave the way for later shows, such as In Living Color and Chappelle's Show.
Though Sanford and Son is good, some viewers might not necessarily latch on to it. The show, as could be expected, is a product of its times. It's not just the language or clothing or some of the references (such as the increasing jabs at Nixon and Watergate). It's the sensibility displayed by the characters. It's set in working-class Watts, but this is in the era before hip-hop, so the anger and aggression that would emerge in the '80s and '90s isn't anywhere in evidence. Consequently, some younger viewers might find this show a bit quaint, even corny at times. Also, the show does sometimes rely too much on sitcom clichés, such as the overheard misunderstanding. Granted, this was before most of those situations had become clichés (and would be overused on later sitcoms such as Three's Company), but it can still be a bit disorienting to those used to more intricate modern sitcoms. Finally, in its later seasons, the series tended to get broader and more repetitive, a common failing among shows that last several seasons. The later storyline, for instance, involving the Sanford Arms, a boarding house that Fred and Lamont start to make extra money (and that led to a short-lived spinoff of the same name) is just not that interesting. It would have been better to have stayed with Fred's and Lamont's relationship, always the heart of the show.
Still, anyone interested in classic television should at least give Sanford and Son a look. As to whether this set is the best way to do so, well, that depends. The list price for this collection is $59.95, which is about the cost of two individual season sets. In pure financial terms, if you don't have any seasons and have been considering getting some, this may be the way to go. However, the packaging is astonishingly shoddy. Judges Kristin Munson and Brett Cullum have discussed this in their reviews of the NewsRadio and Good Times collections, but not enough opprobrium can be heaped on Sony for this packaging idea. The seventeen discs are all piled on top of one another on a cheap plastic spindle (as if they were blank DVD-Rs) and then the whole lot is put inside a flimsy cardboard box. There are no episode descriptions, only titles, which makes it hard to use if you don't remember the name of the particular episode you wanted to see. Also, these are all the same discs previously released as individual season sets, right down to the disc art, so don't expect any new extras or content. In fact, there aren't any extras at all on this particular set. The audio visual quality is OK, though some episodes look rather washed-out and there are a few video glitches here and there. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono mix is decent, but hardly earth-shattering. Which is to say, if you already have all or most of the individual seasons, this box isn't necessary, and if you do, you may have to supply your own packaging (such as extra empty cases) just to make it usable.
While Sanford and Son is most assuredly not guilty, Sony is definitely guilty of cutting corners way too much to make this package inexpensive. By just taking a little more care with the packaging (and maybe adding a disc of extras), Sony could have still kept this set affordable but made it indispensable. As Fred himself would say, "You big dummies!"
Review content copyright © 2008 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 3331 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Not Rated