"Well, we're movin' on up to the East Side…
When maverick producer Norman Lear transplanted a couple of incidental characters from his megahit situation comedy All in the Family to their own spin-off series, how much would anyone have bet that the new show would not only outlast Archie Bunker and the gang, but would run for a decade, becoming the longest-playing hit in Lear's storied television career?
And when those characters happened to be African-American, and this was the middle of the 1970s…as they say in the infomercials, "NOW how much would you pay?"
Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment takes us back to where it all began: The Jeffersons: The Complete First Season.
Facts of the Case
"Fish don't fry in the kitchen, beans don't burn on the
"Took a whole lot of tryin' just to get up that
"Now we're up in the big leagues, gettin' our turn at
"As long as we live, it's you and me, baby…"
"There ain't nothin' wrong with that!"
Episode 1: "A Friend in Need": Louise is embarrassed when a domestic worker she befriends in the building Laundromat thinks that Louise, who like the other woman is black, is also a maid.
Episode 2: "Louise Feels Useless": Unable to feel satisfied lounging about the new apartment, Louise takes a job at a competitor's dry cleaning store.
Episode 3: "George's Family Tree": Ever intent to impress, George goes looking for kings among his forebears.
Episode 4: "Lionel, the Playboy": George and Louise worry about Lionel's swinging new lifestyle.
Episode 5: "Mr. Piano Man": George rents a piano to show off at a tenant party.
Episode 6: "George's Skeleton": George is blackmailed by a former acquaintance.
Episode 7: "Lionel Cries Uncle": Louise's uncle comes to visit, and his deferential manner gets him branded by George and Lionel as an "Uncle Tom."
Episode 8: "Mother Jefferson's Boyfriend": George is appalled when his mother decides to move to Florida with her new beau.
Episode 9: "Meet the Press": George tries to get a magazine to publish a cover story about his rise to the top.
Episode 10: "Rich Man's Disease": George gets an ulcer.
Episode 11: "Former Neighbors": Friends from the old neighborhood prove an embarrassment to George when a wealthy client is visiting.
Episode 12: "Like Father, Like Son": Louise worries that Lionel is becoming too much like his old man.
Episode 13: "Jenny's Low": Jenny Willis experiences an identity crisis when her older brother, who is sufficiently light-skinned to be presumed white, returns home.
From the perspective of the early 21st century, it's tough to appreciate what a truly groundbreaking piece of television The Jeffersons was when it premiered on CBS in January 1975. The program seems almost like an artifact from another era of human civilization, rather than a situation comedy that debuted more recently than Star Trek: The Original Series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and other television classics that remain popular today. But before The Jeffersons, there had never been a TV show that featured: (1) a well-to-do African-American family living in a predominantly Caucasian environment; (2) an interracial married couple (and happily married at that); (3) a biracial supporting character; (4) a black domestic worker whose employers were as dark-skinned as she. The Jeffersons presented all of the above.
Not surprisingly, the issues of race—and the manner in which the show dealt with them—made The Jeffersons a lightning rod for criticism. Ironically, much of the criticism originated in the black community, some of whom found George Jefferson a clownish throwback to George "Kingfish" Stevens in Amos and Andy. Others felt the producers took the easy road in featuring an interracial couple with white male and black female spouses, instead of showing the potentially more controversial (if more common) pairing of an African-American man and an Anglo woman. Still others resented the suggestion that a black family had to abandon their roots and move into white society in order to project an image of success. And, of course, there were closed-minded folks on both ends of the melanin spectrum who simply didn't want to see people of different races getting together in any way, shape or form, period.
None of these quibbles kept The Jeffersons from becoming an immediate monster hit for the Eye Network, or from lasting ten top-rated seasons. Why? Well, let's go for the obvious—a lot of Americans of all ethnicities found the show funny. George and Louise Jefferson, with their constant squabbling and mutual bluster, simply carried forward an archetypical comic pairing whose antecedents included Archie and Edith Bunker (All in the Family, from which The Jeffersons spun off), Ralph and Alice Kramden (The Honeymooners), and Don Ameche and Frances Langford's The Bickersons of radio fame. Sherman Hemsley's George was pompous, loud, grating, insulting and full of himself, but certainly no more so than numerous other white characters who had come before. For her part, "Weezy" could hold her own in a toe-to-toe shouting match with her blowhard husband as well as "To the moon, Alice" ever did. Were George and Weezy caricatures? Sure they were. But name a major character in any sitcom, past or present, who isn't drawn at least a little broader than life. After all, that's why we laugh at them.
The dynamic that came to define The Jeffersons, though, is only visible in this first season in occasional flashes: the sharp-tongued class warfare between hot-tempered George and equally volcanic Florence, the housekeeper portrayed by Marla Gibbs. That's a good thing for viewers of this DVD package, because the George/Florence duels in succeeding seasons swamped the other supporting players into the background, and dominated the show's humor to a degree that it got old pretty quickly. In these early episodes, the writers and cast are still feeling their way around the characters, and Florence is a relatively minor participant in the ensemble who doesn't even appear in every installment. There's a balance amid all the shouting here that's still comfortable, and that still allows the other characters room to grow.
Not that they'd grow much. The problem with most of the supporting roles is that, except for Florence, they're played too gently in comparison with the overbearing lead. As a consequence, they never develop much depth. Jefferson son Lionel possesses zero personality. (This got worse later in the show's run when a different actor—the unrelated and even less distinctive Damon Evans—assumed the part for a few seasons.) The Willises, though tastefully handled by Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover, aren't given much to do except serve as foils for George. Their daughter—and Lionel's girlfriend—Jenny is little more than a plot device despite an appealing actress (Berlinda Tolbert) in the role. (And viewers who didn't see where the Lionel/Jenny coupling was headed even at this infant stage were just asleep at the switch.)
Aside from Florence, the other standout in the background cast is George's mother, played with a devilish blend of saccharine sweetness and offhand nastiness by Zara Cully. Always referred to as "Mother Jefferson" by the other characters, this materfamilias dotes on George (we can definitely see where his inflated self-esteem originated) and despises Louise, even after the two have been married for 25 years. Mother Jefferson adds a tasty bit of spice to the mix when, as with Florence, she isn't overused. Some of the most hilarious material in these episodes involves the subtle ways Mother Jefferson and Weezy snipe at one another while trying not to be obvious about it.
Most of the stories are fairly routine sitcom fare. In these initial outings, the writers establish the basic parameters the show would follow for the next ten years: George striving to be a bigshot while the rest of the world around him—including the members of his household—conspires to keep him humble. Everything George does, from installing a humongous grand piano in his living room (which he has no clue how to play) to searching his family tree for African royalty, springs from his nouveau riche desire to fit in with the aristocracy of the world. In this respect, he's not unlike many of the characters played by Groucho in the classic Marx Brothers movies: a regular guy who just wants to gain acceptance from the rich and famous, and will go to outrageous lengths to do so.
The DVD package in which Columbia TriStar gives us The Jeffersons: The Complete First Season doesn't show much love to these venerable episodes. The video and audio is what you'd expect from video shot a quarter-century ago, which is to say, not great. The images within the episodes themselves have been brightened considerably from what we've seen lately on the classic TV cable channels, which is good news, even though Columbia has—as is their tendency on every DVD they release—edge-enhanced these poor devils to within an inch of their lives. The soundtrack sounds reasonably clean, and the dialogue and laugh tracks are acceptably distinct.
The real lack of care shows in the two discs themselves. Each episode must be accessed individually—there's no way to pop a disc in and let it play continuously through all of the episodes it contains. Now, I realize most people aren't planning to plop themselves in the Barcalounger with a six-pack of root beer and a barrel of nachos and plow through four hours of The Jeffersons, or any other sitcom for that matter. But it would be nice that you could, if you wanted to.
It would also help not to have to endure the opening theme every single half-hour. Unlike some shows, The Jeffersons's episodes had no "teaser" scenes before the opening credits, so it would have been simple to have the intro segment appear only once, as a separate chapter at the beginning of each disc. At the very least, a chapter stop could have been inserted to make it quick and painless to skip the intro for each episode (it's the same piece of video every time, people!) and get right to the story. This would also have helped disguise the fact that the intro is in noticeably poor shape compared to the interiors of each installment. However, as weary as I got of hearing it, did any sitcom—aside from Gilligan's Island—ever have a theme song that so succinctly set up the premise of the show as The Jeffersons's theme (penned and performed by Ja'Net du Bois of another Lear spinoff, Good Times) did?
And there are fewer extras in this set than Klansmen at an NAACP rally—which is to say, none. For a show that broke as many barriers as The Jeffersons, you'd think any number of people—social scientists, media historians, prominent African-American actors and actresses, not to mention the cast members of the series themselves—would have jumped at the chance to participate in a documentary highlighting the show's cultural significance, setting it in its appropriate historical context, and contrasting it to the black-oriented sitcoms of today. Of course, you'd have to actually pay these folks, plus a film crew and production team, to accomplish this, and Sony Pictures already blew that huge wad on the upcoming Spider-Man DVD collector's set. I suppose it could have been worse: we could have had The Jeffersons: The Complete First Season—Superbit Edition, in which Columbia still would stiff us on the supplements, but make up for it by charging us half again the retail price.
In The Jeffersons, however, the pink elephant in the center of the room is always the peculiarly American conundrum of race relations. We are never too far from being reminded how rare a bird George Jefferson is in 1970s New York—a wealthy black man who's moved up from the ghetto to a "deluxe apartment in the sky"—or how unusual in this social climate it is for Americans to embrace—either platonically or romantically—those with different pigmentation or ethnic heritage. Sometimes those drums get pounded a little hard, but keep in mind that until Norman Lear came along, no television producer had even dared to tap them.
Could a TV network mount a show like The Jeffersons today, in this era of political correctness? Not hardly. This kind of over-the-top racial humor—including surprisingly liberal use of the "N"-pejorative—would never rise off the drawing board at one of the Big Four these days. And in some ways, maybe that's progress, in a roundabout way. But consider this: without George Jefferson blazing the trail, we might never have seen a Heathcliff Huxtable, a Steve Harvey, or a Bernie Mac on the idiot box.
Is The Jeffersons dated? You bet. At times, embarrassingly so. But if you lived through the 1970s, and even more significantly, through the two turbulent decades that preceded them, you not only get the humor, but the tension behind it.
Are you going to buy, or even rent this? Unless you're already a fan, probably not, and certainly not at a hefty MSRP. Overall, I don't enjoy The Jeffersons as much as, say, Sanford and Son or The Cosby Show, mostly because Sherman Hemsley isn't the unique comic talent that Redd Foxx was or that Bill Cosby is. But I'm glad these shows are on DVD, for their historical value if nothing else.
George and Weezy are free to go, as long as they promise never to eat at Denny's again. (Guess we finally got a piece of that pie too.) Case dismissed!
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