Judge Clark Douglas is movin' on up.
Seven legendary programs created by one of the great minds of American television.
"We had a great time. We delivered a product to the American people that made them laugh. I don't know how anyone can spend time more enriching."—Norman Lear
Throughout the 1970s, Norman Lear was constantly pushing the boundaries of television sitcoms and creating groundbreaking new programs. A World War II veteran with liberal leanings, Lear was interested in the idea of using television comedy to examine a wide variety of important social issues. He won four Emmys during the early part of the decade, and most of his programs won the hearts of both critics and audiences. There were certainly plenty of well-intentioned liberals with an interest in promoting their politics working in the entertainment industry during the era, but what made Lear exceptional was his ability to fuse his values so seamlessly within the fabric of genuinely quality programming. Viewers didn't keep coming back because they were interested in learning lessons about racism or poverty; they kept coming back because the shows made them laugh and because they cared about the characters.
As a way of paying tribute to the television legend, Sony has put together a massive box set collecting the first seasons of seven Lear-created programs: All in the Family, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Maude, One Day at a Time, and Sanford and Son. In addition, the set provides viewers with over six hours of brand-new supplements. Sounds like a pretty awesome set, right? No, I don't think so.
The first significant problem with The Norman Lear Collection is that all of the programs included here have already had their first seasons released separately on DVD. I suspect that the vast majority of those who care enough about Norman Lear to spend over 100 bucks on a set celebrating his work have already purchased most of the stuff included here. The set is certainly an attractive package, with eight "hardcover book" sets (one for each of the shows and one for the supplements) housed inside a large rectangular box. It looks good, but if looking good the only thing this set has to offer, why not just make an oversized coffee table book instead?
But okay, let's just say that you're interested in Lear's work but for some reason you don't actually own any of the previous DVD releases. This is an ideal release for you, right? I'm still not so sure. As is the case with most television programs, the majority of these programs took a little while to hit their stride. There are certainly strong individual episodes in this set, but there's the general sense that most of these series are still trying to find their footing. The cast interaction isn't 100 percent comfortable yet, the comic timing is occasionally just a bit off, the writers haven't completely figured out which jokes will work and which jokes won't when delivered by a specific character, and so on. As such, The Norman Lear Collection doesn't truly represent the best of Mr. Lear. Considering the self-contained nature of the episodes from these shows, I think it would have been a great idea to just pick a batch of the very best episodes from all of these programs. It would have led to a far more satisfying set that would actually have given viewers a true appreciation of just how brilliant Lear could be when he was on his A-game.
The good stuff here is contained on the two bonus discs offering all of the new special features. Let's take a look at what we get.
• Norman Says—Don't Miss This (1 minute): A very brief statement from Lear, who says that many other individuals were responsible for the success of these programs, and that he only achieved such a high level of success because he knows how to collaborate.
• "Those Were the Days—The Birth of All in the Family" (27 minutes): This very intriguing featurette talks about the considerable amount of time and effort it took to actually get this program on the air, and the behind-the-scenes battles between Lear and the network.
• "The TV Revolution Begins—All the Family is On the Air" (30 minutes): This piece takes a look at some of the high points of the program, and also examines the effect Archie Bunker's controversial dialogue had on television viewers. Interviews with Lear, Rob Reiner, and many others are included.
• "Justice for All (Pilot)": The first failed attempt at starting the show that would eventually become All in the Family. In this version, Archie Bunker is named Archie Justice, which Lear found an amusingly ironic named for such a bigoted character.
• "Those Were the Days (Pilot)": The second failed attempt at creating the same program. This one seems to come just a little closer to the mark, but once again it failed to impress network executives. Interestingly enough, this particular pilot begins with a "for mature viewers" warning.
• "And Then There's Maude—Television's First Feminist" (22 minutes): The story of how one of most dynamic female television characters of the era was created for All in the Family and eventually spun off into her own television program.
• "Everything but Hemorrhoids—Maude Speaks to America" (14 minutes): The cast and crew of Maude reminisce about the social importance of the program and what participating in such a show was like at the time.
• "Movin' On Up—The Jeffersons": The story of another program that spun out of All in the Family, and how that show began to develop its own distinct identity. This piece also talks about the challenges of getting a program on the air that attempting to honestly depict the lives of an African-American family.
• "Ain't We Lucky We Got 'Em—Good Times" (27 minutes): Yet another spin-off saga, telling the tale of how the lead characters in Good Times were created for Maude. This piece also talks about how the comedy dynamic in this particular program differed from Lear's The Jeffersons.
• "Everybody Loves a Clown—Sanford and Son" (12 minutes): This piece primarily focuses on actor Redd Fox and the success he found playing his signature role of Fred G. Sanford.
• "This Is It—The Story of One Day at a Time" (30 minutes): A very engaging making-of piece that offers a fairly comprehensive look at a series. Lear speaks about the challenges of convincing the network to allow a divorced woman to star in a program.
• "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman—Inside the Funhouse Mirror" (30 minutes): A behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Lear's famous soap opera, and the way the program attempted to provide a look inside the lives of the sort of people who would actually be watching the program.
• "Mary's Breakdown—Part 1 and Part 2": The famous two-part episode of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in which the title character suffered a nervous breakdown on a live television program. Certainly one of the most historic moments on the show, so I'm glad that it was included.
• "On the Verge of…" (18 minutes): A featurette focusing specifically on the making of the 2-part "Mary's Breakdown."
• "The Legacy of a Television Revolutionary" (8 minutes): A brief tribute piece in which most of the living stars of Lear's programs say some kind words about the man responsible for their success.
Overall, this is a terrific batch of supplemental material that will prove very illuminating and engaging for fans of '70s television. None of this stuff falls into self-congratulatory irrelevancy; it's all well-produced, thoughtful material.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you actually hope to own the first seasons of all of these shows, I suppose you could get a decent deal by picking up this set and then purchasing subsequent seasons separately. It may seem a bit having some of the seasons inside the deluxe box set and some by themselves on your shelf, but at least you'll get all the compelling bonus features this set has to offer.
I really can't recommend this set. The shows are good and the extras are great, but again, the people who really want this already have everything they need. The Norman Lear Collection is a disappointing failure as a box set.
The shows themselves are not guilty, but the box set as a whole most
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