Shows like The Office, Game of Thrones and Friends have helped define the 21st century TV landscape, but they’re honestly footnotes compared to the impact that Norman Lear TV shows have had on the history of television.
For anyone born after 2000, Norman Lear may not be a name you're overly familiar with and you may have never watched a second of any of his TV shows, but his work in TV, particularly sitcoms in the 1970s, helped chart the course for TV right up until today. In a clip from a PBS special on Norman Lear (opens in new tab), TV producer Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond), said Lear was the most influential TV producer ever and splits the history of TV in two: "BN and AN, Before Norman and After Norman."
Lear turned 100 years old in 2022, with his centennial birthday celebrated in an ABC special, Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music & Laughter, on September 22. While this special honors the man and his broad career, we’re pinpointing some of the best and most quintessential Norman Lear TV shows and how you can watch them.
1. All in the Family
If forced to pick one show to represent Norman Lear’s career, it would be All in the Family. The sitcom, which began in 1971, helped change how TV shows were viewed thanks to the subject matter that Lear dared to tackle on the show, predominantly through the character of Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). Bunker is portrayed as a working-class man set in his ways, with both the comedy and conflict of the show centered on how he interacted with the big issues of the day, including race, politics and more. It was a bold place to tread for a show built as a comedy, but it worked.
In addition to O’Connor’s iconic performance, All in the Family starred Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers. The show won 22 Primetime Emmys across its nine seasons, including Outstanding Comedy Series four times.
- Where to watch: all nine seasons are available on Amazon Freevee
2. Fernwood 2 Night
Fernwood 2 Night did not have the longevity of some of Lear’s other TV shows, but we’d be remiss to not include it because it served as one of the first true starring vehicles for two beloved comedians — Martin Mull and Fred Willard.
The show was a spinoff of Mull’s character, Barth Gimble, from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, where Barth runs his own talk show in the small town of Fernwood, Ohio. While it was a new format at the time, it would be one later repeated by The Larry Sanders Show.
- Where to watch: a handful of episodes are available on YouTube (opens in new tab)
3. Good Times
Created by Eric Monte and Mike Evans (with Lear helping to develop and executive producer the show), Good Times marked was one of the early sitcoms to focus on a Black family. In this case, it was the Evans family in Chicago, made up of actors including Ja’net Dubois, Ralph Carter, BerNadette Stanis, Jimmie Walker, Esther Rolle, John Amos and (in later seasons) Janet Jackson.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the show was Walker’s catchphrase, "Dyn-o-mite," but fans like Common have shared what the show meant to them (opens in new tab) during its height.
4. The Jeffersons
Though coming on the heels of Good Times, The Jeffersons arguably became the more popular of the two shows. Spun off from the Jefferson family that first appeared in All in the Family, The Jeffersons follows the titular family as they move into a deluxe apartment (in the sky, as the theme song goes). Though the show still focuses on social issues at the heart of most of Lear’s work, the Jeffersons must deal with building relationships with the other tenants.
Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford starred in the series, with the actress winning an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, becoming the first Black woman to do so.
- Where to watch in the US: streaming on Prime Video and for free (with ads) on Tubi and Pluto TV.
- Where to watch in the UK: streaming on Prime Video
5. Live in Front of a Studio Audience
Norman Lear hasn’t stopped trying to share the messages he first put forth in his TV shows, doing so most recently with a number of TV specials, Live in Front of a Studio Audience. Working with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Lear helps produce live reproductions of some of his most famous shows, including All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Good Times, as well as The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes, which Lear’s production company originally produced.
These specials have allowed Norman Lear to add to the history books, making him both the oldest Emmy nominee and oldest Emmy winner ever.
- Where to watch: available to stream on Hulu and on ABC.com
6. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
If you only take a look at the length of its run — two seasons — it would appear that Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is one of Lear's lesser works. But on closer examination, you'll see that the show was an incredible feat of achievement, as the soap-opera parody that ran five times a week throughout its two years, amassing 325 episodes in that span. With Louise Lasser as its titular star, the sitcom followed as she had to hilariously cope with the bizarre events unfolding around her in a small Ohio town.
- Where to watch: not available online; complete series on DVD available to buy on Prime Video (opens in new tab)
Maude was another All in the Family spinoff, this time with Edith Bunker’s cousin Maude Findlay, a liberal, independent woman living in Tuckahoe, N.Y., as the star. Maude was played by Bea Arthur, who of course would have another hit show years later in The Golden Girls. Like its sibling show, Maude was not afraid to touch on the tough subjects, including abortion and drugs. Bea Arthur was quoted in The New York Times (opens in new tab) saying that as the show was ending it was "running out of controversy."
- Where to watch: streaming for free on Tubi; available on-demand on Apple TV
8. One Day at a Time
One Day at a Time has had two iterations, both of which Lear was involved with. The first, which premiered in 1975 and had Lear as a producer and co-creator, focused on a divorced mother (Bonnie Franklin) trying to raise her two daughters, giving them the freedom that she didn’t have growing up. The more recent version took a slightly different approach, created by Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce (with Lear as a producer), with three generations of a Cuban-American family living together, with Justina Machado and Rita Moreno headlining.
If anything, this helps prove that Lear’s shows have a timelessness and broad appeal to them.
- Where to watch in the US: three seasons of One Day at a Time (2017) are streaming on Netflix; One day at a Time (1975) available for free on Pluto TV
- Where to watch in the UK: three seasons of One Day at a Time (2017) are streaming on Netflix; One Day at a Time (1975) not available
9. Sanford and Son
Before Good Times and The Jeffersons, Norman Lear paired up with comedian legend Redd Foxx for Sanford and Son, which was about the misadventures of a junkyard dealer and his frustrated son. Running for six seasons, Sanford and Son was another breakthrough sitcom, centering on Black characters, that Lear helped bring to air. In its early seasons, the popularity of Sanford and Son gave Lear the two most popular shows from about 1972-1975, along with All in the Family. Time Magazine includes the show in its list of the 100 best TV shows of all time (opens in new tab), as is All in the Family and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
- Where to watch: streaming on Peacock Premium and Prime Video
Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun.
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