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, 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."
Sadly, Lear passed away on December 6, 2023, at the age of 101. ABC celebrated his 100th birthday with a special, Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music & Laughter to honor him and his broad career, but consider this our own memorial for Lear, highlighting his most quintessential TV shows and how you can watch them.
Editor's note: ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC have all announced they are airing a in memoriam card for Lear at 8 pm ET/PT, at the start of their primetime lineups. In addition, Pluto TV is going to have marathons of some of Lear's TV shows airing on Wednesday, December 6, starting at 7 pm ET. That includes All in the Family on the Classic TV: Families channel, Maude on Classic TV Comedy and Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons on Black Classics.
1. All in the Family
If forced to pick one show to represent Norman Lear's career, it would be All in the Family (in fact we did, including it in our 100 best TV shows of all time list). 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.
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.
How to watch Fernwood 2 Night: a handful of episodes are available on YouTube
3. Good Times
Created by Eric Monte and Mike Evans (with Lear helping to develop and executive producer the show), Good Times 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 during its height.
How to watch Good Times: streaming on Peacock in the US.
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 as well.
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.
How to watch The Jeffersons: streaming for free on Tubi in US; available via digital on-demand in the UK
5. Live in Front of a Studio Audience
Norman Lear never 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 helped 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 allowed Norman Lear to add to the history books, making him both the oldest Emmy nominee and oldest Emmy winner ever.
How to watch Live in Front of a Studio Audience: watch 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 ran five times a week throughout its two years, amassing 325 episodes in that span. With Louise Lasser as its titular star, the sitcom saw her hilariously cope with the bizarre events unfolding around her in a small Ohio town.
How to watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: not available online; complete series on DVD available to buy on Prime Video
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 saying as the show was ending it was "running out of controversy."
How to watch Maude: stream for free on Pluto TV in US or rent via digital on-demand
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.
How to watch One Day at a Time: 1975's One Day at a Time is streaming for free on Pluto TV and Tubi TV; the 2017 iteration is streaming on Netflix.
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, as is All in the Family and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
How to watch Sanford and Son: streaming for free on Pluto TV and with a subscription to Peacock.
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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 Only Murders in the Building, Yellowstone, The Boys, Game of Thrones and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.