The 1970s are often spoken of as a golden age for movies, a time when filmmakers produced challenging classics that refused to pander, combing love for the history of the medium with modern sensibilities. Though it might not look that way from our perch in the Age of Prestige TV, that was true the tube in the ‘70s, too.
The era’s renaissance kicked off with James L. Brooks and Allan Burns’ Mary Tyler Moore Show, which dared to imagine a single, professional woman with a career and active love life, a firm break from the sillier and safer shows of just the prior year. The series produced a couple of successful spin-offs, but nothing like the television empire that would rise in just a few months later when Norman Lear’s All in the Family debuted, leading directly to Maude (six seasons), The Jeffersons (11 seasons), and Good Times (six seasons). All in the Family’s creator, producer, and sometimes-writer, Norman Lear would have a hand in many of the other big TV hits of the era, including Sanford and Son (six seasons) and One Day at a Time (nine seasons). It’s not fair to say that he was the only game in 1970s TV, but it’s hard to imagine that landscape without Normal Lear.
The conservative 1980s saw a move away from characters having difficult conversations on TV, while the ‘90s saw a bit more variety in the genre, and a bit more sexual openness. Yet only recently has streaming finally reopened the market for content that might be a little more challenging, and a bit less sponsor-friendly. It’s not just about the creators, it’s about us: the shows put out by Norman Lear and his contemporaries in the 1970s weren’t just smart, they were popular, even as they addressed issues like race, sexual assault, and abortion. Maybe it’s not entirely that TV creators changed, maybe it’s that we got smaller.
Lear’s career continued well past the 1970s, with his various production companies participating in the making of some of the most popular shows of the following decades. He’s also been active in a variety of causes, founding People for the American Way and Declare Yourselfto encourage young people to register to vote. Within the last couple of years, he’s produced the (excellent) One Day at a Time reboot, as well as several other series and documentaries. This week, he turns 100 years old with no plans to retire.
From that groundbreaking era of the 1970s, here are the most impressive and forward-looking episodes written and/or produced by Norman Lear.