…There is no substitute.
How can this be? It lacks the overt political agenda of All in the Family. It lacks the pseudo-philosophical musings of Seinfeld. It lacks the Emmy awards of Cheers. It seems to lag behind in so many areas.
The reason for the Jeffersons’ greatness is wrapped up in the genius of George Jefferson himself, the greatest grump who ever graced the small-screen.
Cranky sitcom protagonists are nothing new, the prototype was Ralph Kramden from The Honeymooners. His angry style of grumpiness would be considered criminal these days.
By the 1970s, the grumpy archetype had mutated into Archie Bunker, a character designed to highlight the ideological divide of the Watergate era.
The Jeffersons was one of a string of All in the Family spinoffs all riffing on the idea of a strong-willed and confrontational protagonist. The two spinoffs that were most successful were Maude and The Jeffersons. If you look at both shows it becomes clearer why The Jeffersons has more staying power. Arguably, it even has more longevity than All in the Family itself.
There is a distinct danger in having a loudmouth protagonist. Perfect characters are boring, but take their flaws too far and the character is rendered unlikable. Many of us grew up in houses full of domestic violence, if not physical, then the sorts of high-decibel shouting matches that epitomize Norman Lear programs. The more characters go for the throat, the more uneasy it can seem as the comedy veers more and more into truly sick and dysfunctional territory.
Some of the shouting matches between Archie and Meathead were so heated that they’re borderline tantrums. Meathead’s screaming was actually more abrasive than Archie, who tended to keep things contained in more of a falsetto whine. Anyway you slice it, it can grate on you after a while, no matter how sharp the humor at the center of it all.
Here’s a typical snippet of Maude doing what Maude did best:
(There’s nothing wrong with a show that wears politics on its sleeve, and you could make a case that the topics that were often covered on Normal Lear shows are more relevant today than ever, thanks to the rise of Donald Trump. It’s not really an either/or debate as much as it’s about learning to appreciate the merits of lighter, broader comedy.)
On paper, the Jeffersons could have followed the same model of ham-fisting ideological battles into the sitcom format. From Archie’s right-wing bigotry to Maude’s bra-burning. And early on, when it was interwoven in All in the Family and the earliest standalone seasons, it did. But then something happened…the show let the foot off the pedal of trying to push agenda first and allowed the characters to just live and breathe independently. Now if you feel that television should actively promote an agenda, this could be construed as a retreat or sellout. But The Jefferson lasted the longest, and all these years later, it’s enjoyed more airtime in syndication. That success is not because George Jefferson was merely a “black Archie Bunker” but because he became the pinnacle of the entire grump archetype.
While Isabel Sanford and Marla Gibbs were important parts of the show, Sherman Hemsley’s George Jefferson became the main attraction. The show was ultimately a character-study of the grumpy manchild.
George Jefferson’s id drives him first, then his ego, and his super-ego comes last.
You wouldn’t want to spend much time in the presence of Archie or Maude, but George Jefferson’s brand of grump is more bark than bite.
Most of his domestic antics came in the form of acting too selfish, too entitled, too impolite, and too lazy. In the grand scheme of things, these are lesser sins. What you rarely saw George do was go out of his way just to be cruel. Sure, he hurt people’s feelings, but a lot of the time he was unaware he was doing it, as he was merely placing himself first and not thinking beyond that. It was the role of Weezy was to act as George’s good conscience, and usually, by the end of the episode, George’s contrition was the big payoff.
The archetype of George Jefferson served two roles. It provided guilty pleasure for people to allow the id/ego to run the show vicariously through his antics, something that we all fantasize about now and then. Here was a man who never suffered fools gladly, and he was often surrounded by bumbling fools for whom the sin of rudeness could almost be forgiven.
But yet this always operates within a moral sandbox in which George’s bad karma accumulates and exacts justice. As such, each episode is like a parable with George acting like a child who sins out of ignorance. George is childlike because he lives an unexamined life.
Someone like Al Bundy would become his natural successor, with the put-down humor getting nastier and bluer. But the reason Married with Children simply does not resonate the way The Jeffersons does is because Married with Children is too cynical and tragic. Al Bundy is the sad-sack. He can never even show a glimmer of being anything more than that.
Perhaps he hearkens back to Ralph Kramden in his poverty and the sense that the world is constantly conspiring against him, and yet I just don’t think at the end of the day when you sit down to watch TV that you want to watch people endlessly suffer, even if it’s due to their own stupidity.
Nouveau riche or not, George Jefferson always starts from the vantage point of privilege. He doesn’t have to worry about where his next meal is coming from. He is the quintessential spoiled child. If he were a hedonist instead, he’d be Arthur. So we can dispense with the pathos and just focus on how George struggles through everyday social interactions and obligations.
By easing out of racial issues and making it revolve around George as the spoiled brat archetype, it provided a larger sandbox for storylines. If that seems familiar, it’s the template that The Cosby Show later earned accolades for, being dubbed the first “post-racial” sit-com. But it was The Jeffersons that really did this first, and it was the funnier show.
Beyond these factors, the longevity of the show, and its timeslot placement in Sunday nights were strong factors for why it mattered to GenerationX. Sunday nights was when most of us were busy trying to finish our homework, or if we weren’t, we were using the Sunday night lineup of sitcoms for a final weekend procrastination. Shows like One Day at a Time, Alice, and The Jeffersons were pivotal to (temporarily) ease the stress of oncoming Monday morning due-dates for book-reports and essays.
The regularity of tuning in week after week, month after month, year after year, and seeing these familiar faces again and again had the effect of them becoming a de-facto extended family. And I think The Jeffersons had that effect more than other shows like The Brady Bunch that are more often cited, because those other shows didn’t last as long and were mostly experienced in reruns. The Jeffersons just kept going and going. Perhaps only Happy Days could compare to that run, but despite Fonzie becoming the breakout star, it experienced a loss when Ron Howard left. Hemsley remained the anchor of The Jeffersons straight through to the end.
They say familiarity breeds contempt, but while I don’t necessarily seek out The Jeffersons in rerun, when I catch it while channel-surfing, it feels like coming home again, because there’s a huge chunk of my long-term memory that has had that apartment layout and George’s predictable behaviors burned in. It is above all, familiar and comfortable, and really, that’s not such a bad thing, is it?
Until next time,