In honor of Sherman Hemsley, the gifted comic actor who died last week, I watched “The Jeffersons” for the first time since I was a kid. While I remembered the “Movin’ on Up” theme song word for word, I had forgotten many details of the show itself: George Jefferson’s roll-shake walk; his raunchy overtures to his wife, Louise; the way the show bravely talked about race.
Consider an episode that first aired in 1980 but flashed back to 1968, when George was applying for a minority loan to start his dry-cleaning business — on the same day Martin Luther King was killed. Awhite loan officer came to the Jeffersons’ Harlem apartment. As the man’s prejudice became apparent, George responded with a mix of righteous anger and sarcastic sitcom banter.
“That’s surprising,” the banker said, when he heard that George and Louise had only one son. “Don’t most colored people have large families?”
“Well, I guess not, or then we wouldn’t be called a minority,” George replied. The laugh track kicked in.
This happened to be a Very Special Episode; it first aired around the 12th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, and ended with a recording of King’s final speech. But for “The Jeffersons,” in many ways, it wasn’t special at all. In in its willingness to focus on race and class, the show was ahead of its time — and ours.
Yes, race still crops up in TV comedy, in the occasional wickedly slanted joke on NBC’s “30 Rock” or, more often, in the mid- to outer reaches of cable. Tyler Perry, for better and worse, dominates TBS. But many mainstream comedies don’t acknowledge race at all; HBO’s “Girls” and CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother,” like “Friends” before it, take place in a mythical version of New York where minorities barely exist. On plenty of other sitcoms, black people play the sassy assistant, or show up as friends or coworkers whose race is purely incidental. and largely unacknowledged.
There’s a lot to be said for color-blindness, but ignoring race closes off avenues of discussion. And we still have plenty to discuss. Norman Lear, the producer who created “The Jeffersons,” understood how TV could grease those conversations — even, or maybe especially, when it was loaded with slapstick and innuendo. His landmark show, “All in the Family,” explored bigotry in the white working class. His series “Maude” — which, like “The Jeffersons,” was an “All in the Family” spinoff — famously featured an abortion in 1972.
On TV today, there are still boundaries being pushed, but the most overt risk-taking has come in the realm of sexuality. Progress has followed; in a short time, we’ve moved from “Ellen” to “Glee,” from the tyranny of the closet to the rise of gay marriage. This fall, NBC will premiere a sitcom called “The New Normal,” from “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy, about a gay couple and the woman they hire to be a surrogate mother. It features Ellen Barkin as the surrogate’s grandmother — a stand-in, as Archie Bunker was, for the people who can’t deal with changing times.
In real life, some of those people have been preemptively attacking “The New Normal”; a group called One Million Moms is calling for an advertising boycott. The network has been defending the show, and so have its stars — including NeNe Leakes, the show’s only black regular. A breakout star of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” she plays . . . a sassy assistant.
That’s how TV works: two steps forward, one step back.