The writer and producer Norman Lear, who died on Tuesday at 101, got his start in television in the 1950s, selling jokes and sketches to comedians like Jerry Lewis. After dabbling in film as a screenwriter and a director, Lear — already approaching his 50s — found unlikely success and a new career path when he convinced CBS to take a chance on his sitcom “All in the Family” in 1971. Though the show was based on the British series “Till Death Do Us Part,” Lear made his version distinctly American and of the moment, bringing spirited arguments about race, class, religion, politics and the generation gap into living rooms across the country.
When “All in the Family” became a phenomenon, Lear and his colleagues started producing spinoffs and similar series, filling the airwaves throughout the 1970s with critically acclaimed and high-rated shows about families from varied ethnic and economic backgrounds.
Lear’s golden touch dimmed by the end of the decade, as the audience’s tastes changed. But he’s still regularly cited as an influence and even sometimes as a direct mentor by TV writers and producers interested in engaging with pressing social issues in entertaining and provocative ways. And his original work had an unusual revival in the 21st century, which saw a modernized version of Lear’s “One Day at a Time” and multiple broadcast TV specials in which actors performed old Lear scripts live, treating them like canonical theater pieces.
Here are six of the best shows Lear was involved with:
‘All in the Family’ (1971-79)
For much of the 1960s, television producers tried to compete with the movies by making their shows more visually dynamic — more “cinematic,” in other words. But with “All in the Family,” Lear and his frequent writing-producing partner Bud Yorkin took TV back to its roots in live theater, staging what were essentially weekly one-act plays about the Queens-based Bunker family: the grouchy bigot Archie (Carroll O’Connor), his doting but dim wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), his feminist daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and his feisty liberal son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner).
In the early seasons especially, the plots were minimal, and mainly an excuse to let these characters trade insights and insults while debating the issues of the day, in lengthy scenes at once uncomfortably intense and explosively funny.
Buy it on Apple TV.
The first “All in the Family” spinoff flips the original’s premise, shifting the setting from a ultraconservative, working-class Queens neighborhood to a proudly liberal upper-middle class home in Westchester County. In “Maude,” Bea Arthur plays the title character: an opinionated suburbanite who, like Archie Bunker, is certain she knows what’s wrong with the world … and who argues a lot about it with her family and neighbors.
A terrific show in its own right — featuring groundbreaking episodes that tackle topics like abortion, alcoholism and domestic violence — “Maude” is also the perfect counterpoint to “All in the Family,” making it clear that Lear and Yorkin saw the humanity and the flaws in people across the political spectrum.
Buy it on Amazon Prime Video or Apple TV.
‘Good Times’ (1974-79)
In the early seasons of “Maude,” the heroine occasionally clashed with her maid, Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), who had little patience for her well-meaning but often obstinate boss. Rolle’s performance earned her a sitcom of her own, playing Florida again, in a show about a close-knit but economically struggling Black family in the Chicago projects.
“Good Times” gave Lear and the series’s cocreators, Eric Monte and Mike Evans, the chance to explore the ways that the problems of the working classes fell differently on the Evanses of the world than they did for the Bunkers.
‘The Jeffersons’ (1975-85)
Just as “Maude” is a ritzy suburban spin on “All in the Family,” so “The Jeffersons” is like an upscale “Good Times,” weighing the issues a rich Black family faces in a high-end Manhattan neighborhood.
George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) is another indelible creation like Archie and Maude: a self-made man with a lot to say about the state of society and how to succeed. His ego is checked by his wife Louise (Isabel Sanford), who has to deal everyone he offends — from their privileged white neighbors to their sharp-tongued maid, Florence (Marla Gibbs).
Buy it on Amazon Prime Video.
‘One Day at a Time’ (1975-84)
Though it lacked the “from the front lines of the culture wars” hook of earlier Lear-produced sitcoms, “One Day at a Time” proved to be one of his most durable series — and, in its own way, it was strongly reflective of its time.
Set in a late 1970s and early ’80s Middle America hobbled by inflation, stagnant wages and broken homes, the show follows the divorced mother Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin) and her precocious teenage daughters, Julie (Mackenzie Phillips) and Barbara (Valerie Bertinelli), as they try to avoid driving each other nuts in their tiny Indianapolis apartment. It’s a heartwarming dramedy that’s also honest about the emotional and economic strains of modern family life.
Buy it on Amazon Prime Video or Google Play.
‘One Day at a Time’ (2017-20)
The original “One Day at a Time” was much softer in tone than “All in the Family,” but the 21st-century remake flashes more of a cutting edge, while still retaining all the heart and humor of its forebear. Developed by Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce (with Lear onboard as a producer and godfather), the new version features a Cuban American family in Los Angeles, led by an Army vet named Penelope (Justina Machado) and her traditionalist mother Lydia (Rita Moreno). Spanning the tumultuous Trump years, this “One Day at a Time” hearkens back to Lear’s early shows in its style — with a lot of long scenes set in one cozy living space — and in the writers’ willingness to tackle everything from PTSD to immigration law to gender identity.
Stream it on Netflix.