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Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Retro Review: The Jeffersons

Duration: 1975 - 1985 (CBS) 
No of seasons: 11
Release date: 18 January 1975
DVD release by Shout! Factory
Produced by:TAT Communications, NRW Productions, Raggamuffin Productions, Embassy Television, CBS  
Cast: Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, Marla Gibbs, Roxie Roker, Franklin Cover, Paul Benedict, Mike Evans, Berlinda Tolbert, Zara Cully, Damon Evans, Ned Wertimer and Jay Hammer

Debuting on CBS in January 18 1975 until 1985 for a mammoth 11 seasons (3 more compared to The Cosby Show), making The Jeffersons one of the longest serving (multi-camera) sitcoms on American television, the spin-off series to 'All In The Family' documented the side-splitting exploits of an upwardly, socially mobile family, dry cleaning entrepreneur (& occasional bigot) George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley), his long-suffering wife, Louise aka Weezy (Isabel Sanford) and their son Lionel (Mike Evans) as they move from working-class Queens to a luxury apartment in the East side of Manhattan, New York. In 10 years, a total of 253 episodes were produced and aired.

George owned seven dry cleaning stores, whilst Louise worked at the help center. Everything they worked for they had to earn through hard work and determination. 

The Jeffersons was launched as a spin-off of 'All in the Family' with George and Louise as neighbours to the Bunkers led by Archie and Edith. 

George's brash and arrogant personality always landed him in hot water. Luckily for him, he's got the level-headed 'Weezy' by his side and their wise-cracking maid Florence to keep him in-check. Together, they overcome the comic challenges and culture clashes that their new way of life brings. 

The show explored issues that were rarely discussed on US scripted television at the time, such as interracial relationships with Helen and Tom Willis and race with tact. But it was the use of the N-word and h***** that shocked audiences, as well as made the series stand out from all the other Black sitcoms. Of all the African-American sitcoms from the 1970s and out of all of Norman Lear's shows, The Jeffersons was arguably the best. 

What's interesting is The Jeffersons is appreciated more by non-Black audiences, as well as elder black viewers, rather than by many young Black viewers, who prefer the likes of Bill Cosby's The Cosby Show and A Different World. I never saw The Jeffersons when it originally aired in the 70s (wasn't born at the time) and 80s (the show never aired in the UK).

I read so many great things about it from people online and when the episodes were on Youtube, I had to watch them to see what I made of the series. And I really enjoyed it. 

The incessant bickering between maid Florence (Marla Gibbs) and George helped prolonged the series longevity, the longer the show remained on air. The brilliant comedic timing, chemistry and wisecracks from the characters kept audiences laughing hard until their insides hurt. Florence is one of my favourite characters from The Jeffersons, as she never took crap from anyone, especially George, who constantly made remarks about how as a maid she does nothing and that she doesn't work. I liked that she stood up for herself (even if she does run her mouth a little too much); whereas Louise and the Willises would generally put up with George's rudeness, Florence didn't and wouldn't stand for any of it. And good on her. I mean I like George, as well as Weezy, but sometimes some of the things he said to Florence, Louise, as well as slamming the door in Mr Bentley's face, was mean & so undeserved. 


George Jefferson is in many ways part- Archie Bunker from All In The Family, part - Louie of sitcom, Taxi; a loose cannon, a control freak, ill- tempered and stubborn to boot who can explode at any time. He would call Tom and Helen 'zebras', i.e. Black and White and he also didn't like it when his son, Lionel chose to marry Jenny, Tom and Helen's daughter. In addition, he often does the right thing, mainly thanks to Louise who points out his flaws and issues. He was mostly a Grinch on the series, but he was also funny too. And thank God for Louise, who was the complete opposite to George: kind, considerate.... and beautiful! Both physically and as a human being as well, who would put him in his place. 

The Jeffersons was essentially a shared, collective experience of the American dream from a Black perspective; here, we have an affluent African-American family who grew up poor, yet worked their way up to achieve financial success and moved to Manhattan. And from there on, in spite of their economic status, they remind themselves not to forget about their past and their roots. George's friends would turn up at the apartment and embarrass him, offend his wife, Louise - only for George to kick them out. 

Shervin Malekzadeh remarks that for George, materialism and money was the best defense against racism; if you were affluent and someone was racist towards you, you could (and would) come up with a verbal dig about you being Black and rich and the other person, who is White, and poor. The Jeffersons were the opposite to the Evans family in Good Times

The show ended without a resolution when it was cancelled in 1985, and the cast members were not informed of this until the episode, Red Robins & Sherman found out by reading a newspaper. 

The show's success opened the doors for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Diff'rent Strokes, A Different World and The Cosby Show and many other African-American sitcoms & was proof that Black sitcoms can appeal to and resonate with wider audiences. The all-round performances by the cast were excellent; Sherman Hemsley and Isabelle Sanford had wonderful chemistry as the show's husband and wife pairing, George and Louise. Despite their arguments and fall-outs, like all couples, they manage to stay together and see things through regardless, no matter how much they get on one another's nerves. 

The supporting characters on the show were Lionel, George and Louise's son, his wife Jenny Willis, whose parents are Tom and Helen Willis, the Jeffersons next- door neighbours. Tom (Franklin Cover) is Caucasian and Helen (Roxie Roker) is Black, making them the first interracial couple to regularly appear on a US TV series. Florence Johnston was the sarcastic, smart - mouthed maid and Harry Bentley (Paul Benedict) was the polite British neighbour, who worked for the UN as a Russian language interpreter. He was known for addressing George and Louise Jefferson as Mr and Mrs J. & lastly Ralph the doorman (Ned Wertimer), who I didn't really like much, as he kept expecting a financial incentive, whenever he is expected to do a favour for someone.  

Mother Jefferson (Zara Cully) would occasionally drop by, much to Louise's chagrin and make disparaging remarks towards her. She was never accepting of her son, George marrying Louise, and ever since then, she has held a grudge towards her and would drop names of George's ex-girlfriends, just to annoy Louise. And Louise doesn't like her either, which makes it even! 

My favourite moments and episodes from the show that stick out for me the most are 'Brother Tom', where Tom tries to act 'Black' to impress Helen, George, Louise and their Black friends, The Old Flame, The Last Leaf, George and Louise in a Bind parts 1-3, Louise's Painting, Me and Billy Dee, A Bedtime Story, The Freeze In, A Night to Remember, Put It On and I've Got A Secret. 

It was a great show up until season 9. From then onwards, it was still enjoyable, but it just wasn't the same any more. 

The Jeffersons was and has always been overlooked in favour of The Cosby Show, which is a shame, because whilst the latter show had its moments, I thought it was a tad too sugar- coated and avoided topics such as racism. Whereas The Jeffersons was arguably more realistic and tackled issues such as racism and civil rights head on. The idea of having an affluent African- American family with 2 working parents on the show, was something totally different and unique, and it happened way before The Cosby Show

As sad as many of the cast have passed away, the show will live on in memory as one of the best sitcoms, as well as Black sitcoms of all time; it may not have been appreciated as much, especially by fans of other Black sitcoms, such as The Cosby Show. Yet The Jeffersons had a certain charm and quality to it that can be appreciated by many people.

Even though The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Diff'rent Strokes and The Cosby Show - which were all on NBC- got plenty of air time, here in the UK, it is a bit of a shame it was never televised in this part of the world. The Jeffersons is an absolute classic. 

This was one of CBS's fewest hit sitcoms that managed to sustain longevity that rivals the likes of NBC's other longest running comedies, The Fresh Prince, Frasier and Friends. You can't go amiss with The Jeffersons.  

Catch it if you can. 

Final score (out of 10): 9 

source: Strickler Celebrity Autographs

Amazon DVD link here 

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