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Most Influential Norman Lear Moments Of All Time

This content was paid for by Sony and created by Looper.

Norman Lear is one of the most influential television producers and political advocates who's ever lived. As the PBS American Masters special, "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," and his autobiography, "Even This I Get to Experience," both tell it, Lear has experienced pain and prejudice as well as privilege, and he's deftly turned his observations about the world into art and activism. 

Despite the fact that shows like "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons" frequently courted controversy, at the height of his ubiquity, more than 120 million viewers tuned in each week. He instinctively knew that comedy had the power to, in his words, knit people together. While audiences came for laughs, they were captive to his social messages about economics, race, gender roles, sexuality, and every other issue that remains hot-button to this day. To whatever extent the country progressed in the '70s and '80s, Lear's programs were almost always one step (or more) ahead of the general public's comfort level. But he knew that stories about alcoholism, unemployment, divorce, and so on would resonate more than the pandering escapism that filled the airwaves. Lear wasn't trying to be controversial; he was trying to be honest, and in doing so, he helped to create tidal change in attitudes about American culture and the medium of television itself. 

With all that in mind, here are ten of the most influential Norman Lear moments of all time.

10. One Day at a Time gets real about teen sex

Married couples had fairly recently taken to sleeping in the same bed on TV when "One Day at a Time" premiered in 1975. The groundbreaking dramady delved into the complicated personal lives of a newly-single working mom (Ann, played by Bonnie Franklin) and her two daughters (Julie and Barbara, played by Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli respectively). The premise alone was controversial enough. Ann was one of only a handful of divorced, single mothers to appear on a television program, and was the first to star in her own show. Over the course of its nine seasons, "One Day at a Time" illustrated Ann's struggles to find work, pay bills, and navigate her sex life post-divorce. 

What really pushed the envelope was the series' willingness to openly discuss the sex lives of women before marriage, in particular when it came to Ann's daughters. In Season 1, Episode 8, titled "All the Way," older sister Julie confesses to younger sis Barbara that her boyfriend, Chuck, is pressuring her to put out. Barbara breaks Julie's confidence and tries the old "asking for a friend" strategy with her mom. Ann sees right through it, calls for Julie, and has a frank conversation with her eldest daughter about sex and the factors that should go into her decision-making process. 

That "One Day at a Time" even acknowledged young women face such emotional and practical challenges when dealing with issues like consent and risk of pregnancy was itself revolutionary, but that Ann gives Julie the information she needs then leaves the choice up to her daughter and supports her either way is what's truly special about this moment. 

9. Good Times is ahead of its time on CRT

1974's "Good Times" was a spin-off of a spin-off of two other Lear shows ("All in the Family" and "Maude") that espoused their creator's progressive viewpoints. What made "Good Times" different was that it espoused its viewpoints from the perspective of the first Black nuclear family on American TV. Parents Florida and James Evans (Esther Rolle and John Amos) are trying to raise their three kids — J.J., Thelma, and Michael — right in a housing project based on Chicago's Cabrini-Green. The show started off with substance, shining its light on topics like poverty and discrimination. 

One early episode was so prescient that its subject matter is as relevant as its ever been today. In Season 1, Episode 5, "Michael Gets Suspended," the family's youngest child is sent home from school and not welcome back until he apologizes to his teacher. His offense? Telling his history class that George Washington was racist because he owned slaves. Michael was characterized as the bookish member of the Evans family, and he teaches his own father a lesson as he quotes facts from his Black history book. Turns out, there's a lot his elders didn't know about Black contributions to America, because they were left out of the standard history text. Fans are still rediscovering how savvy and ahead of its time "Good Times" really was at its best.

8. All in the family is unflinching about Edith's assault

Lear's signature show, "All in the Family," used uproarious, irreverent humor as the sugar that made its weighty moral imperatives go down easy. However, in one hour-long episode from its eighth season with a deceptively lighthearted title — "Edith's 50th Birthday" — the series allowed its characters' vulnerabilities to go un-joked about (for the most part) in the first-ever depiction of an attempted rape on television. 

While Edith (Jean Stapleton) is home alone as her family plans the surprise party she already knows about, a man posing as a cop coerces his way into her front door. The extended assault sequence is harrowing; though there are a few gags and punchlines, it plays out much more realistically than most rape scenes on TV as he matter-of-factly mentally, verbally, and physically manipulates her and threatens her with a gun. She escapes thanks to a burning cake in the oven which she hurls at her attacker in self-defense, but no sitcom contrivance can help her escape the toll the incident has taken on her. 

The second part of the episode, which dealt with the aftermath, was just as monumental. Edith exhibits signs of trauma and is hesitant to go to the actual authorities, despite her daughter's insistence, while her husband, Archie (Carroll O'Conner), is uncharacteristically sensitive and supportive. "All in the Family" had discussed sexual assault before (Gloria was victimized on a walk home and Edith experienced an attempted date rape), but this visual portrayal — which Lear researched for a year with the help of the rape treatment centers — was as boundary-breaking as it was eye-opening and informative

7. George Jefferson grapples with interracial marriage

"The Jeffersons" premiered in 1975, less than a year after "Good Times" debuted. For 11 seasons, it broadcast an affluent Black family to homes all across America, improving representation and allowing for a more nuanced discussion of issues that affected the Black community. One such issue gets brought up in the pilot episode when George (Sherman Hemsley) and Louise (Isabel Sanford) move into their deluxe apartment. George is incensed when he realizes that his upstairs neighbors are the Tom (Franklin Cover) and Helen (Roxie Roker) Willis, an interracial couple who also happen to be the parents of his son's fiancé. 

Though "Star Trek" and "I Spy" featured interracial kisses, and "I Love Lucy" was about a white woman and a Cuban man, no married couple who looked like Tom and Helen and who shared a bed and a life had been given airtime like this before. Audiences may have expected Archie Bunker to pitch a fit about the Willis's relationship, but that George — who's mistaken for a butler rather than a business owner earlier in the premiere — was the one who harbored resentments made the plot point that much more provocative. 

In one exchange, George screams that their marriage can't work because as soon as things got heated, he'd call her the N word. Not only did Tom and Helen change what love looks like on TV, their story mirrored Roxie Roker's real life. She and her white husband, Sy, were parents to Lenny Kravitz.

6. Maude Goes to Therapy

1972's "Maude" is the least ironic of Norman Lear's properties. While his other shows sometimes put regressive opinions in the mouths of "lovable bigots," Bea Arthur, as the titular protagonist, is unabashedly progressive and feminist. The series doesn't always paint her in a flattering light (that'd be boring), but generally, she's representative of Lear's and his then-wife Frances's own politics

Throughout her 50 years and four marriages (and six seasons of television), Maude has contended with sexism, death, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Though she's always unafraid to speak her mind, in one exceedingly un-ironic episode called "The Analyst," Maude plumbs the depths of that mind for answers about her fraught relationship with her husband, Walter. On the whole, he's the loving and mostly-equal partner that she desires, but they've weathered some storms. 

"The Analyst" upended the sitcom format in several ways. For one, Bea Arthur is the only performer on screen. The psychiatrist is never revealed; Maude delivers monologues to the tall back of an office chair. The episode also provided a window into the inner life and anxieties of a mature woman in a way that defied stigma. Especially memorable is the close up in which Maude has a breakthrough. In our world, mental health treatment is still frustratingly misunderstood and difficult to access (and Lear should be commended for broaching topics like suicidal ideation in his series), but "Maude's" novel innovation has become a TV storytelling trope. Shows from "The Simpsons" to "The Sopranos" and many more since have used therapy sessions as a device to give viewers a peek into their characters' otherwise unknowable psyches.

5. All in the family (arm) wrestles with gay stereotypes

During its nine-season run, "All in the Family" tackled just about every social issue that was debated around kitchen tables then (and still argued about on Twitter now). Lear had his conduit characters confront homosexuality all the way back in Season 1, Episode 5 with "Judging Books by Covers" which aired in 1971. The series revolved around the notion that Archie and his son-in-law Michael (Rob Reiner) constantly butted heads, and this installment is no different. 

Michael invites a friend to visit, and because that friend — Roger — doesn't present as traditionally masculine, Archie stubbornly insists he's gay. Michael disagrees and attempts to educate Archie about his biases, which leads to their infamous back-and-forth about the tell-tale signs of intellectuals (glasses) versus homosexuals. Michael pontificates about privacy and equal rights while Edith stays neutral and Archie escapes to hang out with an old friend at a bar. 

That friend is Steve, a former college football champion, fiscal conservative, and all-around man's man whose company Archie finds more tolerable. But after a few plot twists, Michael discovers that Steve is more of a man's man than his father-in-law ever realized. He outs the closeted macho man to prove a point to Archie. Still in disbelief, Archie returns to the bar to challenge Steve to an arm wrestling match, which he promptly loses. At that point, Archie spills the beans and Steve confirms everyone's suspicions. The episode not only opened doors for future LGBTQ characters, it disabused many viewers of their prejudices as easily as Steve defeated Archie at arm wrestling. 

4. Lear's leading men wonder if guns keep us safe

Subjects that interested Norman Lear often made their way into the storylines of more than one show. The role of guns in American life was one such issue, and Lear looked at it through different lenses with episodes of "All in the Family," "Good Times," and "The Jeffersons." 

In "Archie and the Editorial," Archie gives a televised statement as a counterpoint to gun control advocates (including Michael) and claims that arming more citizens with more guns will keep the public safe. It's clear he really believes the good guy with a gun argument... until he's held up at gunpoint after his newfound local celebrity status makes him an easy target. Lear actually sent the episode to The Hollywood Reporter after an NRA press conference aped Archie's rhetoric. "The Jeffersons" took on guns with an episode called "A Case of Self Defense." George worries rising crime could creep into his upscale neighborhood, so he buys a gun "as insurance." Louise believes having a gun in the house is itself a danger, and she's proven right when their granddaughter, Jessica, almost shoots herself. 

But the most substantive gun-related episode comes from "Good Times." An episode called "The Family Gun" is similar plot-wise to "A Case of Self Defense," but from the point of view of people who live in Chicago's projects. James buys a pistol over Florida's objections. Michael thinks more black cops and fewer guns are the answer, but everyone's theories get put to practice when Thelma is mugged and James finds that his firearm's been stolen. Lear treated guns — which are rarely more than props on TV in and movies — with gravity and multi-layered thoughtfulness, and these episodes are even more relevant today than when their aired. 

3. The Jeffersons introduces a sympathetic transgender character

Norman Lear and his many forward-thinking artistic collaborators were responsible for numerous firsts on TV, but the one that stands out as perhaps the most trailblazing is the sympathetic depiction of a transgender character on "The Jeffersons." In Season 4, Episode 3, — titled "Once a Friend" — George receives as a memo that someone named Edie Stokes is stopping by. Louise fears that another woman is after her man, but he sort of correctly guesses it's actually his pal from the Navy, Eddie. But the name wasn't misspelled. Since they've seen each other last 25 years ago, Eddie has changed her name to Edie, undergone reassignment surgery, and is living as a woman. 

George shows up to her hotel room and initially dismisses her transition as a prank, since they were both pranksters in their younger days. But he's the butt of the episode's joke as his (and 1970s society's) many misconceptions are exposed. Actress Veronica Redd plays Edie with grace and self-assurance as she explains her journey. She's not gay and she's not just a man who enjoys dressing up with women's clothing. She's always known she was female, and she's much happier now, living on her terms. The episode is an education in, among other things, using preferred names and pronouns. And though it takes awhile for George and Weezy to begin to understand and accept it, by the end, they learn that Edie is the same person and friend she's always been. 

2. The Bunkers experience a hate crime

Lear explained his artistic philosophy in the documentary about his life and work, saying "I have never been in a situation in my life, however tragic, where I didn't see some comedy." An episode of "All in the Family" titled "Archie is Branded" is proof that the famed producer processes tragedy through comedy, even when it comes to his own life. Lear, who is Jewish, was disturbed by growing anti-Semitism he heard on the radio in his childhood. He enlisted in the Army to fight in World War II. Then, nearly three decades later, he combatted hatred with an entirely different weapon: satire. 

In Season 3, Episode 20, the Bunkers open their front door to discover it's been tagged with a swastika. At first, Archie's inclined to blame teen vandals, but Edith finds a note that implicates neo-Nazis. The graffiti was meant to intimidate their Jewish neighbor who has a seat on the local schoolboard. What happens next upends everything audiences knew to be true about "All in the Family." Archie, who's a casual bigot but not a Nazi, aligns himself with a Jewish extremist group that's fighting back against the white supremacists, while usually left-wing Michael becomes a moderating force arguing for peace. The half-hour starts out with Lear's typical comedic stylings, but by the unexpectedly violent ending, the satire has shifted to deadly seriousness. 

That Lear "went there" with topics as sensitive as the Holocaust and hate crime enabled the satirists that followed him — like Sasha Baron Cohen and Taika Waititi — to take bold risks in order to get their messages across, too.  

1. Maude chooses abortion

Of all of the controversial (but really important and topical) moments in Norman Lear's shows, this is the one that mattered most, according to the man himself. In 1972, Lear and a team of three writers – Susan Harris, Austin Kalish and Irma Kalish — penned a two-part episode of "Maude" called "Maude's Dilemma" in which the 47-year-old realizes she's pregnant. The character already had an adult daughter and a grandchild, and didn't really want to raise another baby. So, between conversations with her family and friends, she decides to have an abortion. Her husband, Walter, assures her she's doing the right thing, and that they deserve privacy within their marriage. 

The procedure had only been legal in New York (where the show takes place) since 1970, and Roe v. Wade wouldn't be decided until the following year. The standards and practices department didn't want the episode to see the light of day, anticipating a backlash. In "Just Another Version of You," Lear said of his squabbles with censors, "I understood intuitively that if I gave into this silliness, I would lose battle after battle after battle." In the end, the network did get roughly 400 angry phone calls and 17,000 letters about "Maude's Dilemma," but it also got 65 million viewers. Lear fought not just to get Maude's abortion story onto television, but to enshrine the medium as a place where any and all ideas could be freely discussed.