In May of this year, ABC aired a special event called “Live in Front of a Studio Audience.” Focusing on the iconic sitcom work of one Mr. Norman Lear, the live event enlisted over a dozen notable actors to perform episodes of two of his hit shows, “All in the Family” — the episode “Henry’s Farewell” — and “The Jeffersons” — the episode “A Friend in Need.” Hosted by Lear and Jimmy Kimmel, and directed by 10-time Emmy Award winner James Burrows, the 90-minute prime-time event even saw Marla Gibbs reprise her role as the Jeffersons’ wise-cracking maid Florence Johnston.
Tonight, “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” returns for another round of live Norman Lear-centric re-creation, this time with an all-new cast performing an episode of “All in the Family,” alongside a performance of an episode of “Good Times.”
For “All in the Family,” Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, Ike Barinholtz, and Ellie Kemper will be reprising their respective roles as Archie Bunker, Edith Bunker, Mike “Meathead” Stivic, and Gloria Stivic. New additions Kevin Bacon, Justina Machado (who was originally supposed to play Florence in the spring’s “The Jeffersons” re-creation) and Jesse Eisenberg’s will be playing Pinky Peterson, Teresa Betancourt, and David Brewster (from the episode “The Draft Dodger”), respectively.
The “Good Times” cast will feature Viola Davis (as Florida Evans), Andre Braugher (as James Evans), Tiffany Haddish (as Willona Woods), Jay Pharoah (as J.J. Evans), Asante Blackk (as Michael Evans), Corinne Foxx (as Thelma Evans), and Jharrel Jerome (as Jimmy Pearson). The episode is “The Politicians.”
ABC’s “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” is executive produced by Norman Lear, Brent Miller, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Justin Theroux, and, as of this special, Kerry Washington (who played Helen Willis in the spring special’s re-creation of “The Jeffersons”).
How will this installment of “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” turn out? That’s what we’re here to discuss. Below, follow along with the IndieWire TV team throughout the airing for an assessment of the best and worst moments as they happen. Post your own thoughts in the comment section.
- In terms of attention to details, things like the fake gap in Viola Davis’ teeth as Florida Evans are what matter in the long run for a special like this. It’s a little, technically small thing, but it makes all the world of difference when you consider why and how this special even works in the first place.
- Honestly, it was really clever for this special to go with the most topical episode choices — given the Trump impeachment vote, as well as the general political climate in the United States right now — of the night. Nothing says intentional like choosing titles called “The Politicians” and “The Draft Dodger,” but even better was the fact that they served as just another reminder of how prescient Norman Lear’s work was even 40 years ago.
- “Good Times” had a lot of things working against it, literal timing-wise, but it was able to stick the landing in terms of the conclusion with Braugher, Davis, and Jerome).
- Martin Short singing the theme song to “The Facts of Life.” No, “The Facts of Life” is not a Norman Lear-created show, but the joy of witnessing Martin Short singing that theme song is unparalleled.
- “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” already struck gold once with “All in the Family,” so this follow-up was really just a matter of not fixing what wasn’t broken. The biggest laughs of the night came from this segment, easily, especially with Tomei’s endlessly impressive turn as Edith Bunker.
- As topical as this special and its episode choices were because it was also Trump impeachment vote night, the fact that it was Trump impeachment vote night meant a lot of issues to start. First, there was the uncertainty that the show would even air on time. It did, but then its pacing was completely ruined during the first part, the “Good Times” re-creation, with updates on the impeachment vote. Kimmel acknowledged that that would be a factor in the special, but that didn’t make it any less jarring when it happened.
- In terms of casting, the only true unknown quantity was Corinne Fox — daughter of Jamie Foxx, who played George Jefferson in the first “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” — as Thelma and she was also ultimately the weakest link of the entire Evans family. Everyone in the segment had a moment or a chance to shine, but she never actually did.
- There were some line reading trip-ups in the “Good Times” re-creation, which, on top of slow pacing — even for a ’70s episode of television — just piled up the issues for the first half of the special. The biggest timing issue for “All in the Family” was the crowd woo’ing for Ike Barinholtz before the camera was even on him, only for them to do it again once he was actually onscreen (and the mountain of presents in front of him were removed).
- For all of the attention to detail in the “Good Times” re-creation, it didn’t go with the bit of Alderman Davis never getting Willona’s name right. Not once did he call her “Wyoming.”
It wasn’t a fluke that the first “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” was as big of a critical and viewership success as it was: Nostalgia sells, but the quality also has to be there for a project like this. That’s still the case for take two on this live event special, even though the segment for “Good Times” was weaker than the first installment’s “The Jeffersons” segment. A lot of that wasn’t the special’s fault, as the impeachment vote hurt it a lot, but it was still the case. As for the “All in the Family” re-creation, as noted in the live blog, there’s a reason why it, Harrelson, and Tomei are the lynchpins of these specials — easily what makes this all worth it, no matter what time of year this airs. As holiday (and impeachment) programming, “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” is well worth the time spent.
For more, check out the live blog below. “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” aired Wednesday, December 18 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.