Movin' on Up
The title sequence of the long-running CBS situation comedy The Jeffersons opens with a shot of a moving van heading toward the Manhattan skyline. The van is followed by a taxicab, transporting George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) and his wife Louise (Isabel Sanford) to their new home. George is clearly excited about the big move, while his teary-eyed wife seems less than enthusiastic. The van and the cab eventually stop in front of the Jefferson’s new residence—a swanky high-rise apartment building on the East Side of Manhattan. George starts to swagger as he and Louise get out of the cab and head toward the entrance. The theme song playing over the credits explains it all: the Jeffersons are “Movin’ on up/ To the East Side/ To a deluxe apartment in the sky,” where they would remain for the next ten and a half seasons on CBS’s prime time schedule.
The Jeffersons was the second of two spin-offs of the 1970s’ most popular sitcom, All in the Family (the first was Maude). During Family‘s first season (in the spring of 1971), the Jeffersons—George, Louise, and their son Lionel (Mike Evans)—moved out of Harlem to the Corona section of Queens, where they lived next door to Archie and Edith Bunker (Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton). Louise befriended Edith, while Lionel amused himself by putting Archie on by pretending to agree with his racist views (i.e., it goes against nature for a white man to receive a blood transfusion from a black man).
Although Archie likes Lionel (because he is “one of the good ones”), he hates the idea of having a “family of spades” living next door. Consequently, he frequently butts heads with George Jefferson, who doesn’t hide the fact he hates white people (or as he frequently refers to them, “honkies”) as much as Archie hates anyone who is not a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. The Jeffersons was essentially All in the Family in reverse: a sitcom about a black bigot’s disdain for the white race. On its face, the premise provided Family producer Norman Lear and creators Don Nicholl, Michael Ross, and Bernie West, another forum to tackle race and class issues.
The recently released two-disc DVD set, which contains the thirteen episodes that comprised the series’ first season, offers some funny, entertaining moments. It also reveals why The Jeffersons was not, after all, another All in the Family: its comedy was too broad to be taken seriously.
In the first episode (“A Friend in Need”), the Jeffersons, who own a successful chain of dry cleaning stores, have settled into their new high-rise apartment. George enjoys being wealthy, but not Louise. Having been poor for most of her life, Louise is not comfortable having a black maid who calls her “Ma’am.” Her guilt is compounded by the fact her new friend Diane (Paulene Meyers), a domestic who works in the building, is embarrassed when she mistakes Louise for the Jeffersons’ maid. George says she shouldn’t be socializing with someone like Diane. At first Louise calls George on his elitist attitude, but changes her mind after talking to her neighbors, Tom and Helen Willis (Franklin Cover and the late Roxie Roker, a stage actress and mother of singer Lenny Kravitz), who convince her that there’s no reason to feel guilty about having money.
Louise’s concern about money’s effects on her family is the focus of several subsequent episodes. Feeling like she has nothing to do now that she has a maid and Lionel is grown, she secretly takes a job at a rival dry cleaner (“Louise Feels Useless”). George hits the roof, then allows her to go back to work in his store way up in the Bronx (as opposed to the one around the corner) because he doesn’t want his neighbors to see his wife working.
Louise also worries about the effects of privilege on Lionel (“Lionel, the Playboy”), who starts partying, and even considers dropping out of school. He later adopts some his father’s less attractive personality traits. In “Like Father, Like Son,” Louise overhears Lionel being rude on the telephone to his tailor. “You sound just like your father,” she says, “and I don’t mean it as a compliment.” George tries to convince his wife that their son needs to behave that way to survive in the world, but, as Louise explains, Lionel is not growing up with the same disadvantages he had at his age. But when Lionel upsets his girlfriend Jenny (Berlinda Tolbert) by buying her a seat on a political candidate’s steering committee (an idea he gets from his father), he realizes he needs to develop his own style rather than modeling himself after George.
These episodes establish the show’s first basic conflict: arrogant, social-climbing George vs. down-to-earth Louise, who never lets George forget where he came from. Like Edith Bunker, she is the show’s moral center—honest, decent, and tolerant. But while Edith rarely stands up to Archie, Louise never keeps quiet when her husband starts putting on airs. In “Mr. Piano Man,” he leads a tenants’ protest in order to impress a rich neighbor, only to find out this neighbor is also the owner of the building. Another one of George’s failed schemes (“Meet the Press”) involves reinventing his life story to impress a reporter in hope of getting some free publicity for his stores. Predictably, the reporter finds other guests at George’s party more interesting than the host.
Louise takes on another role as well—like Archie’s liberal son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner), she serves as “chief sparring partner,” yet her disagreements with George never have the depth of Archie and Mike’s political debates. Instead, their exchanges erupt into shouting matches, insults flying until someone (usually Lionel) intercedes. In the end, George’s ego is slightly bruised—at least until the next episode when he once again displays a superior attitude and the cycle begins again.
This formula, reducing politics to comic flare-ups, leads to a lack of depth when it comes to race politics. In addition to using slurs like “coon” and “spic,” and the occasional malapropism (“capital punishment is a detergent to grime”), Archie displays his ignorance by offering long-winded, illogical diatribes about how liberals, the younger generation, minority groups, and feminists are responsible for this country going down the tubes. By comparison, racism on The Jeffersons is confined to one issue—black vs. white—which always takes the form of an endless name-calling match.
George’s main target are American television’s first interracial couple, Tom and Helen Willis (Tom is white, Helen is black), whose daughter Jenny marries Lionel in the third season. At some point in every episode, George hurls an endless stream of “zebra” insults at the Willises, who come back with a few zingers of their own, mostly about George’s big mouth or (lack of) height. After a few episodes, this name-calling grows tiresome and repetitious. George is a one-dimensional buffoon, so cocky that it’s hard to believe he ever learns his “lesson.”
George’s obviousness repeatedly detracts from the show’s efforts to address class, race, and gender issues of the day. In the season’s best episode (“Jenny’s Low”), Tom and Helen’s children, Allan (Andrew Rubin) and Jenny, confront one another over the fact that he looks “white” and she does not. Allan confesses that he’s had trouble with his appearance, that he’s tried to act “white,” but feels that he’s been dishonest in doing so. The show might be commended for taking on this difficult issue, but, unfortunately, Allan and Jenny’s emotional reconciliation takes place in front of George. His continued insults overshadow the moment and the show’s finer political points.
Although the series’ unsubtle comedy kept the series from really breaking new ground, it is often enjoyable, thanks mostly to the chemistry between Hemsley and Sanford (who were recently reunited for a Denny’s Restaurant commercial). The DVD, which regrettably does not include the series’ pilot episode (“The Jeffersons Move on Up”), which aired on All in the Family, does not contain any extras in the way of commentary or deleted scenes. Still, there’s some value in being able to watch all thirteen episodes together—if only to imagine the direction the Jeffersons could have headed when they were movin’ on up.