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Review: ‘Norman Lear’: The man who transformed TV

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Part pop culture history, part biography, and part outright American history, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” is an affectionate reminder of what an impact one writer-producer had on the modern world.

Co-directed by the respected documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing (yes, she’s from Michigan) and Rachel Grady (they’ve done “Jesus Camp,” “Freakonomics” and “Detropia”), the film flips back and forth between a somewhat linear telling of Lear’s accomplishments and revelations about an extraordinary life (at this point, he’s a peppy 94).

Lear is most famous, of course, for creating “All in the Family” and starting a revolution in the early ’70s in the then tame world of television. He went on to create “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” the exquisite “Fernwood Tonight” and other shows. At one point in the ’70s, six of the top 10 shows on television were Norman Lear productions.

These shows — all ostensibly comedies — covered hot-button topics from abortion to racial prejudice to rape, things that just weren’t discussed on TV in that era. They completely changed the idea of what television was and could be.

And then he stopped. Doing TV, that is. With the advent of the Reagan years, Lear became a liberal activist, and he remains one to this day. The film doesn’t really delve into this creative burnout, but instead shows him as still vital (and viral) in his later years.

It also offers some fascinating background on the World War II vet, who made his name writing for variety shows and such in television’s early years (an archived bit with him and Jerry Lewis is hilarious and telling). It also brings together the aged Jewish triumvirate of Lear, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.

On Friday night at the Detroit Film Theatre, co-director Heidi Ewing will introduce the film. It’s well worth seeing this portrait of a man, and an era, that so shaped modern times.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic

twitter.com/toomuchTomLong

‘Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You’

GRADE: B

Not Rated

Running time: 91 minutes