After Wednesday’s second “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” experiment, we can come to at least one scientifically valid conclusion: Marisa Tomei’s Edith Bunker deserves her own spinoff.
Of course, that’s not going to happen considering Edith is a character from “All in the Family,” a Norman Lear sitcom that ended 40 years ago. However, Tomei’s endearing portrayal of the sweet, simple and surprisingly wise wife of closed-minded Archie Bunker (Woody Harrelson) again was a top highlight of a Lear-Jimmy Kimmel collaboration that didn’t reach the heights of the first effort in May. The 90-minute presentation also featured a star-studded re-enactment of another Lear hit from the ’70s, “Good Times.”
The live nature of the ABC broadcast, an exciting TV prospect because of its risk, briefly flirted with disaster Wednesday when real-life drama via network coverage of the House of Representatives’ vote on the impeachment of President Donald Trump threatened to delay the start of the “Studio Audience” broadcast on the East Coast.
Kimmel, who again hosted with Lear, advised the audience of that possibility in an understated way.
“Apparently, something is going on in Washington, D.C., tonight, so we might get interrupted during the program,” he said, twisting the moment back to the ’70s. “There’s trouble in the Nixon Administration.” (In the end, the East Coast interruption was minimal, with a one-minute delay and two three-minute news cut-ins, with about seven to 10 minutes being broadcast on delay.)
The divisive prospect of presidential impeachment seemed a fitting source of interruption for Lear’s politically oriented comedy, with the “Good Times” episode, 1975’s “Evans vs. Davis,” focusing on family divisions in a Chicago aldermanic race.
The “Family” episode, “The Draft Dodger” from 1976, had the explicit holiday connection, a Bunker family Christmas dinner with explosive possibility. It was the superior presentation of the pairing. That may partly be due to experience, as “Family” and its core cast had a test run in May’s first “Studio Audience,” but it also results from a stronger story focusing on powder-keg issues of patriotism, war and family loss. (“Family” was paired with “The Jeffersons” in May.)
Overall, however, the second “Studio Audience” seemed a slight deceleration from May’s powerful first edition, an outing that had the advantage of freshness and surprise. (Martin Short’s intermission performance of “The Facts of Life” theme – a comic non sequitur here – was amusing.)
The “Family” episode, which featured draft dodger David (Jesse Eisenberg) and the father of a soldier killed in Vietnam (Kevin Bacon), was the gem. Harrelson, who had the burden of portraying a character defined by Carroll O’Connor, was better the second time around, capturing the confusion, anger and bigotry of a man still willing, when pushed by friends and family, to consider alternatives to his hardened thinking.
Eisenberg and Bacon gave great power and feeling to a clash orchestrated by Archie, who wanted to throw the disloyal draft dodger out of the house. But Bacon, playing the still suffering Pinky, ultimately just wanted to have his son back and expressed happiness that David was still alive.
But it was Tomei who carried the day in a role personified by Jean Stapleton. Her Edith began the episode as comic relief, getting laughs out of lines not written as jokes and the way she scampered lightly through the house. Later, her decency and persuasion skills prevailed. As Archie fumed after Pinky invited David back to the dinner table, Edith persuaded her husband to listen to his friend.
“You see what he’s doing and you ought to do the same. Please, Archie. Come on. For me,” Edith said, leading her chastened husband back to the table.
“Good Times” featured the evening’s big and welcome surprise, an unannounced appearance by John Amos, who played James Evans in the original series. But Amos, a talented and underappreciated actor, was playing a machine-politics alderman, not James, and too much of the episode focused on his character instead of a dy-no-mite cast that included Andre Braugher as James; Viola Davis as his wife, Florida, and Tiffany Haddish as feisty neighbor and friend Willona.
The episode dragged at times, although it crackled during a brief sequence where Florida, Willona and James traded insults, playing the dozens. Haddish effortlessly captured Willona’s swagger, but there just wasn’t enough screen time for those three talents, especially Davis. Better episode selection likely would have helped.
Jay Pharoah offered a reasonable facsimile of J.J. Evans, from his strut to his pterodactyl-like arm positioning. We wonder if he traded notes with Jimmie Walker, who made J.J. his own in the ’70s. Walker and original “Good Times” co-stars BernNadette Stanis and Ja’net DuBois made a brief appearance with Kimmel during a break in the scripted episodes.
The great Patti LaBelle and Anthony Davis made a fine showing with the “Good Times” theme song, but it paled in comparison to Jennifer Hudson’s showstopping, brilliantly choreographed rendition of “The Jeffersons” theme, a song better suited to a big production number, in May.
That might be a fair description of Wednesday’s “Studio Audience,” too: a good effort that couldn’t match the earler venture’s magic.