Norman Lear's ears must be burning. Rather than shy away from the most contentious presidential race in recent memory, a handful of TV shows are addressing the November election head-on — all while using Lear's groundbreaking 1970s sitcoms, like All in the Family, as a template for how to incorporate politics.
Both NBC's The New Normal and ABC's Last Man Standing have made episodes that not only center on the election but pit Barack Obama and Mitt Romney supporters against each other. In an online clip from The Simpsons, which never shies away from politics, Homer votes for Romney — and gets outsourced to China. Aaron Sorkin plans to tackle the election next season on HBO's The Newsroom.
"We all really love Archie Bunker," says Last Man Standing's Tim Allen, whose cantankerous Mike Baxter seems inspired by the iconic All in the Family character. "And that's where we're going. I push every button and love pushing them."
Networks aren't keen on alienating viewers and advertisers, which is why when shows typically address politics or religion, they do so in vague terms. (Another reason to avoid political specifics: Those references date the show, potentially harming longterm syndication life.)
Whether new series like The New Normal can convince others to step further into the line of fire remains to be seen. In "Obama Mama," which aired September 25, Ellen Barkin's Nana gave an impassioned defense of why she supports Mitt Romney — and why she thinks her granddaughter, Goldie, should, too. The gay couple at the center of the sitcom is aghast
and attempt to steer Goldie toward Obama. Neither side minces words.
"You have two clearly gay liberal guys at the heart of the show," says cocreator Ryan Murphy, an Obama supporter. "But we thought it would be great to do an episode where you presented the conservative point of view in a way that hopefully was as eloquent and certainly was given equal time." He adds that people were surprised at just how much time he gave the Republican perspective — a focus directly inspired by watching Lear's sitcoms. "He would present both sides of the issues," says Murphy.
NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke says she wasn't too concerned when Murphy told her about the story line. "We feel like we need to have people say, 'Wait a minute, what is that on NBC?' Right now we're trying to get some attention to the network."
Salke adds she would have had more of a problem had the content swung too strongly in favor of either candidate. "We want to make noise with our programs, but I don't think we would go down the road of disrespecting political views of large portions of the country," she says. "You don't want to be on a soapbox."
On Last Man Standing's Season 2 premiere, set to air November 2 — four days before the election — Allen's character, a Romney supporter, lobbies his daughter, Mandy, to vote for the Republican candidate. On the other side, Mandy's older sister makes a push for Obama. "It'll be something regular people care about, so our characters should care about it," says exec producer Tim Doyle.
Helping to balance the show is the fact that Doyle leans left, while Allen leans slightly right of center. Allen says the episode goes "back and forth, weighted so it's like a teeter-totter. But at the end, I wanted it off balance." He won't say how it finally tilts.
Doyle and Allen did have to fight the network and studio on some content. Specifically, Allen says the standards department took issue with his character calling Obama a communist. Allen fought to keep that in — noting he finds it funny when conservatives paint the president with that label — but it appears he lost that battle as none of the references made the final cut.
As for The New Normal, Murphy says he isn't afraid to keep dipping his toes in political waters. Coming up is an episode about gay marriage, "not surprisingly in this election year," he says. "But it's done in a really sweet way." Lear has told Murphy he's a fan of New Normal and is flattered by the homage to his shows. "In the writers room we watched some episodes of Maude and All in the Family," says Murphy. "It's a brave, honest examination of the world we lived in then — and we continue to grapple with those issues."