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'All in the Family,' 'The Jeffersons' review: Convincing trip down memory lane

After a puzzling start, live Norman Lear tribute picked up the pace and reminded us that history hasn't gone anywhere.

Ellie Kemper, from left, Woody Harrelson, Jaime Foxx

Ellie Kemper, from left, Woody Harrelson, Jaime Foxx and Ike Barinholtz appear in a scene from "Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear's 'All in the Family' and 'The Jeffersons.' " Photo Credit: ABC / Eric McCandless

He flew 52 bombing runs over Germany during World War II. He started his TV career in 1950. He created the most influential TV program in American TV history. He most recently rebooted the best of the current crop of TV reboots (Netflix's "One Day at a Time").

He is 96. He is Norman Lear.

There are your reasons — a few of them — for  Wednesday's “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons.’ ” Lear isn't going to live forever. Time for the tribute. So what was the tribute like?

At first, weird. A detour down memory lane that took a hard right to funkytown — and on to references that were even older than the word "funkytown."    

Also puzzling.

The accents mostly. Woody Harrelson is an actor with many gifts but clearly no gift for New York-area accents. His Archie Bunker (originally played by Carroll O'Connor) sounded like Jersey by way of Slovakia. Those who still remember Jean Stapleton's Edith don't think of Marisa Tomei — love her as most do — in a ragged wig.

And then, like all funkytown TV, the party started. Jamie Foxx, as George Jefferson, fumbled a line during the opening episode, but naturally had to say something. ("It's live," he ad-libbed. "Everyone sitting at home just think their TV messed up.")

It didn't and he did, and from that moment on, this had our attention. We all entered a time machine (per Jimmy Kimmel, who actually thought this whole project up) and there we remained, until Marla Gibbs turned up during "The Jeffersons" episode to remind viewers that she was once a real star on this long-ago hit (1975-85).

Of the two live episodes, "The Jeffersons" was easily the better, and also made the unexpected case that it was possibly the better series all along. Foxx nailed Sherman Hemsley's George, Wanda Sykes nailed Louise (originally played by Isabel Sanford), Jackée Harry nailed Diane Stockwell (Paulene Myers), Will Ferrell nailed Tom Willis (Franklin Cover) and Kerry Washington nailed Helen Willis (Roxie Roker).

But in the end, this night was about Lear. His comedies once forced viewers to face a tragic part of American history and to somehow laugh about the fact that history hadn't gone anywhere.

Kudos to Kimmel for reminding us of all that — and of him — too.

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