Part of the “American Masters” documentary series, “Norman Lear” is a very bittersweet look in to a man who changed culture and television as we know it. Before Norman Lear, not many television shows and mainstream television networks were willing to step forward and address issues that confronted social and economic problems. Norman Lear is a man who grew up in a troubled family and spent a lot of his life remolding television in to a medium that could change how we think and ask us to reflect on our lives. Mr. Lear used a lot of his own experiences to help create some of the most important television series of all time. From “All in the Family” which brought important issues to our homes through comedy, “The Jeffersons” about changing the racial dynamic in a higher class setting. There was “Maude” which explored a very strong sitcom heroine of the feminist ilk, and “Good Times” which explored the life of a family in poverty.
Those series and so much more garnered Norman Lear a lot of flack and controversy, especially from the American public, all whom were either grateful or angry that Lear discussed topics we normally didn’t. One clip in particular shows a woman standing up during a talk show to complain to Mr. Lear about how she had to explain to her young daughter what was a Vasectomy was. After angrily discussing about how she had to tackle her daughter’s curiosity, another audience member stands up in his defense pondering why she had to even evade explaining what is a normal medical process. Norman Lear is a man who seemingly stepped in to completely redefining television. He then somewhat embraced the endless backlash he was given by the media for allegedly centering a show on a “Lovable Bigot” like Archie Bunker, a claim Rob Reiner often disputes.
Much of “Another Version of You” succeeds in unfolding what is one of the most compelling Hollywood stories of all time. Behind the tales of Lear building series, and discussing the old times with fellow legends Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, there’s also the tale of a man who never had an easy life. He was bounced from home to home, had a very distant mother, had to spend most of his life working for what he wanted, and even had to deal with the horrific suicide of his beloved wife. Even at his age, Lear breaks down in tears discussing the night he found her. It helps us understand a man who is so in tune to the human condition that it’s not at all surprising he found a way to transfer so much of that pain and comedy in to thought provoking and often evocative entertainment. Norman Lear is a very revered and beloved icon of entertainment and he’s a very humble man to watch and listen to.
His anecdotes and experience amount to a very engrossing and heart breaking story of a man whose spent most of his life doing what most comic geniuses have done: using pain to make people laugh.
Premieres on PBS nationwide tonight at 9p.m. (check local listings) and is available same day on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital HD via PBS Distribution.