Anyone remember the Jeffersons? On this day in 1975, they debuted on television. A little known fact about the Jefferson’s is that they were a spinoff of “All in the Family.” This is no surprise when you look at the flamboyance of the lead character, played by Sherman Hemsley. The Jeffersons is another vehicle brought to us by legendary producer Norman Lear, and in many ways, this may have been his most ambitious project. So, what made the Jeffersons different from other black families on television at the time? Why are they considered to be a big deal for other black family shows that came out afterwards?
The answer lies in the way the family is portrayed, which is upper class, successful, and in the case of George, snobby. This was the first time on television that a lead black family has ever started in such a favorable light. Remember, this was long before The Cosby Show with the doctor and lawyer duo, or The Fresh Prince of Bel Air with the Judge. George was a self-made successful business owner who knew he was the best, and acted like it. It was his loud mouth and obnoxiousness that made the show, much like Archie Bunker in All in the Family.
George was great, but the supporting cast had to meet his level or the show wouldn’t have been successful. They surrounded him with one of the greatest TV wives of all time in Louise Jefferson. She wasn’t your everyday dolled up TV wife. She represented a strong presence, but supportive better half. Then, of course, there was Florence Johnson as the maid–the help that had more sarcasm than TV butlers Geoffrey or Niles combined! And no TV show is complete without the nosy neighbors, in this case, interracial couple Tom and Helen. This is an important point since it openly portrayed an openly interracial couple, and in later years, their biracial son.
The Jefferson also had to deal with their own son in Lionel. When you realize that this show didn’t shy away from current and past social and political issues, it really made its own mark in its decade-long run. If you look at any black programming on today that shows a successful black family, remember that it all started with the Jeffersons. They were willing to show the world that reality is colorblind, even in the TV bubble where whitewashing was considered the norm.